10 Ways to Fill Your Empty Walls

Nothing strikes me with horror like an empty wall. Perhaps that’s why I became a Victorian art historian— they loved clutter. However, I know many people who have next to nothing on their walls. Some of them are dedicated minimalists, and that’s their aesthetic. But others want to put something there, but are unsure. What if they pick the wrong thing and end up hating it? What if they can’t afford it? What if EVERYONE WILL JUDGE THEM? If that sounds familiar, this post is for you.

Below are ten ways you can put wonderful things onto your wall. I’m going to assume you have a limited budget—after all, if you could afford to pay thousands for a work of art, you could just walk into an auction house and have them advise you. 

I’m your cheaper alternative.

By the way, these tips cover just choosing the art. Framing and hanging will be discussed in my next posts, as they are both pretty hefty topics of their own. Also be advised that framing is often more expensive than the art itself. So you’ll have to take that into account on the budget front. But we’ll talk about that next time. Onto the art!

Family photos

One of several family photo walls in our apartment

Didn’t expect me to start with this one, eh? But what is more meaningful than images of people you love? Who, where and how many is up to you, but I think a house without family photos is a bit soulless. So hang ’em proudly. If you think your photos are looking a little dated, or grubby, then some reframing can work wonders. (More on that in the next post.) You can print photos onto ready-to-hang canvas or print directly from your photo roll on your phone. The technology for printing has advanced a crazy amount in the last decade, and you can take advantage of it. Wall mural of your dog? Totally do-able.

Don’t forget about those vintage photos. You can scan older photos, slides and negatives. Great Granny’s wedding day? Your Dad as a toddler? Scan those, and give them a place among the current family. It really adds a sense of time and happy memories to your collection.

My gorgeous grandmother, circa 1950.

Special mementos 

One of our wedding cards—too beautiful to go in the drawer!

Remember, you don’t only have to put images on your wall. How about your wedding invitation? Your prized all-star jersey? (Is that a thing?) Your degree? If it’s special to you, find a way to get it up there, so you can enjoy it every day.

Kid’s art

My daughter’s first painting. One of the most special things in my collection.

What combines art, sentimentality and family? The glorious paintings and drawings your kids give you nearly every day! If your fridge is cluttered with curling painted paper and scribbles, why not display it properly? Pick your favourites and hang them up. We’ll talk about a few ideas of how to do this in the framing post next week.

Antique or vintage* prints and drawings

A few original drawings I purchased from Somerset & Wood. I spent about $80AUD for four original 19th and 20th century drawings

*Antique = 100+ years old. Vintage = about 30+ years old.

Not all original art is costly, even if it’s quite old. Paintings, especially oil paintings tend to cost quite a bit, but you can get some amazing drawings or sketches for next to nothing.

Of course, not every place you buy these is the same. If you’re new to this, I’d avoid general auction sites like eBay and Gumtree. You never know what you’re getting there. Rather, find shops that specialise in original or printed works on paper, as they do some of the filtering for you. I recommend Somerset & Wood, who are very competitively priced and ship all over the world. Locally, many antique stores have works on paper. Do a little research and try to find a shop in your area. And if not, there’s always a rich trove online.

Once you’ve found a stash of drawings in your price range, how do you choose which one to buy? That’s easy- the one (or two, or five) you like the best! Don’t worry too much about falling in love instantly with a drawing (or any work of art, actually). Just liking it and thinking it would be a good fit in your home are pretty good indicators that you should buy it. Like all love, love for art grows with familiarity. So take a chance. (Especially if the price is right!)

Old Posters, adverts or other ephemera

From L to R: 1912 advertisements for hats and corsets, Parisian fashion plates from 1868, sheet music for One, Two, Button Your Shoe (when it was cool, I guess?!), French magazine 1939 Fashions for Summer, sheet music for Green Day’s Insomniac 1996, and comedic song I’ll Be Busy All Next Week from 1903.

You can find so many wonderful things in this category, and most of it is pretty inexpensive. From old sheet music covers (I found so many good ones in an antique shop in Kentucky years ago!), pages from newspapers or magazines, antique fashion plates or sewing pattern designs, to huge reproductions of 1890s alcohol advertising. There are many specialist sites for this kind of thing— here in Melbourne we have the Antique Print and Map Room, Vintage Posters Australia and Seba Prints. But if you want to play detective, try trolling through your local antique stores, or look online.

Beautiful examples from Vintage Posters Australia

By the way, in this category you can find small, medium and VERY large items. But you shouldn’t let size determine if you buy it or not (unless it is too big!). When we discuss framing and hanging, we’ll talk about how to use small artworks to make a big impact.

Student or amateur art

River Object, by MFA student Piers Greville, 2018, at the VCA Masters Exhibition.

Would you rather have a large and striking painting? Or perhaps one that is unique, and makes a statement? Go find the art students. They are talented, experimental, and need to build up a base of collectors. Art schools usually have yearly exhibitions of student work, and most of the time you can purchase the art as well.

Amateur art is also another possibility. Look for community art fairs, art festivals and the like. Remember, as long as you like something and you can afford it, take it home. Whether it’s “good” or not is completely irrelevant. So don’t judge by what others will think of the art, if YOU like it, that’s more than enough.

Paintings or drawings from auction houses

Upcoming auctions listed on Christies.com

Here’s where it gets serious. If you want to buy a beautiful, important work of art, and have from several hundred to a thousand(s?) to spend, get yourself to an auction house.

Not every art auction is a high profile one, and not every auction house deals in art worth hundreds of thousands, or millions. I’ve purchased a beautiful series of watercolours for £100 at an auction house, online. The advantage of an auction house is that you know exactly what you’re getting. They have done the homework for you, know the history of the object and can determine its value. You may be surprised how many lovely things are really cheap, just because nobody can identify the artist, the artist wasn’t important enough or even because that particular style of art is out of fashion.

So have a look. Check out an auction house local to you— in Melbourne we are spoilt for choice, but nearly anywhere you live there is bound to be one nearby. If you want to look at what the big names are doing, check out Sotheby’s, Christie’s or Bonhams.

Wallpaper or decals

A self-adhesive Victorian map of London. Now available at Walmart (?!)

Though this one is really more of a decorating tip, I mention it here because I love my huge map of London. It sticks onto the wall and peels off easily. I also have my dream wallpaper from Morris and Company, and that was a lot trickier to put up, but so worth it. (Top tip: have your dad and mom put it up. Pay them in wine and grandchild cuddles.)

Wallpaper is making a comeback, and it’s about time. It can really liven up your room! Unlike days of yore, we only put it on one wall now, instead of all of them, and it usually looks fabulous. Even if you’re renting, new peel and stick (a.k.a. self-adhesive) wallpapers or large decals can change the look of your room for cheap.

Remember, wallpaper isn’t just patterns and flowers anymore. How about maps? How about a chalkboard? Faux stone or brick? A mountain vista? The sky is the limit, literally.

Reproductions of your favourite art

A series of posters available from the Tate Gallery, London.

What if your favourite art is a bit pricey? What if you love Picasso, or Rembrandt, or Da Vinci? No worries — though you may have to wait for a museum visit to see the originals, you can buy beautiful reproductions of nearly all of your favourite art. Find out where the original painting lives then see if that museum or gallery sells a reproduction on its website. If not, try searching online.

Some things to remember when you buy a reproduction of an artwork:

  1. Quality varies, and the best quality is usually sold by the museum or gallery. Be careful when buying from third party sites—make sure the colours are true and the reproduction isn’t pixilated or grainy.
  2. The secret to reproductions looking good is all in the framing. So, though the poster will be pretty cheap, you can’t skimp on the framing, or it will look like something tacked up in a university student’s room. (More on framing next time.)
  3. Don’t be afraid to mix reproductions with other types of artwork on your walls, such as original work, ephemera or photographs. Reproductions look better with company, in my opinion! (More on this when we talk about hanging.)

Treasures you find while travelling

My Amsterdam treasure. Her eyes do NOT follow you around the room, Joel.

Finally, keep your eyes open when you are in new and exotic locations. Sometimes a work of art can be special not only because you love it, but because it reminds you of your travels. I picked up one of my favourite paintings in a little shop in Amsterdam. I think she was about 75 euros. (No frame and unknown artist = cheaper.) I love her, even though my husband thinks she’s a bit creepy. She looks like a strong woman to me, and that’s who I was learning to become during that trip to Amsterdam.

So, like the explorers of old, bring your treasures back.

I hope this post has given you some ideas and some confidence to go out and find lovely things to hang on your empty walls. Remember, you are doing this for yourself, so don’t worry about what anyone else will think. That will guarantee you have a unique and eclectic collection that reflects your tastes and personality.

Next time, as I’ve said several times before, we’ll go into the details of framing. Then after that, how to hang them on the wall. Until then, get out there and find some art!

One thought on “10 Ways to Fill Your Empty Walls

  1. My fiance and I are getting married soon, so we wanted tips on decorating our new house! I didn’t think about hanging mementos on the wall, but it would be cute to hang our invitations or something special from our wedding, so we can enjoy it every day! I’ll have to keep that in mind and find ways to remember our wedding in a unique way, thanks to this post!

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