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Monet - Dusk, 1908
The mat and frame of this framed art print of Monet's Dusk, 1908, complements the size of the fireplace, the red of the duvet and the soft golden walls.

Paintings, prints and photographs are often the heartbeat of the room. They can transform the mood of rooms, halls and stairways. Height, scale, grouping and lighting can make the difference between a graceful display and one that looks awkward.

A short history of hanging styles
Why frame? The purpose of a frame, from an artist's point of view, is to separate the imaginary world within the painting from the real world of the room. When the image is confined it makes it easier to comprehend and appreciate as a whole.

Frames have been found in evidence in Pompeii, where the images, although painted directly on the walls, had painted frames around them to separate them from the room and to isolate the 'view'.

Hanging styles have come and gone. In the 17th century, framed paintings were hung above eye-level, from the cornice and were often cantilevered from the wall so the viewer on the floor could seen them better. In the 18th century, there was a tendency to hang pictures in groups and often one picture would be hung beneath the other on a pair of chains. By the 19th century, hanging framed art became a little less rigid and pictures were hung in tiers by wire or cord. By the end of World War I, there was a clearing out of the Victorian and Edwardian clutter and fewer furnishings, and paintings, were seen in rooms.

The most important thing to remember about hanging framed art is that it is the picture that is important. The role of frame and mat is to complement and flatter the image, not to compete with it. Today, hanging arrangements are much more a matter of personal taste than they ever have been in the past.

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Framing Basics

Consider the profile of the frame. When framing landscapes, both historic and modern, the best choice for a frame is one with a concave profile which leads the eye into the picture. However, if the scene has less depth, for example a portrait or still life, the best shape of frame would be a convex one. Because it falls away from the image at the outer edge, a convex frame presents the picture toward you and offers the illusion of depth to a two-dimensional painting.

Scale is important. Small pictures present particular problems with regard to scale because they can lose impact when framed according to conventional proportions. For a small picture, you should use a frame that is proportionately wider than you would use for a normal-sized painting. This ensures that the eye is arrested and the painting is noticed. Another option for a small painting would be to set it into a box frame. This makes it look like what it is, a tiny jewel of a painting.

Introvert versus extrovert images. An intimate picture, perhaps a delicate painted or photographed portrait or a domestic interior requires a gentle frame. A challenging, strident image should be framed boldly.

The mat and frame should be viewed as a complete composition. Sometimes it is enough that they are complementary in color and harmonize with the picture they contain. You may wish to use a fine gold line of an inner mat to make a visual echo with a gold frame. This effect helps to anchor the picture within the frame and makes a transition from the outer edge to the heart of the painting.

Be generous with the proportions of any mat. To create a pleasing effect, a mat is seldom designed with strictly equal borders around all sides. The proportions are often subtly adjusted so that the width at the bottom of the image is greater than that at the top and sides. This compensates for the optical illusion that makes the space at the bottom of a picture appear smaller than the space at the top.

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Framed Art Hanging Tips

  • Consider the shapes in the architecture of the room as if they were part of a framed art composition.

  • Doors and windows can look magical with framed art hung on either side. The door or window will provide another framed vista.

  • Fireplaces have long been favorite places to accent with framed art. Consider the mantle to be another frame and balance a large painting or mirror over it. Because fireplaces are inherently a focal point of the room, this is not the place to hang many small prints. There should be something of weight above the fireplace to balance the strength of what's below.

  • Don't be afraid to accent curves with framed art. A curving staircase or hall can look charming with a series of framed art prints drawing attention to the curve.

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Country Casual decorating demands an informal approach to picture arrangement. The colors and tones of the cottage are enhanced by warm, mellow woodwork. Pictures and their frames look at home in this style when they are filled with warm tones, reds, browns, and earth colors, and framed in natural wood or even rich gold. Painting subjects for this style include rural landscapes, traditional still lifes of fruit in the kitchen or dining room, and

A Contemporary decorating style can be beautifully complemented by dramatic works of art. When framed art is exceedingly bold, it needs the space a sleek interior can give it. If collections are hung in contemporary home, they should be exceedingly orderly in order to not distract from the simplicity of the line.

Traditional picture arrangements will incline toward formal symmetry. Framed art can be hung in large groupings in a traditional home, and although overall symmetry should be considered, the individual framed art pieces need not be framed or matted exactly the same. In fact, the richness of difference will give the impression of being collected over time.

When hanging a collection, it is important that the individual items have something that links them to each other. Perhaps they are all works by the same artist, or they share a common theme, from architecture to botanical prints. They may celebrate a period or use the same medium, photography, for example. When displayed together they will convey an impression of abundance and richness.

Unusual spaces make surprisingly imaginative places for hanging framed art. A set of pictures hung above a door fills the usually dead space between door and ceiling and makes the room appear taller. Pictures can be hung on cupboards and wardrobes, propped on shelves, rested against books and even hung on the ceiling.

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