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Designing a Gallery Wall

Updated on August 28, 2012
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Gallery walls are a fantastic way to decorate in your house while displaying photographs or pieces of artwork that you love. They

  • allow you to display several of your favorite photos or art pieces instead of having to choose just one
  • can nicely fill a large empty space on your wall
  • can fit in just about any budget

I recently created a gallery wall for my living room. In this article, I will give my advice and tips for designing a gallery wall of your own.

Choosing Your Gallery Wall Space

The first thing to consider when designing your gallery wall is to decide where it will be. This can be anywhere that you have an empty space that you want to fill. However, some areas will be easier to work with than others. You should ask yourself these questions as you consider your space:

  • What size of gallery can I create? You can't make your gallery seven feet wide only have a 5 foot wide space. Get out a tape measure and get a rough idea of what your constraints will be.
  • What general shape will work for my gallery? Are you looking for a layout that is wider than it is tall, or taller than it is wide? If your gallery will be over stairs, it might be angled to match the slope of the staircase.
  • Will you have to design around other fixtures that are already on the wall? For example, if your gallery will be over a staircase, you may find yourself designing around banisters or rails.
  • Will your gallery space be on an otherwise-empty wall, or will there be furniture underneath it?

For my space, I chose a wall in the living room. The gallery was going to be placed above a couch that had end tables with lamps to either side of it. My gallery also needed to avoid interfering with an air duct vent on the wall. With these considerations in mind, I decided that I wanted my gallery to be about three feet tall and five feet wide. When centered on the wall, this size would leave enough room to avoid having the air duct vent encroach upon my design. It would also be high enough on the wall so that the pictures would not be obscured by the lamps.

Designing along lines gives structure to your layout.
Designing along lines gives structure to your layout. | Source

Finding Your Gallery Wall Style

Once you've chosen your space and have started thinking about your basic layout constraints, spend some thinking about the style of the layout. Do you like having all your pictures be the same size, or do you want to incorporate different sizes? Do you want all the pictures to hang neatly in a grid pattern, or do you prefer a more haphazard look? No one style is "right" or "wrong" -- it just depends on your personal style and preferences. If you're not sure what you like, look for images of galleries online and see what appeals to you. Pinterest is a good place to look; web searches may also yield some results.

I knew I wanted to work with different sizes of pictures, and I preferred a slightly more haphazard look. As I set out to create a gallery with this style, I got a piece of advice that I found very valuable: even if you're not creating a grid, design along lines. Try to make sure that at least one side of each picture is lined up with at least one side of at least one other picture in the gallery. To see what I mean, check out the sample gallery in the photo.

Frame Size Tip

As you're designing your layout, keep in mind that standard frame sizes refer to the size of the photo that will fit in the frame. This usually means that the inner dimensions of the frame will be the same size (or slightly smaller) as the quoted frame size. The size of the outer border of the frame will need to be added on to get the actual, exterior dimensions of the frame.

For example, a frame that is labeled as a 5" x 7" frame will fit a 5" x 7" photo. If the border of the frame is 1 inch thick all the way around, however, the frame will actually be closer to 7" x 9" in size. This could affect your layout, especially if you are planning to place your pictures close together.

You can also use different frame borders to add interest to your gallery wall. In my gallery, I used some picture frames with 2" borders, some frames with 1" borders, and some frames with almost no border at all.

My Gallery Wall Layout Model

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Arranging Your Gallery Wall Layout

Now you have your gallery wall space, a general idea of the shape that your overall gallery will take, and an idea of the style in which you want to hang the pictures.

The next task I would recommend is to very specifically design the layout that you want to use. This step can seem a little tedious, but it can save you money, effort, and a lot of frustration if you know exactly what you want before you buy frames or prints, and certainly before you start putting nails in the wall. There are generally three ways to approach the layout specifics:

  • Decide which photos or art pieces you want to display, and then decide how to lay them out on your wall.
  • Decide on a layout you like that fits your space, and choose photo or art pieces that fit the layout.
  • A combination of the two, i.e., choose a few photos or art pieces you want to display; design a layout that will feature those pieces but also includes additional pieces; choose more photos or art pieces to fill in the gaps.

For my gallery wall, I used the last approach. I had a few pieces that I knew I wanted to include -- although even then, I was flexible regarding the printed size of those pieces -- but mostly I was just interested in creating a layout that I liked.

To come up with my detailed layout, I started with a picture of a gallery wall that I had found on Pinterest. Sometimes you can find pictures of layouts that tell you exactly what picture frame sizes were used, but that wasn't true in this case. Even if I had been given the dimensions, they might have been too big or to small for my three foot by five foot space. So, I built a small model of the layout to find out for myself what frame sizes would work. I did this on my computer, using Microsoft Excel. I resized the cells on a worksheet until they were small squares. For scaling purposes, I considered each square to be a 1x1 square inch on my wall. Then I created rectangular shapes using the shape tool, being careful to make sure they were properly scaled -- i.e., to represent an 8x10 picture frame with a 1" border, I created a shape that took up 10 squares by 12 squares on my grid.

If you want to build a model like I did, but you don't have Microsoft Excel or some other software that you can use, then you can also do this on paper. Get a few sheets of engineering paper or other graph paper. Use one sheet as your canvas (or tape multiple sheets together, if you need a larger space), and then cut "picture frames" of the appropriate sizes from the other sheets. You may end up cutting out several picture frame models, only to find that the size you picked doesn't work and you have to cut new ones. Try to stay patient with the process! Arrange the frames to your liking, and once you're satisfied, tape or glue them down, or just trace them out on your canvas.

Selecting Your Gallery Wall Content

You have your layout; now you need to decide which photos or art pieces to put in your layout. If you designed your gallery wall using the first approach -- choosing your pieces and then designing the layout -- then you've already completed this step and you're done! Otherwise, you now have to figure out what to put in each frame of your layout. Here are some tips:

  • Maintain visual balance throughout your wall. For example, if you are using photographs of people, such as family photos, you might have a mix of individual shots (photos of just one person) and group shots (photos of the whole family). If so, then consider trying to spread the two types of pictures out so that you don't have all the group shots clustered in one place within your gallery.
  • Consider the colors you are using. Choose pictures with colors that complement each other as well as the decor in the room you are decorating.
  • If your layout calls for large pictures and you don't have a piece in the corresponding size, you can use a mat around a smaller picture to fill the space.

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