Home & Design October 22, 2010

Living With Art

Art purchased in a gallery may be viewed as an investment, but the character and style it adds to your home and your life is far more important. If selected carefully, the artwork in your home can become a visual diary—a reflection of your taste and personality at different times—with intrinsic value beyond a prospective boost in your bank account. When buying a painting, your main consideration should be your visceral response to the piece. Does it stir a sense of deep nostalgia, an unexpressed or forgotten longing? Does it inspire you to cook a great meal, tune your old guitar, or rearrange the furniture? It is all a matter of taste, and the only taste that counts is your own.

Displaying art to its best advantage is an art in itself. Keep in mind that you have the home court advantage. Galleries must be ready for various installations, and while they generally can’t change the flooring, lighting, or wall color to set off a specific piece, you can. The impact of art in your home is often a matter of getting the small details right.

Remember that art displayed in a gallery has the disadvantage of being required to stand well on its own. Art in your home isn’t subject to this pressure, and should relate to you and your possessions. Although there is some substance in the tired adage, “You shouldn’t buy art to match a sofa,” Barbi Reed does suggest thinking about “complementing” (rather than “matching”) your interior design. Working a piece into a room can be as simple as isolating one color in the work and incorporating it into the décor, even if in just a pillow or a vase. You may want to reflect on the aesthetic sensibility already present in the room: Does it convey excitement and movement, or composure and relaxation?

The type of room where you intend to place the piece should also play an integral role in the selection process. The desired mood in your kitchen is different from that in a bedroom, and artwork should reflect the appropriate disposition. In addition, all of the elements in a room should coalesce, so consider the texture of the countertops or the bedding when selecting a piece. It sounds intimidating, but by playing with artwork, even living with it for a awhile, you will figure out what will and won’t work for you.

blank slate
While it is true that the white walls and bare floorboards of most galleries reflect light well and complement the artwork, don’t let that stop you from experimenting with color, which can enhance it. You can afford to be bold. “In general, people are shy of strong color on their walls because that is not how the piece was displayed,” says Gail Severn. “Often, though, color is their biggest asset.” If at first you are hesitant about a persimmon wall in your bedroom, try it in another room. It is easier to be more adventurous in rooms that are used less frequently. And remember, it’s okay to experiment—you can always repaint.

off the wall
Many people like to hang a piece of art so that it is the first thing they see as they enter a room. Although art is often intended to be a focal point, don’t let previous conceptions constrain you. There are many ways to display a piece, and experimenting is the best way to find out what works for you. For example, it is currently fashionable to prop pieces against the wall. There is something appealing about the informal simplicity of displaying art in this way. Propping works well with small pictures on a tabletop, or large pieces against the walls in a loft-like room. Make sure you have enough art and enough space to do this, however, or it may look as if you are waiting for the movers.
There are no definite rules for hanging, but there is a science to getting your paintings on the same center plane: Measure the distance from the top of the hanging wire at its highest point, to the top of the piece. Subtract that number from half of the total vertical height of the piece. Then add that to “museum height,” which can be anywhere between 54” to 60” from the floor, depending on the average height of the viewer.

Gallery owners recommend hiring a lighting engineer if you are serious about displaying fine art in your home. If that is not an option, try installing recessed track lighting, which offers several ways to manipulate the intensity and direction of light.

The best way to shed light on a painting is to angle it. Direct light creates glare, and natural light can damage the piece by fading it or aging it quickly. Depending on the piece itself and the atmosphere in a room, an angle between 30 to 35 degrees from ceiling to wall is ideal. In addition, the light source should be far enough away to avoid heating a spot on the surface of the piece.

Other considerations include the distance from which the art will be viewed, and the overall atmosphere in the room. Hundreds of light fixtures are available that allow you to adjust the focus of the light according to the elements of a particular room or piece of art. Be sure to speak with the artist or gallery owner about how they feel the piece should be lit.

strength in numbers
Hanging artwork in groups or grids is an option, but requires the right mix. Black-and-white photographs often lend themselves well to groupings, as do pieces with a repetitive design element. The key when hanging groupings is to have a balance in the room: Don’t overdue it. A grid on one wall may complement a large piece on the opposite wall.

the big picture
Since a solitary painting can have the power to transform a room, a striking way to feature art in your home is to display one piece prominently. Giant portraits have traditionally been reserved for formal, grandiose settings, but hung floor-to-ceiling, big pieces can also work well in small spaces. Large, contemporary pieces have a tendency to move everything in a room visually outward, making it feel larger.

the elements
Many a glorious view of the Wood River Valley has been framed in an expansive window, to the detriment of the artwork on the opposite wall. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light damages paintings and photographs, as well as rugs and draperies. Consider closing the blinds in the afternoon to preserve fine art and photographs. Also avoid hanging art over radiators or heating ducts, as changes in temperature cause canvas and paper to expand and contract, eventually leading to cracking or flaking.

In addition to enhancing the style and atmosphere of your home, the artwork you display can convey a sense of who you are. The selection of each piece should depend first on your emotional response, and then on the “fit” with the décor and ambiance in the house. We are lucky to live in an area with such a strong art community—take advantage of it. At the next Gallery Walk, consider how a John Wayne screenprint would look in your kitchen, or a black-and-white photograph of a hatch rising by Charles Lindsay in your den. There is something out there that is perfect for you.

Casey Hanrahan works for Sun Valley Magazine. Though she enjoys artful interiors, she can usually be found outdoors.




This article appears in the Fall 2002 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.