How to Create a Gallery Wall
- Originally posted February 2017
Gallery walls are a great way to tie spaces together, add a statement to an otherwise boring wall, and of course, to display items that you care about. However, they aren’t easy to build and there are so many different configuration options. This post will walk through some of the steps we took to create our 17-item, asymmetrical gallery wall and we’ll post links to the specific frames and pieces we used in case you want to replicate it for yourself.
Pick Your Wall
It may sound obvious, but picking the wall you want to use for your gallery is a very important step. You want to make sure it’s large enough to accommodate the number of items you want to display, ensure the ceiling height is appropriate for what you want to display, and make sure there is enough space around the gallery so that other pieces / corners / etc won’t take away from the gallery.
The wall we chose, for example, is directly between our TV and our kitchen in an otherwise unused space. The wall is full height, but we imagine the possibility of someday purchasing some piece of furniture to sit underneath this gallery. With that in mind, we wanted to pick a large wall, with room for over a dozen items.
Note: some walls have limitations. A brick wall, for example will have inherent restrictions on where you’ll be able to add nails. You’ll want to preserve the integrity of your brick by only drilling into the grout. That’s not to say you can’t have a gallery wall on brick, you’ll just need to do some extra careful planning when measuring for your layout.
Pick Your Items to Display
Our gallery wall is made up of various types of items: photographs, maps, statues, paintings, and a mirror. A gallery wall can (and should) be whatever you want it to be. If you have particular items you know you want to include, it’s best to start with those pieces and build the framework for your gallery around it. We knew we wanted to display at least a few photos, our 2 maps, and a cool ornate mirror. We had some specific photos in mind, some portrait, some landscape, but we didn’t worry about size yet. We wrote a list of all of these items to keep track of them for the next step.
For reference, the items we knew we wanted to include that were already in frames were:
- the map of the DC subway system
- the map of Senegal
- the painting of a hillside in Italy
- some sort of gold ornate frame that we did not own yet
Things like clocks, mirrors, and even shelves can be worked into gallery walls with careful planning. They work best with abstract walls that have a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors.
You may have noticed, we also have an abstract sculptural piece on our gallery wall. We didn’t realize we wanted this piece until we found a perfect little open spot on the wall once we had started hanging frames. We chose to add a little depth to our gallery by adding some sort of stag head. We looked for a while online to see if we could find anything small enough, but to no avail. Then we remembered that our friend creates super cool freehand 3D printed art and it was a no brainer. She made our abstract stag head for us with the guidance of “we’d like it to be white and gold and this big”. She did an awesome job and we love our stag.
Order a Variety of Frames
This is where we took the biggest chance. We knew we wanted to have over a dozen items and we had 4 to begin with. The 3 items that were already in frames were all in black, chunky frames, but none of them matched. They had different widths and depths and one thing we knew was we wanted to lighten up the wall. We did not want all black chunky frames, and we knew the mirror we wanted would be gold and ornate in some way. For the other frames, we made a conscious decision to find lighter, thinner frame styles with varying levels of decoration.
We ordered a variety of frames in various sizes and styles that would offer us enough flexibility in creating our gallery. The bulk of the frames we bought were a simple, thin, metallic silver modern frame in various sizes, but we also bought some ornate gold and ornate black frames to help tie our wall together. The sizes we looked for were below:
- 4 x 6
- 6 x 8
- 4 x 5
- 5 x 7
- 3.5 x 5
- 4 x 12 (for panoramas)
- 2 x 2
As we made our frame purchases, we had a very basic idea of the photos / items we would put in each frame, but you definitely do not have to have this completely thought through just yet. Amazon, especially, is so easy to send returns back, that we were pretty liberal with our frame purchases. I’ve included links to all of the frames we used at the end of this article.
For reference, we purchased about a half dozen frames in the first wave of frame buying and added additional frames over the next week or two as we played around with the layout and found that we wanted to fill some gaps or add to the overall shape of the gallery.
Play with Layout
To help visualize our work in progress, we pulled together all of the items we either had or were waiting for, using newspaper and other household items as temporary placeholders (we used a plastic bowl for the mirror we were waiting on). While you wait for all of your frames to arrive, cut out newspaper pieces in the same sizes of items you’ll be receiving.
Then place all of the items / placeholders on the ground and start arranging them in various shapes. We knew we wanted some sort of asymmetrical shape, and started playing around with the pieces we had by moving them around on the ground and snapping photos of our progress. We ended up with a swoosh shape that had two “heavy” spots visually, one on the bottom left and one on the top left.
There are tons of ways you can lay your gallery out. Some options we like are below, but definitely play around with it and see how they feel to you.
Once we had our two anchor points locked down, we placed some smaller frames around those two spots to help build out the overall shape. Then we moved some specific pieces around, which much to our surprise made a huge difference in the overall feel of the wall. We found, for example, that we liked the way the panorama jutted out on one side, so we placed that on the far right.
Create Newspaper Proofs
Once we had an arrangement that we liked, we cut out newspaper clippings for all of the items we had, so that we could tape them onto the wall itself. This allows you to play around with exact placement, height, width, and spacing without any holes. We suggest leaving the newspaper up on the wall for at least one or two days so you can get the feel for how the gallery will look in different light (while not exact) and will help you see if you need to make any changes.
Using blue painters tape worked for us since we had it on hand and isn’t overly sticky. We also put sticky notes on each piece of newspaper describing what it was. For example, “gold mirror”, “black ornate”, “thin silver”, etc. This helped us avoid putting all of the gold frames too close together, for example. If we found that there was a clump of a particular type of frame, we would either swap it with something else, or order a different frame type on Amazon.
We also found that while the newspaper was up, there were a few gaps that we wanted to fill with additional frames, so we purchased additional frames. In our first attempt with the newspaper on the wall, our gallery didn’t have as much of a “swoosh” as we had hoped. We decided to add one or two pieces on the bottom left under the mirror to help us achieve that shape and balance out the rest of our gallery. We also noticed after the newspaper was up that we had a lot of the same sized frame (4 x 6) so we made sure to purchase 2–3 smaller frames and one larger frame to give us a good variety.
Match Your Photos to Frames
Now for the fun part! You already have some anchors that have set sizes. If you’re using photos for you wall you have some flexibility as to what photo goes where. Which photos do you want to be most prominent on your wall? Plan to use those photos in the larger frames and less prominent photos in the smaller frames. We used sticky notes on top of the frames / newspaper to try to better image what went where.
To be honest, we did not pay too much attention to color or content of our photos and how they were arranged until closer to the end of this step. Once you have a basic idea of which photos go where, you can evaluate the content to make sure you don’t have too many clumps of color, content, or composition.
For example, we have two very blue nature photos (both portrait, one of a mountain / sky / moon and another of snow covered trees) and we deliberately chose to place them relatively far apart. The space between those photos pulls the user’s eye to all of the photos and items between them, but is enough to pull your eye back in and around once it reaches the edge of the gallery.
In addition, our two main anchors both had large amounts of white space and chunky black frames. We chose to put these two items relatively far apart so as to avoid any monotony in any one section of the gallery wall.
Print Your Photos
We’re almost there! The hardest part is over. From this point on, all we’re really doing is tweaking the exact placement of our items. While not all of the items you may have chosen to display may be photos, there’s a good chance you will have at least a few. We did a lot of research, and found the easiest and most cost effective way to print our photos was through the CVS photo printing tool online. However, CVS had its limitations. We were able to get the majority of our photos printed at CVS, but some of the specialty sizes were not available.
The alternative printing company we used for those tricky sizes was: https://www.mpix.com/. But even that was not perfect. We ended up having to make a few manual cuts to our photos based on the frame sizes, but in the end everything came together very nicely.
For basic photo editing, you can use programs like Preview on Macs, but as I am a software designer, I chose to use Sketch. Sketch is another topic in itself, but if you have questions, feel free to reach out!
Hang Your Pieces
Last step! Once your frames start arriving and you have your layout and photos picked, you can begin hanging your pieces on the wall. In our case, some of the frames we ordered had a frame stand on them, which made it impossible to hang flat on the wall. We used a combination of screwdrivers, knives, and brute force to pull the stand off of the frame. It wasn’t easy, but was doable. You basically wedge something thin between the circular piece on the frame and work your way around plying it up and off.
Depending on the weight, backing, and size of your frames, you can use a basic nail or the sticky 3M hangers. We used a combination of both. We find that lighter frames tend to be easier to hang with the 3M strips because they will sit flat on the wall, as opposed to using a nail on such light frames that may make the top stick out more than the bottom.
To begin hanging, pick the newspaper placeholder off the wall carefully keeping an eye (or better yet, a finger) on the spot. Depending on which hanging method you use, you’ll need to change the height of the nail / 3M strip accordingly. As you start to put pieces up on the wall, see how things begin to feel. It was at this stage in our process that we noticed a flaw in our original design. We had wanted to replace one larger frame with excess space around it with two smaller items. We ordered another 2 smaller frames, one of which ended up on the wall. We put the one frame up and at this point decided we wanted to introduce the stag head sculpture below it.
Go with the flow! See how things feel and don’t be afraid to start hanging and moving things around. The last step is simply to make sure all of your pieces are hung level.
And now you’re finished! Sit back and enjoy your creation for years to come!
Quick Frame Guide
To help you easily recreate a mix and match gallery wall, I’ve included links to the frames we used on our wall below!
Thin silver plated frame (small)
Thin silver plated frame (medium)
And finally, Command strips! You’ll need them to hang your frames. Using these helps keep the frames flat against the wall to create a nice clean look. For some of the frames above, we had to manually remove the frame stand so that the frame would sit closer to the wall. We did this with a screw driver (used for leverage) and muscle!