Displaying Three-Dimensional Art: Methods & Techniques

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  • 0:04 Three Dimensional Art
  • 1:08 3D Art: How It Should Be Seen
  • 1:50 3D Art: Relationship…
  • 3:14 3D Art: Positioning & Lighting
  • 4:30 3D Art: An Obstruction?
  • 5:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

What's the point in displaying a great work of art if it's hidden in shadows or placed too low for people to appreciate? Let's go over some points of art display and consider how three-dimensional art is meant to be seen.

Three-Dimensional Art

What's one of the biggest differences between a masterpiece of abstract art and a five-year-old's finger painting? One is mounted in a gallery, and the other is stuck to the refrigerator with a magnet. That's really it. In the world of art, display matters. Not only does the displaying of art give it value (a point emphasized by many 20th-century artists), but wrongly displaying even the greatest masterpieces can ruin them.

Imagine Michelangelo's David with his face enshrouded in shadows, or if a bronze statue of Caesar Augustus was situated so you were looking down on the emperor's hairline. Not quite the same effect, is it? Whether in a formal gallery or just in your home, great art can become unattractive if it's displayed improperly. This is especially true of three-dimensional art, which is art that exists in dimensions of height, width, and depth, and is even trickier to display well. It can take years of practice to master the art of display, but to get you started here are five questions to consider when exhibiting a great work of three-dimensional art.

3D Art: How It Should be Seen

The first thing we must consider with three-dimensional art is the way it's intended to be seen. An oil painting can only be viewed from one direction - the front - but that's not the case with a marble statue. Most three-dimensional art is meant to be seen from all sides.

Yes, we could view David from this angle, but is that what Michelangelo intended to be the focal point?

That being said, this doesn't mean that all sides are meant to be viewed equally. Most three-dimensional artists still create a focal point. Michelangelo's David, for example, can be seen from all sides, but you're really supposed to focus on the front, not the back (or backside). This is important to consider as you start planning your display. Do people need to be able to see all sides, and do they need equal amounts of space in order to do so?

3D Art: Relationship to the Viewer

The next question you need to consider is the relationship between art and viewer. Try this: find a pen or any commonplace object. Place it on a counter top and kneel down so that you're looking up at the pen. Now, stand up so that you're looking down on it. Does it look different? Three-dimensional art can be strongly impacted by its relationship to the viewer. Just imagine how much less heroic an equestrian statue of a knight would be if you were looking down on the rider, not up at him. Of course, some artists place their sculptures on the floor particularly because it subverts expectations. In general, however, the rule is that three-dimensional art should be displayed at eye level. Basically, this is the most direct way to engage the viewer with the art.

Is there an advantage to placing a statue like this above eye level? Are there disadvantages?

If a piece of art is small enough to fit within your field of vision, that's great, but what if it's not? Then you have to consider scale, the distance from which the artwork will be viewed, as well as which part to place at eye level. Will a portrait statue work better if the viewer is staring into its eyes, or its navel? Should a large sculpture (or even a work of architecture) always be seen up close, or is distance necessary in order to appreciate the entire composition? Frank Lloyd Wright himself once lamented the fact that skyscrapers were always built in cities; he thought they should be built in the country where you could see the entire building from top to bottom without obstruction.

3D Art: Positioning & Lighting

Once you've decided the appropriate placement of art, how do you get it there? Most sculptures are displayed on some sort of pedestal or plinth. This brings the composition up to eye level, but you must be careful in selecting the one that doesn't distract from the art. Of course, some people don't use pedestals at all, preferring niches and shelves within walls. These are more secure, but prevent people from viewing the artwork from all sides.

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