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Print Size Selection

Some interior designers just seem to have a natural ability to select just the right type and size of artwork for every part of the home or office. The rest of us need some help.

There are exceptions to every rule and there are probably more exceptions than rules in the area of interior design! Still some guidelines for selecting the right print size are helpful. I offer the following two guidelines which tend to work well in most situations. These guidelines are followed by specific examples based on practical experience.

Print Sizing Guidelines:

The "50% space" guideline

Artwork (including frame) should cover approximately 50% of the space in which it is displayed. This usually works out to about 2/3 of the length or height of the space. For example, if the width of the space is 6 feet, you might consider a piece of artwork that is about 4 feet wide.

This guideline is most helpful when trying to estimate the size of artwork to place in a blank section of wall or over an object of known size such as a fireplace or piece of furniture. If the viewing location will be restricted (such as the viewer must be at least some distance away because of a piece of furniture) be sure to use the "diagonal" guideline below.

The "diagonal distance" guideline

Artwork is ideally viewed from a distance equal to the diagonal of the image (not including the mat). This distance corresponds to the natural angle of vision of our eyes and allows the viewer to see the scene much like if they were there when the image was made. It follows naturally that most people will tend to stand at a distance approximately equal to the image diagonal when viewing artwork because that is the most comfortable viewing distance for the human eye.

For example, for a 16" x 20" image, the image diagonal is about 26" or a little over 2 feet. Viewing the image from closer than 26" would not allow the viewer to easily take in the whole image. Their eyes would need to continually move around the image and the viewer may feel crowded. Viewing the image from further away than 26" will include more of the surrounding area in viewer's field of vision. That may be o.k. However, the viewer will not be able to see many of the subtle details in the image and the surrounding wall color, furniture, etc. may create visual distractions for the viewer.

This guideline is most helpful when the viewing location offers restricted movement. For example, if an image is hung along the side of a hallway, the width of the hallway usually restricts the ability of the viewer to back away from a larger image. You will want to make sure that the image is small enough to be easily viewed from the middle of the hallway. Alternatively, if an image is hung behind a piece of furniture, the furniture usually restricts the ability of the viewer to get closer to the image. In that case, you will want to make sure that the image is large enough to be viewed from further away.

Note: To determine the diagonal of any rectangle, take the square root of the sum of the squares of the two sides. In the above example, the diagonal of a 16" x 20" image would be the square root of the sum of 16" squared plus 20" squared, or SQRT[16x16 + 20x20] = SQRT[256 + 400] = 25.6", approximately 26".

Combining the two guidelines

Select the matted and framed size of the artwork so that it fills 50% of the space. Then check to make sure that the artwork can be viewed from a distance approximately equal to the diagonal of the image size (without mat and frame). Some specific and practical example are given below.

Example Locations


The entry of your home or office building is the first chance to make a good impression on friends or business clients. Entries tend to be well lit and usually have room for one or more dramatic pieces of artwork that set the tone for the rest of the home or office.

Select an image by following the two guidelines above. Frame size should cover about 50% of the space it is decorating and viewers should be able to comfortably stand at a distance approximately equal to the diagonal of the image (not including mat and frame).

For homes: Often a vertical image can help to emphasize the height of your entry way.

For offices: Remember that images placed behind the reception desk will be viewed from a distance of 6' to 8' or more. Images which are too small will be seen but not "felt". That is, if the viewer is too far away, they will be able to see that you have a picture of something on the wall but, due to their field of vision encompassing so much more, they won't feel like they are "in" the picture.


Hallways can be very challenging. They offer restricted viewing distances and are usually poorly lit. If you want to place a gallery of images in a hallway, you might consider an attractive track lighting system. Otherwise, be sure to place images where they will receive sufficient lighting from the existing light fixtures.

Hallways are usually around 4 feet wide so the viewing distance will usually be restricted to 3 feet or less. The "diagonal distance" guideline is the most important guideline for this situation. An image size (not including mat and frame) of 16" x 20" usually works very well in hallways. Depending on your hallway, you may be able to go as large as 24" x 30". Be careful with larger images unless your hallway is wider. An image which is too large will tend to make the viewer feel crowded. Also, remember that larger images generally need better lighting. Depending on your preference, you may prefer to go as small as 11" x 14".

If you are placing images on both sides of the hallway, it is best not to place them directly opposite each other. This will tend to make the hallway seem more crouded. Stagger the images on either side so the viewer can walk down the hall and look first to one side, then the other as they travel down the hall.

Over a sideboard or cabinet

Sideboards and other low styles of cabinets are common in dining rooms and conference rooms. Standing in front of the sideboard, the viewer will usually be about 3' from the wall. If there is a table in the room, such as a dining table or conference table, the viewer may also be restricted in how far he can back up. Image sizes from 24" x 36" up to 40" x 50" can work well, depending on where the viewer can stand and how wide the space is you are trying to fill. For a wider wall, such as in a larger conference room, a series of 3 or more 24" x 36" or larger prints with a common theme work extremely well.

Over a sofa

Sofas come in a variety of sizes, from loveseats to extra wide. Depending on the particular type of sofa, a viewer standing in front of it will usually be about 3.5' - 4' from the wall behind the sofa. So an image size of less than 30" x 40" will probably be too small to be viewed in detail. Both vertical and horizontal images can work well behind a loveseat since they are not usually very wide. Since larger sofas are generally much wider than they are tall, a horizontal image usually works best. Select a size that is about 2/3 the length of the sofa. For wider sofas, you might consider two vertical images side by side.

Over a fireplace

Careful consideration is needed when placing photographic prints above a fireplace. It's generally recommended to not put photographs where they will receive direct heat such as from a heating vent or fireplace. That is, the heated air must not blow on the print directly. That being said, many modern fireplaces direct heat out into the room while the wall directly above the fireplace remains at room temperature. In addition, if you are in a humid environment - such as the Southeastern U.S. - the cycle of drying that occurs when the fireplace is in use, following by the humidity of other times can also age the print more quickly. It's best to check for exposure to direct heat and humidity change before placing any photograph near a heat source such as a fireplace or heating vent.

After you have determine that it is safe enough to place a photograph over your fireplace, use the guidelines above to determine the best size image for your needs. Fireplaces come in different sizes but a common mantle size is about 6' wide. Remember that an image hung over a fireplace may be hung higher than if it were hung on a bare wall. This additional height will require the viewer to stand back a little more so as not to be looking too far up at the image. Of course, if the fireplace is in use, the viewer will want to stand back anyway! A good estimation of the viewing distance would be about 5 feet. A print sizes in the range of 24" x 30" up to 30" x 40" generally work well.