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Arranging Pictures

Martha Stewart Living, May 1997

The process of hanging a new painting or a collection of family photos can seem like a puzzle. But although there are pieces to examine, there isn't just one correct way to put them together. As with every aspect of decorating, it helps to understand the basic principles first, then improvise -- the most pleasing arrangement may be the one you least expect.

First, set out the pictures you want to hang; prop them against the walls, and consider your options. Look at every reasonable possibility. Have someone hold a piece up to the wall while you stand back and appraise (just cover the hanging hardware with masking tape first to keep it from scratching the wall). If you are grouping several pieces together, arrange and rearrange them on the floor until you find a composition you like.

In most groupings, a common thread will tie the pieces together. Perhaps the pictures are part of a set or collection; if not, maybe the frames share the same style or the mats are all the same color. Sometimes, a grouping may not need a linking element; the only unifying theme may be its diversity. Such collections take a little more nerve and are best suited to a less formal room.

As for precise positioning, conventional wisdom suggests that pictures be hung at eye level. This notion is a fine starting point, but hardly definitive. There are many good reasons to hang pieces above or below a standard height. In any setting, you will need to react to the architecture and the furniture; you will also need to follow your instincts. A few inches' shift in a hanging arrangement can affect the tone of an entire room: Move the pictures over a sofa or chair down a bit; the area will become more cohesive, cozy, and inviting. Add an element of surprise to a room by hanging a little picture above the door. Emphasize a chair rail by running a series of photos right above it. Hang several small pieces just over a desk -- they'll provide a refreshing view when you look up from your work. Learn to trust yourself. If it feels right, don't be afraid to do something a little different.

Measuring and Essential Supplies Don't leave measurements to guesswork when you are hanging pictures; get out the tape measure and be exact. For most pictures, the only other tools you'll need are a hammer, a screwdriver, and a carpenter's level, preferably 24 inches long. When hanging something at an average eye level, position its center 57 to 60 inches from the floor. Use the following formula: Divide the height of the frame by two; from that number, subtract the distance from the top of the frame to the hanging hardware; add this number to 57, 58, 59, or 60. This final sum is the height (measured from the floor) at which the hangers should be put into the wall. If you're going by instinct as opposed to eye level, you don't need to be as rigorous in your measuring; if you are hanging a grid or a series of pieces, however, you will need to be precise to achieve even spacing.

When it's time to hang your art, use the method that provides the most stability. It's usually best to use two picture hangers, so pictures don't swing or tilt. Install two D rings on the back of a frame, directly opposite each other. Once you've decided where you want to hang a picture, make a mark on the wall in pencil (on pieces of masking tape, if you wish) for each hook; use the level to make sure the marks are at the same height. If a room has a slightly sloping floor or ceiling, start by hanging the pictures level; if they look crooked, cheat just a bit so they look straight, even if they're not. In a case like this, you may want to string picture wire between the D rings; still, hang it from two hooks, unless the picture is very small. Decorative picture-hanging hardware, such as vintage hooks or French rods, can add another design element to a single picture or grouping.

One more essential consideration is restraint. You'll want to leave some blank wall space in a room so the eye can rest; what's not there will allow you to appreciate what is.

How to Arrange An Eclectic Group
Mismatched elements are more of a challenge to hang than a set of identical prints in similar frames, but the results can be compelling and really make a room. Sketches, oil paintings, architectural renderings, a display of cameos, and a decorative wall bracket could be arranged in a free-form, asymmetrical grouping, giving the living room at left the look of a comfortable parlor. The frames are varied, but all share a somewhat formal feel. If the pieces were hung higher, they would appear to be floating away; the sofa, just a few inches below, anchors them gracefully.

1. Before putting a hole in the wall, establish the arrangement of pictures and pieces. Lay them out on the floor and up against a wall or piece of furniture; move them until the results suit you. For a grouping like this, the spacing doesn't need to be even, but try to avoid unbroken "rivers" of space running horizontally or vertically between pictures.

2. A carpenter's level is an indispensable tool. If you are using two D rings to hang a picture from two picture hangers, mark the spots for the hardware on the wall, and use the level to be sure they're even; adjust as necessary before putting hardware in the wall. If you are using one or two picture hangers and wire strung on the back of the frame, hang the picture, and then use the level to make it straight.

How to Create Symmetry Among Prints
The arrangement of pictures on a wall has as much impact as the pictures themselves. A precise grid gives a graphic, formal look; a group of pictures hung within a set square or rectangle has order to it, but is instantly more casual, ideal for a family room or kitchen. Rows of pictures can be aligned at their centers, tops, or bottoms with very different results. Whether you're working with a grouping of pictures or just one, artwork should generally be centered horizontally between two points, which makes a room feel balanced.

A strong center line ties together contemporary photographs in frames of different sizes, left. Jagged lines on the top and bottom accentuate the arrangement.

1. Two pieces of string stretched taut between pushpins provide a guide for even spacing. This technique is also useful for hanging pictures along a staircase: Mark a spot on the wall the same distance from the top step and the bottom step, and run the string between these points.

2. Use a D ring on each side of a frame for secure picture hanging.

3. Don't estimate measurements; always use a tape measure. Here, the space from the top of the frame to the D ring matches the space from the string guide to the picture hanger.

Comments (5)

  • 29 Dec, 2008

    Hosta 16: Put less recent 8 X 10's in coffee table album. ebjrota

  • 29 Dec, 2008

    Hosta16: Cut plywood piece to fit over the sofa; cover it with wallpaper, solid textured fabric, put 8 X10's in all the same frame

  • 15 May, 2008

    I would go ahead and take some down. Dedicate a certain space in your house for your children's pictures. Use the kind of frames that allow you to easily change the pictures out (rotate) as new ones, that you or they love and want to display are made. Save the ones you take down, by scanning or taking a photo of them.

  • 28 Apr, 2008

    I HAVE THREE KIDS AND SO MANY BEAUTIFUL 8 BY 10 PICTURES~! MY PROBLEM IS THERE THROUGHOUT THE HOUSE~! I HAVE NO DECORATIONS? WHAT TO DO TO WITH ONES I MAY TAKE DOWN OR DO I? HOW MUCH IS TO MUCH?

  • 3 Dec, 2007

    I have a fall leaf collection of prints above my sofa. I laid the leaves out on 8.5 x 11 paper and color copied onto card stock. That way the leaves have not aged, broken or faded over time.