How to Hang a Show.

Posted on October 20, 2012 in Editorial, Exhibitions, How-to

How to hang an exhibition of paintings

Hanging an Exhibition of Paintings.

When I was in college, and shortly after, I did a lot of work with several galleries in the Third Ward. I worked for about three years as a preparator, and have installed dozens and dozens of shows in a variety of spaces, each presenting their own unique problems.

In order to discuss this topic, we have to use a lot of math. Fair warning: this is going to sound more complicated than it really is. To keep things straight, I will stick to a particular convention when referring to the dimensions of work, that being height by width. So if I speak about a painting that is 8″ x 10″ I am referring to a painting that is eight inches high by ten inches wide. A 10″ x 8″ painting would be 10 inches high by 8 inches wide, etc.

Further, there are some design principles that we have to discuss in order to appreciate why so many steps have to be taken to properly hang a show. I’ve seen hundreds of shows in my career, from impromptu gallery spaces to living room receptions, to professionally curated shows at the MET in New York. All of these circumstances have to solve the same problem: How to arrange the work on a wall so that the viewing of it will be a pleasant experience. The design principles at work are unity, harmony, balance, symmetry, and negative space.

In addition to spacing the paintings an adequate distance from one another, it is important to take into consideration other elements on the wall. Light fixtures and switches, doorways, windows, fireplaces, utility cabinets, conduit or heating ducts, etc., when possible, should be some distance from the work. The minimum distance between paintings will largely depend on the number of paintings shown. If you have half a dozen paintings on a large wall, you can afford to give them a larger gap than if you have 40 paintings to fit salon style in the same amount of space. The frame of the painting will also play a role in determining this breathing room. The more substantial the frame, the less need there is for distance from adjacent work.

If you are an artist and are planning to hang your own work, then the problem is much like approaching a composition. You want an arrangement of the elements at hand that is pleasing to the eye, with enough space to offer a visual break before the viewer is confronted with the next painting. I can only speak generally here, without the specifics of a given body of work, but things you should consider are:

  • Grouping – Do certain paintings belong together, enhance each other? Do certain paintings need to be separated, are they too similar?
  • Viewer Path – Given the nature of the space, which piece will draw the viewer closer? Give that one dominance, and good lighting.
  • Frame Style – If you have a variety of frames, should similar frames be hung adjacent to one another, or apart from one another?
  • Subject Matter – If you have a variety of subject matter, should you group like things together, or in some other way?
  • Size – Do certain pieces “feel right” in a given space?


A Working Example

Let’s start with a simple problem. Let’s say we have three paintings that have to fit, evenly spaced, on a wall that is 100″ wide, which has no additional features or obstructions. We’ll also assume the height of the wall is of an average height (10′), and is thereby sufficient for a standard method of hanging. For the sake of this discussion, we’ll say these three paintings are 16″ high x 20″ wide.

Horizontal Placement

First, we’ll find the horizontal placement for these pieces, by subtracting the total width of all three paintings (20″ + 20″ + 20″ = 60″) from the total width of the wall (100″ – 60″ = 40″). Now we divide that 40″ by 4, to give us an interval between the paintings of 10″. This means that from the edge of the wall to the paintings is a space of 10″ and between each painting is also a space of 10″. to simplify this as a formula, we might write it as such:

(Width of wall – Combined Width of all paintings) / (No. of total paintings + 1) = Interval Distance

Using the dimensions above, the formula would look like this:

(100″ – [20″+20″+20″] ) / (3 + 1) = 10″

This would give us an arrangement as such:

If you want to get creative, once you have this interval, you can adjust the placement to create a larger interval outside the paintings, causing them to group closer to the center of the wall. This is important when hanging work in corners on two adjacent walls. If the work is too close to a corner, it will be difficult to get in front of the painting without getting too close to the wall. These situations require more breathing room. I recommend no less than a 10″ space from the edge of the painting to a corner. The larger the painting, the less space is required. The key is to make sure that a viewer can stand at the center of the painting without being too close to the adjacent wall.

Using the dimensions above, we could offset by doing the following:

Vertical Placement

When hanging most shows, galleries will typically use either a 57″ center or a 60″ center, in terms of the vertical placement. For some reason, these two dimensions seem to work well to put most work on the wall at a comfortable eye level or near-eye level for the majority of viewers on a wall of normal dimensions 9′-12′ high).

If work is to be shown over a table, a couch, or a sculpture adjacent to the wall, this may need to be higher. If the work is very large in its vertical dimension, this may need to be lower. “Eye level” is also affected by the height of the ceilings, the space of the room (to get distance from the work) and the size of the work. Very large paintings, in a large room can be hung higher, perhaps with a 72″ center or higher.

Getting back to our simple example, since these paintings are all the same dimensions, we should be able to use the same measurement for finding the height to place the nail or hook, right? Well, no. It really all depends on the manner in which the work is hung.

If the paintings have wires, there will typically be a different amount of slack in the wire from one painting to another. Some galleries prefer to use D-rings that bolt or screw into the frame, which can be set at an exact distance from the top of the frame. These are then placed on hooks or nails that can be set at the exact same height from the floor. The problem then comes up when you have to hang paintings of different sizes, and want the work centered vertically to one another.

I have found, after hanging dozens and dozens of shows, that it is often better to use a formula that will give you the exact placement you need for any painting of any size, with any method of suspension.

Over the years I have had to hang paintings using push pins in each corner, hooks and wires, hooks and D-rings, eye screws from the top of the painting, french cleats, shelves, security locks, cable loops, S-hooks, and other methods of suspension. The formula I’m going to give you will work on any of these, once you understand how to calculate the offset.

When measuring the work, we need two dimensions, the total height of the work, including the frame, and the offset of the method of suspending the work from the wall. For the sake of simpler math, let’s go with a 60″ center and all three paintings have a vertical dimension of 16″ high. For now we’ll also assume there’s no frame width to factor in. With a painting that has a wire, use the lip of the measuring tape to catch the wire and pull it taught towards the top of the painting. Measure the distance between the wire and the top of the work. This is your offset. For this example let’s say it’s 2″

To calculate where to place your nail or screw (or the bottom of the hook when using hooks and nails), we use the following formula:

Total Height of Work / 2 + 60″ – Offset

Using our figures, this gives us the following:

16″ / 2 + 60″ – 2″ = 66″

This means we have to put the anchor at 66″ from the floor in order for the center to be at 60″ or eye level.



Accept that there will always be problems when hanging a show.

In fact there are several common problems that can arise. The worst will be if you are hanging in a room where the floor is markedly un-level. In this case, you will need to mark, with tape or a chalk line, some baseline that is level, from which to make your measurements.

If you have elements in the room that require breathing room vertically, such as tables placed against the wall with floral arrangements or other objects sitting on the table, this may require more space, and therefore a higher center. In general, anything above waist height should receive consideration regarding additional space around the painting. Anything below waist height will not be noticeable.

Last, when hanging salon-style, with multiple rows of paintings, be sure to leave enough space between paintings to allow for the label or card that describes its title, medium, artist, and price.


More Complex Arrangements

One of the more difficult types of shows to hang is a salon-type show, where work is stacked in 2-5 rows on a wall. Not only will this be difficult to hang elegantly, it will also require consideration with regards to lighting. It is difficult to get light to evenly distribute across the entire surface of a large wall, there will almost always be hot-spots. The goal is to place in the hot or cool spots, the work that best fits those.

Using Three Centers

When stacking three rows of work, depending on the size of work of course, there are three levels that work well for centering work. On a 12′ wall, if you use a 60″ center for the middle row, you can use a 38.5″ center for the lower row, and an 85″ center for the top row. This seems to work well for paintings that range in size from 8″ x 10″ to 16″ x 20″ in dimension. If you get larger than 20″ you may need to adjust your arrangement.

Lighting will be a primary concern when salon-stacking a group of paintings. If you have highly glossy varnished work, glazed work (behind glass), such as watercolor or pastel, these may need to be hung above or below eye level in order to prevent strong glare, which will interfere with proper viewing. This should certainly factor into your considerations of which painting goes where. In general, give the best light to the most important pieces. Everything after that is compromise.

When the time comes to adjust the lighting, be sure to wear gloves. Most spaces will have some sort of track lighting that can be adjusted. I would avoid wearing rings, or anything metal while adjusting track lighting. Should a piece of metal touch the inside of the track, you could be in for a shock.

When I was working at the Frederick Layton Gallery in MIAD, I once had to adjust the track lighting for a show. The tracks were worn and the lighting was stubborn, you had to put the fixtures in with just the right amount of rotation to get them to light up. The problem was that the adjustment was limited to a certain range, and this could sag over time. One of my co-workers had the idea to “tie” in place a light so it would illuminate a part of the wall. They used steel hanging wire to do this. I didn’t see the wire until I was up on a ladder, reaching to adjust the light with a bare hand. The wire made contact and shorted out the fixture as well as the whole track. Big sparks. Don’t be like that guy.


The Best Way to Arrange a Show

Without a doubt, the best way to hang a show is to take photos and measurements of each framed painting and the walls in the space, scale them in Photoshop or illustrator, and move them around digitally over a scaled image of the wall. This allows you to make changes and play with the placement without having to put holes in the wall.

Laying paintings on a large floor space can help you move things around in order to find the best arrangement – all without pounding holes in the wall.

If time or resources don’t allow for this, you can always use a measuring tape or two to define a similar area on the floor to that of the wall. Laying the pieces on the floor, you can get a feel for the placement and make changes without making holes in the wall.

If you don’t have the floor space for that, I recommend using push-pins to place the work on the wall, before pounding nails or driving screws, as a pin-hole is easily overlooked and won’t require patching. Many paintings in fact can be supported by one or two push-pins, although that may not be possible if you’re pushing pins into wall made of concrete, brick, plaster and slats, or paneling. In those cases, your measurements will have to be exact, and you may need to create a suspension wire from which to hang the piece.

Once you have the arrangement settled, make notes about it, or better still photograph it to use as a guide while you go. You will be dealing with so many different figures, it becomes easy to lose track of where things should go. Over time, this process becomes more efficient and intuitive.