Hanging art at home? Tips from the Gallery Preparator

Hanging art at home? Tips from the Gallery Preparator

May 12, 2020 | Published by MMA
JP hanging a grid of art
Jennifer installing Doug Guildford’s 25 prints from the series Salvage: I Was a Boy, 2002 – in McMaster’s 2014 exhibition This is Me, This is Also Me

Tired of staring at the same walls while you #StayHome? If you’re ready to refresh your view at home, we thought a few tips from Jennifer Petteplace, the McMaster Museum of Art’s preparator, would be handy. 

What tools do you use to hang a painting at home?

  • level (at the museum we have a laser-level. A gift from the gods.)
  • Hammer
  • Picture hook and Nail (sometimes 2)
    though ideally, I use D-rings rather than wire/eye hooks on the back of the art.
  • Thumb tack
  • Tape measure
D-ring and a standard picture hanging hook

Tool Tip

If you hang from two D-rings or at least from 2 points you can guarantee that your art will always hang straight and level and withstand vibrations from a passing bus.


You may not notice, but over time works on paper will change and fade if you hang them in bright light. So, don’t hang your family photos in direct sunlight. (Unless you don’t like your family.)

Museum standard is to light a work on paper with no more than 50 lux.

Oh – and NEVER use those lights that attach to the top of picture frames unless you want to the image to burn away.

Museum lighting info and guidelines (from the Canadian Conservation Institute)


Hang your art so that it relates to the furniture. In a room full of chairs, the art should be placed to view while sitting. Not 6 inches from the ceiling!

The gallery standard, hanging so that the centre of the painting is at 54 – 56 inches from the floor, is intended for gallery viewers who are standing up, not at home.

Art over the couch


Generally, don’t put small works on a giant wall. Intimate art works for intimate spaces. Though you could hang a grid of several small works in a larger space. Though sometimes you can break the rules for dramatic effect – I did it myself and hung large painting in a small hallway.

Big painting small hallway
A big painting on a small wall.


If you are planning a grouping of works, lay them out on the floor. One you like the placement, take the outside measurements. Figure out where that size grouping fits on the wall (not too close to the ceiling and not just 4 inches over the couch) and hang the art working from the top down.

wall of mirrors
A wall of mirrors

Hanging a grid

A level is indispensable and another helpful tip … If you are hanging a group of identically sized objects and want to guarantee they’ll look good, make sure that the distance between the objects is a divisor of the width of the object itself. (sounds complicated, but it’s not). For example, 16 inch panels look best with 2, 4 or 8 inches between them; 25 inch panels look best with 5 inches between them.

J.M.W. Turner exhibition at McMaster
J.M.W. Turner exhibition at McMaster Museum of Art

There are many ways to hang groups of art when everything is a different size. You can line up the centre point of each work at the same height – 56 inches for example or you can do what we call tombstoning which is lining the top or the bottom of the works at the same height. Or, if you want to frustrate yourself after too much coffee, you can tombstone all four sides of the grid as seen in this installation shot below. To do this you need to lay it out on the floor like a puzzle first. Hang top row first, then two outer sides, then the bottom, then fill in the centre.

Installation view of the #nofilterneeded the N.I.I.P.A. exhibition at McMaster Museum of Art
Installation view in the 2018 exhibition “#nofilterneeded: shining light on the Native Indian/Inuit Photographers’ Association, 1985 – 1992” at McMaster Museum of Art

What’s the most difficult thing you’ve ever installed?

Things that are very fragile, very heavy, and have a recessed hook are the hardest. Some that come to mind at the Museum are Anselm Kiefer’s Yggdrasil. It is large, very heavy (lead on top) and must be lifted from the bottom because the surface is so fragile. Like, Daniel Spoerri’s work – so heavy, with many fragile parts that you need to work around and the inset hook. Or Gerhard Richter’s Red Mirror – nowhere to grab.

And what’s that thumb tack for?

When you’re measuring for your nail hole, don’t make a penciled X or line on the wall. Just poke in the thumb tack. A dot marks the spot. Clean and simple.

– Jennifer Petteplace, Installation/Preservation Officer