Read an Excerpt
How To Hang A Picture
And Other Essential Lessons for the Stylish Home
By Jay Sacher, Suzanne LaGasa
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Jay Sacher and Suzanne LaGasa
All rights reserved.
SOME THINGS IN LIFE ARE EASY. Some things just seem easy. Consider brewing a pot of coffee, or tying a Windsor knot. These are simple acts, the kinds of things people do everyday. There's nothing inherently difficult in the processes behind them, but the fact is that some people do indeed do them better than others. Why is that, exactly? Luck? Skill? Better materials? More practice?
So it is with the seemingly simple act of hanging a picture on a wall. Art on the wall is a tricky thing — it satisfies many, and sometimes contradictory, needs. Is it just a pretty thing on the wall, or is it something greater and grander? In a museum or at a gallery, your role as a visitor is clear: You're to focus your attention on the great works on the wall. You're to experience the work, concentrating and enveloping yourself. Waiting, as Tom Wolfe says, "for something to radiate directly from the paintings on these invariably pure white walls, in this room, in this moment, into [your] own optic chiasma." But what about art in your kitchen? Or your study? How much attention do you need to give to that painting on your wall while you're doing your taxes or feeding your cat? Is it just decor to be glanced at out of the corner of your eye, or is it something more?
Charles Baudelaire once said that art should "contain an element of the eternal and an element of the transitory." If we're going to be high-minded about it, providing solutions to that conflict is what this book is about. Art should transport us and enlighten us, but, as a part of one's home, it needs to look good on purely aesthetic grounds, it needs to match the wallpaper, so to speak. An integral part of marrying art to the home (or the office, or the studio) is in how that art is displayed. How do you hang a picture and make it look good both as a piece of art and as decor? Like many simple acts, there's a science at work in hanging art that, when completed with care and consideration, can become a hallmark of personal style. This little book is your mechanical spec sheet for that process.
There is no single right way to hang a picture. There are however, plenty of wrong ways. How to Hang a Picture is designed to help you develop a sense of what's right for your own personal style. It's also a nuts-and-bolts how-to manual. We approached the subject as novices would — what would you need to know if you had no framework on which to base your visual or technical judgments? Just as a grammarian might parse the lines of a poem, we pulled apart the simple act of hanging a picture to detail the undercarriage of aesthetic principles and technical skill that compose this most basic aspect of adorning your home.
We began by speaking with the experts. From gallery owners and professional art curators, to interior designers and building contractors, to artists and photographers themselves — we wanted to know what they practice when hanging art. The goal was to map out what works the best and looks the best for the least amount of money. Straightaway, we discovered that there are basic principles to follow when hanging art on your wall, and there are plenty of tips and tricks that can help you with everything from DIY framing to securing heavy art on a wall. Along with the technical know-how we've compiled, we reached out to our friends and colleagues, imploring them to send us photos of walls they adore (in their home or elsewhere), or to send us their personal design solutions for hanging art in tricky spaces, from the narrow hallway to the brick-walled city studio. The watercolor illustrations in the book are inspired by these real homes and real spaces around the world — our hope is that by seeing how other people have utilized the basic know-how we've compiled in this book (or how they've completely avoided "the rules"), you'll be inspired to create your own unique spaces.
The book is divided into four sections. The first section details the act of planning. We provide you with a variety of loose, but very important, aesthetic guideposts. The goal isn't to make you a rigid adherent to a bland set of rules, but instead to help you inform your own personal vision with basic principles that are wielded by artists, curators, and designers everywhere.
The second section is straight-up hammer, nails, drills, and screws. Now that you know where you'd like to hang your art, we make sure you won't ruin your walls as you do so. Whether you rent or own, whether you have antique lath-and-plaster walls or modern drywall, there's no sense in using the wrong tools in the wrong places. With help from the charts, how-to illustrations, and simple instructions in this section, you should be able to approach any wall and accomplish any design solution regardless of your living space.
In the third section, we discuss framing art. We start with everyone's big issue with framing: It's expensive. Whether you buy the tools and learn how to do it all yourself, or take your art to a professional framer, you're going to spend more money than you'd like. The only real solution to the issue of cost is to follow a strategy expounded by a new generation of DIY style mavens that's best described as a mix-match ethos. For every kind of art — from oil paintings on canvas to silkscreened prints — and all the resources in your designer's toolbox (from the nuts and bolts of lighting to the tried-and-true philosophies behind color theory), we showcase various ways to get creative without spending too much money and ensure that the art on your walls is both considered and beautiful.
In the fourth section, we discuss a few easily overlooked aspects of art display: lighting and shelving. Shelves, from bookcases to dedicated picture ledges, can round out a wall's composition and transform a space. As for lighting, well — sometimes you have too much, sometimes too little — we'll share some basic insights on making the most of both natural and man-made light sources to help magnify the beauty of the artwork.
This book is meant to inform and inspire. The art on your wall can be whatever you want it to be: It can recede calmly into the background or be a joyous expression of personal taste. It can be serious or whimsical or nostalgic or shocking. It will, however, be something you look at and sit with quite often, every day. It deserves to be given thought and care. We hope our book will help you hang pictures happily, with intention and style.CHAPTER 2
It's the most basic of all wall-hanging questions: Where will you hang your art? On the surface, it seems like a fairly straightforward line of inquiry. Art on a wall is not a foreign notion to any of us — we've all seen it — we all know what it looks like and we have a general sense that, unless we're trying to make some sort of particular artistic statement, it shouldn't be hung too high or too low on the wall. It seems like we should know what to do: Find the space on the wall where it looks good to the eye, mark off a spot for the nail, and hammer away. And it really is almost that simple — almost. But hanging a picture is guided by basic principles that can't be overlooked.
For a parallel idea, consider the bowline knot — the "king of knots," used for a variety of purposes and integral to sailing. It's a simple knot, taught to children with the old tale of a rabbit coming out of its hole and around a tree and hopping back into its hole again. The greatness of the bowline is that it's as effective as it is simple, and while you can tie a bowline without comprehending why it holds so well, the mechanics of the bowline knot are guided by notions of geometry and resistance that are essential for a sailor to understand. Likewise, hanging art is an aesthetic exercise, and aesthetically speaking, there are essential mechanics at work when you put something up on a wall for people to look at — if you examine those mechanics, a few basic principles become evident. It's these principles that we will showcase as the "rules" of hanging art.
Think of adorning your walls as a sort of language, and the "rules" of hanging are basically its grammar. Once you learn the rules, you can start speaking the language with style. You don't have to follow all the rules all the time, but they're a great place for the novice to start. The best thing about the rules is that they always work. If you take nothing else away from this book, pay close attention to the following how-to and you will have a fail-safe design solution in your back pocket.
Let's suppose that you have a ready-to-hang piece of art and a blank wall in front of you — it's time to decide where you will hang your piece. Taking aside all considerations of, let's say, a large piece of furniture, or window moldings or fireplace mantels or anything else that might be "in the way," the most elegant solution, the one that any designer will use as a jumping-off point, is that your art should be hung at eye level.
This is common sense, but it's surprising how often it's overlooked. It's been said that any piece of art should look good from twelve feet away and twelve inches away — hanging art at eye level helps make that maxim a reality. It's where our eye wants to look. This is a central tenet of graphic design. If you're about to place an image on a blank page, you want that image to be what is known as "optically centered." If it's too low, the viewer tends to interpret the image as falling off the page, and if it's too high, our mind imagines the image as rushing upward away from us. An optically centered image is one that is not at the dead center of the page, but one that corresponds to the viewer's ideal sight line (in the case of a page, this is usually slightly above the actual "center" of the page).
This same sort of rule applies to a wall. People often assume that for the sake of symmetry, art should be hung at the dead center of a wall. But dead center on a wall is more often than not an odd and awkward height when compared with one's sightlines.
What this all means is simple: The exact center of your art should be hung at roughly fifty-seven inches height. Fifty-seven inches — give or take an inch or two — is about the average sightline for a human being. When planning the design of a blank wall, it's a great place to begin — creating an anchor for the viewer's sight. This rule becomes especially useful when you are hanging a variety of pictures of varying sizes in the same room. As you plan the wall, a system of weights and balances naturally reveals itself. You have several pieces of art, all different sizes, spread across a wall, and with their centers at fifty-seven inches, they are all perfectly poised for viewing and a compliment to the room itself. Now that you know why, here's how:
Ball of string
Once you've chosen the basic area on the wall from which you'd like to hang your piece, you'll need to mark off the point where the center of your art will sit. This is easily done with a measuring tape and a soft pencil. If you haven't already done so, now would be a good time to eyeball how the art actually looks in this space by having a friend hold it up roughly in position as you take a look. Keep in mind that generally speaking, the bottom of your art should never be closer than eight inches to the top of a couch or chair. This is less an aesthetic principle than a practical one, you don't want sitters to lean back and touch the art by accident. (fig. 1)
Next, locate the exact center of your art. Begin by turning your art over and use your measuring tape (or ruler, if the art is smaller) to measure along its bottom edge. Mark the center of that measurement with your pencil as close to the frame or edge of the art as possible. Mark off the corresponding measurement along its top edge (that is, if your art is twenty inches wide, you should make a hash mark at the ten-inch mark along its bottom and the top).
Repeat this step for the opposing length of the art, leaving you with four hash marks at the outer centers of your art. (fig. 2)
Using your ruler or measuring tape, connect the hash marks with a light pencil line; where the lines cross signifies the center of your art. (fig. 3) If you cannot mark up the backside of your art, an alternative method is to lay your measuring tape or ruler down along one of the set of hashes (the up-down axis, say) and lay a string along the opposite axis. Mark off the center with a small piece of removable painter's tape. (fig. 4)
You now have two points, one on the wall and one on the back of your art, that need to match up once the item is hung. Depending on how the art will be fastened to the wall, you may need to make a few adjustments to know where to put the nail. (For information on choosing wall fasteners that are right for your wall and your art, see section How)
In many cases, framed art will be hung from a wire. You'll need to determine the amount of play that exists between the wire and the center of the art. Simply "hang" the wire from your index finger, pulling the wire taut. Position the art as straight as possible. Measure the distance from the center of the art to your finger. (fig. 5)
Similarly, if your picture has hooks embedded in it or you are using another hanging method, you need to measure the point from where the hooks will fasten to the wall to the center point of the art. Add that extra measurement to your fifty-seven-inch mark on the wall, and you can then mark off exactly where you should affix your wall fastener or picture hanger. So if the picture wire of your piece hangs taut at three and a half inches, go to the mark you've made on your wall and measure up three and a half inches to reach sixty and a half inches, which is where you will affix your picture hanger.
Keep in mind that the fifty-seven-inch rule is the completist's approach to planning out your wall hangings. It is not a hard rule, but it's one that works. For instance, what if, as described earlier, the placement of your couch or an especially tall bureau competes too much or is too close to art hung at eye level? There's no crime in shifting your art accordingly. Since the goal is to create a balanced composition, consider the whole piece of furniture you're hanging your art above as part of that composition. The "eight-inch rule" we mention previously is a good guidepost, especially when you're hanging a large single piece above a static object like a bureau or a bookcase, but if you're attempting to hang several pieces of varying sizes, you may want to play with the distances a bit more, hanging a few pieces lower so that they create a bridge between the furniture and the art on the wall. The worst thing you can do is hang a single piece of art too high and perfectly centered over a piece of furniture — it creates a sort of floating effect that is jarring to the viewer. Also consider how the purpose of the furniture might dictate your composition. We've seen many sleek and functional work desks with art hung almost level with the lip of the desk, mirroring the feel of a bulletin board, whereas that same approach probably wouldn't work above a kitchen counter or bathroom sink. Take extra care when placing art above couches or chairs that have their backs to walls. Depending on your couch-reclining habits (or those of your fort-building toddler), eight inches above the top of your couch might be just a tad too low for art if you want to limit errant arms and backs of heads interfering with the art, but you'll need to balance that concern against the visually felonious crime of art hung too high.
Like all good design solutions, the fifty-seven-inch "rule" is both elegant and practical. As such, it's a great starting point from which to craft the look of an entire room. Use it as a way to create balance between two pictures that you'd like to pair on a wall, one big, one smaller. If both are hung with their centers at fifty-seven inches, they will both be optically centered, while their disparate sizes work together to create a pleasing tug of war between each other.
The everyday wisdom on the distance between artworks is that each piece should be at least six inches apart. That figure is probably a good visual guide, but shouldn't be considered a hard rule. What you want to avoid is the sense of artworks being piled atop each other or cramped together — whether that means six inches or nine inches or three inches is up to your own personal taste and the look you're hoping to achieve. If you're hanging two objects that are the same size and are meant to pair with each other in a particular way, you might want a different sense of space between the pieces than if it's a more casual arrangement.
Excerpted from How To Hang A Picture by Jay Sacher, Suzanne LaGasa. Copyright © 2013 Jay Sacher and Suzanne LaGasa. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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