The Right Way to Display Artwork

Artwork can add a personalized, finishing touch to any room, but too much can distract buyers from a home's architectural pluses.

July 1, 2010

Properly displayed and tasteful artwork can instantly bring life to an otherwise dull room. Whether home owners have painted or papered their walls, most want to hang some artwork on them, perhaps by displaying fine paintings, prints, or photographs, or more casual, affordable pieces from nature, travels, or favorite magazines.

"Any room looks better with some art," says saleswoman Barb St. Amant, ABR, with Harry Norman, REALTORS®, in Atlanta.

However, any artwork display should involve careful selection in choosing the right mat, frame, backing, or container, as well as determining the best location to hang the art, including how high or low it should be on a wall and whether it stands alone or as part of a group, designers say.

“Too many people hang art randomly, like they’re throwing stuff at a dartboard,” says Cambridge, Mass.–based designer Heidi Pribell. “Urge collectors to have their art form a pattern — in a grid, vertical stack, or horizontal line, or if alone relate to a piece of furniture or architectural feature.”

You can help buyers and sellers understand the impact art can make — for their own enjoyment as well as how to use it to impress buyers — with some of the following tips, from choosing what to display to how to hang it on the wall.

What to Display

Forget the notion that art has to have a fancy pedigree or exorbitant costs. Anything a home owner loves is suitable, from a museum-quality painting to child’s drawings.

Here are some other suggestions for what to display:

  • The power of black and white. Designer and stager Linda Bettencourt of Center Stage in San Francisco suggests using black and white photographs, which can be framed in inexpensive frames.
  • Go big. Atlanta-based designer Brian Patrick Flynn thinks one enlarged photo — as big as 20’ wide by 12’ tall — offers a huge wow. “By making the wall the star, you don’t necessarily need many other elements to complete it,” he says.
  • Mirror, mirror on the walls. Pribell loves mirrors. “They offer great feng shui and bring in light and reflection. You can never have too many,” she says.
  • Unique collections. Get clients to think outside the box. A childhood collection of Pez dispensers or snow globes can even become artistically encased assemblages if displayed properly.

Choosing the Proper Frame

The style, width, material, and color of picture frames are personal choices, says Chicago-area designer Mary Lou Kalmus of Designing Edge, who likes to frame works in a grouping that has the same or similar motifs.

  • Don’t match too much. Sharla Kidder, president of Biddington’s Inc., an art information site, prefers different “but not too different” frames — maybe a series in the same color range. Also, designers say, don’t match a frame to the room’s décor too much; let it stand on its own.
  • Complement the era. Pribell favors a style that reflects the period in the artwork, such as a 19th century “exhibition” frame for a 19th century painting. Many contemporary paintings and other works look good with a more minimal frame so that they float within, adds Kidder.
  • Bring out the art with a mat. Bettencourt likes mats in ivory or white with 3-inch borders on the sides and top and a slightly wider 4-inch border on the bottom.
  • Decide between glass or acrylic. “Glass is cheaper, easier to clean, and more resistant to scratches,” says Kidder. But it’s also “heavier, more breakable, sensitive to variations in temperature, and highly reflective so it often creates a glare,” she says.

How to Display It

How you display the artwork on the walls can make a big difference, too. Consider the following.

Solo or in a grouping. The size of the work usually determines this decision. A large piece can stand alone; smaller works may look visually stronger if grouped, particularly if they reflect a similar style, subject matter, or frame, says Kalmus.

Kalmus recommends first laying out a grouping on the floor to form a composition. When mounting, Kidder likes spacing of 4 to 5 inches between works, depending on how many there are and the wall’s size. She also recommends using a measuring tape and level for accuracy.

How high, low, or close together. The size of the works, height of furniture, and ceiling height need to be weighed. A good guideline is to have the center of a work or the center of the grouping at eye level to the person who is living there.

If the artwork is above a sofa, there should be enough room so that people don't bump their heads on it. Art arranged along a stairway should march up the stairs, says Kalmus.

Artwork Tips When Selling a Home

When selling a home, the number of works displayed and how they’re showcased may differ from when they’re just hung for personal enjoyment. To avoid distracting buyers, art needs to play a secondary role to the lead: the home’s architecture and significant features, such as a fireplace.

Here’s some guidance to offer your clients:

  • Less is more. Don’t fill every wall with artwork, Bettencourt advises. Instead, “put one great piece in an entry, over a sideboard, or above a fireplace,” she says.
  • No leaning. Even though it’s considered quite chic, avoid leaning artwork against a wall, since there’s a risk of it being knocked over.
  • Use art as a solution. “Spaced along a long hallway, art can break it up so it doesn’t resemble a bowling alley, or can cover ugly electrical panels,” Bettencourt says.
  • Draw inspiration. Encourage clients to look in magazines and books for more solutions. For example, Rooms to Inspire in the City (Rizzoli, 2010) by Annie Kelly provides many helpful images.
Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).


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