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How to choose artwork

Worried about choosing artwork for your space? We demystify the process with advice from East Coast experts.

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Off the walls: tips on picking the best art for you and your space.

For many homeowners, the home décor process goes something like this: you look at the space and think about what furniture you want, you compare prices, you shop around and you get the most attractive, high-quality pieces you can afford. You find a few matching lamps, vases and décor items. Next, you hang the de rigeur photos of family. And then, if you have a bare wall, you cast your thoughts to art.

Choosing artwork isn’t quite so straightforward. If you’re like most people, you’ll look for something that fills the space nicely and more or less matches the room’s colour scheme. But taking that approach can leave you with dull, uninspiring artwork.

“People struggle with colour,” says Matt LeBlanc, an abstract artist based in Dieppe, New Brunswick. “The style should reflect your personality. Don’t try to match your art with your paint and furniture. Art should jump out and your décor is going to change over time anyway.”

LeBlanc creates custom oil and acrylic paintings in a contemporary abstract style for clients around the world. He doesn’t create most of his pieces until he’s talked to clients, seen the space where they’ll display the art and gotten a sense of their personal tastes. “About 90 per cent of my clients buy art because they have a wall to fill,” he says. “What I like is to work with the people who may not know what they want but are open to trying something different.”

Jacques Hurtubise

When choosing art for your space, don’t worry about matching colours and styles. Whether it’s a complementary or a bold counterpoint, a well crafted work of art—such as this creations from Jacques Hurtubise—will always elevate a room’s style.

“Buy art for the emotional reaction it causes.”

As LeBlanc’s clients discover, it’s not enough to just fill an empty wall. When they open themselves up to art’s possibilities, they suddenly create unique stylish spaces that reflect their personal aesthetics.

Start with the art. You don’t need to budget a fortune but don’t treat it as an afterthought. Give it the same care and consideration that you give a room’s other features. “Budget an amount for art and plan for it but buy art for the emotional reaction it causes,” says Judith Mackin, an interior designer in Saint John, New Brunswick. “I have over 500 pieces and I never buy one for the investment value or because I have a gap to fill. I just buy them because I like them and then I find a space for them.”

She urges people to educate themselves about the art available in their areas—visiting galleries, craft markets and stores specializing in local products. “You can easily go into a big-box store and spend $300 for a reproduction of some print that you’ve already seen in a bunch of different places,” she says. “Or you can buy a really unique piece of art for the same price and support talent in your community. A lot of artist-run centres like the Khyber in Halifax have regular art fundraisers. You can go to these things and get a beautiful piece for $100 to $200.”

Painting by Matt LeBlanc

Straight Shore Punt, by Ned Pratt

Egg tempura piece by William Forrestall of Studio 21 Fine Art in Halifax

Mix media. You can offset bolder artworks, like these vibrant paintings by Patricia Shattuck from Art 1274 Hollis in Halifax, with engaging black and white photography.

Most neophytes are looking for concrete rules to follow with art, telling them what pieces to place where. Unfortunately for them, few such rules exists. Rather, the best approach is a process of discovery and experimentation, until you find the look that reflects your personal taste and makes you happy. “You can go with a big empowering piece that really takes over the room or something small that blends in,” LeBlanc says. “You might like a few small pieces you can dress around.”

Don’t be afraid to mix media. Black-and-white photos and abstract paintings can work well together in the same room, even on the same wall. “You should definitely mix it up,” LeBlanc says. “I love to see people buy my work, but you probably don’t want your living room to be a Matt LeBlanc gallery.”

Frames open up a realm of aesthetic options as well. Today, you’ll find all manner of stylish frames—from contemporary clean metal designs to ornate retro-style wooden creations. Increasingly, frames of reclaimed and repurposed materials (rescued window frames, for example) are popular. And with the right frame, you can even take something that seems commonplace, such as a restaurant menu or kid’s doodle, and make it special. “It’s amazing what a beautiful silver frame can do for a child’s drawing,” Mackin says, “and it’s amazing what it can do for a child to see their drawing up there in that frame.”

“Support talent in your community. A lot of artist-run centres…have regular art fundraisers.”

When you’re hanging your art, you want to choose a spot where it’s well lit and visible. But remember, it’s your house—not a gallery—so every piece doesn’t require perfect lighting. “Lamps to highlight a painting drive me batty!” laughs Mackin. “I just don’t like the way it looks. It’s not natural for a house. I would never not hang something because of the lighting. If you really feel like it’s an issue, track lighting works OK but really, don’t worry too much about that.”

Resist the urge to pair art and furniture—if you pick pieces that speak to you, they’ll always work in the space. Interior designer Judith Mackin helped her client choose this vibrant painting by Raymond Martin (from Peter Buckland Gallery in Saint John, N.B.) for her office.

And remember, art isn’t just something you hang on the wall. “People overlook sculpture, pottery, wood carvings,” she says. “Art is more than just photos or paintings. A sculpture can do so much for a room. I’m seeing lots of pottery these days, which can be a good touch.”

Ultimately, it’s really pretty simple: ignore most of the rules you’ve heard, and just follow your tastes. Be patient and research, taking time to assemble a small collection of pieces you like. If you have art that expresses your spirit and makes you happy, the rest of your décor will work around it.