Deep dive into how to make a gallery wall and framing

I’ve been doing a deep dive into making a gallery art wall and there’s more to it than I’ve seen on YouTube. Sorting out the issues that crop up ahead of printing and framing will save many decisions, time and money. This is a long post but worth it.

It starts with a few questions.

What feeling do I want the art wall to evoke? Calm, laughter, a good memory, energy, the cool summer breeze on a beach (if you’re anywhere but Australia), the coolness of a snowy scene, the smell of the pure air and power of a beautiful waterfall or mystery in an image you want people to look closer at to figure out what it is. I always thought I’d have family photos on a wall at some stage but that never happened and now I’m excited to have landscapes on the walls. I love prints of snow, waterfalls, Canada and Europe so that’s what I’m going for.

How much space do I have to work with? A wall, a shelf, above a bed or couch?

Do I want the photos to all be square, portrait, landscape or both? Do I want a round one in the mix? I found trying to get a collection of three photos for each frame size together was hard and that two would be landscape and one be portrait even though I want all of them to be the same orientation. Ugh. Note to self: when taking photos, take landscape and portrait orientations in case I want to use them in a gallery wall.

Do I want the frames to be the same, in different sizes or colours? Like I said in a previous post, having all black frames with white mats and black and white photos works for me on this project but I’m going to have sets of 3 in different sizes for different rooms (but not overdo the artwork in the house). I do have some colour prints in large frames with black mats for feature areas. I want to have options and been having fun manipulating photos in Photoshop. If I was to do a wall with different sized frames, I think I’d keep them within a rectangle. It keeps them neat around the edge but the different sizes are having a party on the inside. Also think about how far apart the frames will be as too far apart and the eye will focus on the negative space between the frames, too close together and the eye will look away to rest.

I started with one photo, well about 1/6th of a photo. I used my basic Photoshop skills on a photo my son took in Europe a few years ago. I loved this stone carving from the Berlin Cathedral (I think) and hoped I could do something with it.

Original and finished artwork. If I saw this on the wall in a snazzy hotel, I wouldn’t think it was out of place!

I want to frame the piece and am going for the “timeless” decor style. The white, black, neutrals, wood, metal, texture and plants with a bit of everything from a little rustic to modern that’s popular at the moment. I ask each print if it will fit in with the style I’m wanting.

I think this piece will stand the test of time because:

  • it’s based on a stone carving from a cathedral
  • it’s got an interesting and unexpected curve to give it movement
  • there’s lots of depth with shadows and highlights
  • it’s got good contrast
  • it’s been turned into a watercolour so it has an updated feel to it
  • it’s busy but there’s lots of negative space around it to balance it out
  • it’s in black and white which it timeless and is popular at the moment
  • my plan is to do black frames with white mats for consistency

Skewing and alignment

I aligned 2-3 edges to a grid to keep it straight so it’s not crooked when framed. If the curve was more pronounced I might only straighten one side to keep the movement flowing through the piece. This was done by skewing the photo in Photoshop where you can pull out or squish one corner at a time to get the angles you want. The top part can be skinnier than the bottom so it looks like it’s further away from you.

Orientation of the art

I like to get all I can out of any design so I also reversed the image and rotated them into landscape settings as well. At this point I couldn’t pick which one I liked the best. Each had something special about it because of the light source in the original photo. I think it’s best to get prints in every orientation. There’s no writing or things in there that have to go a certain orientation like grass or the sky. Apart from choosing a landscape or portrait setting, the piece could be set on the left, right, top or bottom of other artwork or furniture.

If I was to do a gallery wall, I might be doing all portrait or all landscape orientations so one of these might suit the arrangement.

The side and top edges were straightened but the curve is still intact. The amount of shadow also contributes to the accenting the curve.

I found in the landscape orientation that the larger end on the left seemed to have more curve to it. Because it looked so good, I enlarged it even more. As these versions looked like they were closer to the viewer, it may like to have less negative space around the outside than the portrait version.

There’s a lot more depth to it.

In a piece like this one, you may not notice a line or spot that’s annoying in the landscape version that’s annoying in the portrait version. I cleaned up several areas in both that I hadn’t noticed like that line on the right side of the original photo.

Once you’ve got a general feel for the piece, is it possible to crop it down to a detail of it for greater impact? In this photo of Bendigo, I found I liked the cropped version better and skewed it a bit to emphasize the clock tower.

Which do you like better and which one is more effective? I haven’t changed the voice of the photo but had to ask myself how much negative space (the sky) did I want in the piece? The clock becomes a more prominent focal point.

Negative space

Speaking of negative space…that’s the empty space in a photo. Photos of something like the side of a building that fills the frame creates a lot of impact but…if all the photos have little to no empty space, you’ll have to look away for somewhere to rest your eyes. A balance for any artwork is about 1/3 empty or negative space to 2/3 image. Does that mean you can’t have a photo with little negative space? No, it just means there usually needs to be a balance. Some photos have 2/3 negative space to 1/3 image. That will create a lot of calm. You also may have a busy room or the focal point is somewhere else in the room so the photos take a back seat to it. If you have say three photos working together, one may be busy filling the frame and the other two have more negative space.

Focal point or points

A focal point is where you want the eye to focus. Usually it’s about 1/3 from the edge of any side of the photo. Instead of using a whole plant in the picture, you may want to single out one flower instead. The question you need to ask is where is the eye focusing on in this photo. Try turning your head away from the image and quickly turning it back. Your eye will probably go to the centre of image and then to the focal point. If you can’t find that point, what is your eye drawn to? Is that what you want people to see? Is your eye only drawn to an area of sharp contrast e.g. a block of black next to a block of white?

If you’re doing a gallery wall, do several photos work together to create the focal point? Does the eye move smoothly between them, or have a line or shape to follow between them?

If you’re doing multiple images of buildings, also look at the perspective of each so the angles won’t clash. Skewing the buildings can help. It’s obviously difficult to get the angles of different buildings to work together when you’re taking the photos…in different cities…on different days/years unless you’re pretty awesome or take photos from many angles hoping some will match up with others.

Top: The first photo was placed on the left because you’re looking left, the centre photo is looking up and you’re looking right at Salzburg. I had to skew the image of Bath on the left and Salzburg as the buildings were on different angles. Bottom: The angles form a zigzag.

Shadows, highlights, contrast, photos taken at a distance or up close, angles, lines and curves play important roles in black and white photos as colour plays no part in the effect. Always ask the photo what is the impact or focal effect of the image.

If I was to cut up a photo to create a triptych I’d also be looking at cutting out enough so the image cuts line up without affecting the image. This would mean measuring the side of the mat (and leaving enough of the photo that it’s under the edge of the mat), the width of the edge of the frame and how much wall will be between the frames.

See how the curves line up perfectly? This would take some planning but I think the result is worth the effort.

Using the shadows and highlights to full effect

Take into consideration where any light source in the room is coming from, this will help you choose the right version of the art. If the artwork has the light source coming from top left as shown here, I wouldn’t want the room’s lighting to be coming from the right. I’d also have the art hanging on the right of the light source.

If the piece is hanging above and to the right of a lamp on a console, I’d use this next version of the art with the shadows above. The lamp light will emphasize the shadows and highlights in the piece. You’ll notice I also skewed the top right corner more than the other options to emphasize the fact you’re looking up at the piece. Normally your artwork is at eye height but in a gallery wall the centre of the artwork should be about eye height so if this one is the top right photo, it’ll be above your eye height.

This one had a little bit of colour added back into it to give that metallic tone. The photo is deliberately upside down (it was hanging down from the crown molding on the wall) so if I put a lamp underneath it, it enhances the effect of the shadows and highlights in the photo. I could also hang it up the other way and put a gallery light above it so the shadows and highlights work. I’m also thinking if it was on a darker part of a wall, it might look like there’s a hidden light source somewhere. Look forward to testing that theory at some point.

Choose the frame and mat sizes before printing

Measure up the space, whether it be part of a shelf that the piece will live on, or on a wall. If it’s going to be hung on a wall above a console or couch, it should be about two-thirds of the length of the furniture. If hanging multiple frames, together they should take up about that much space. If you’ve got other items to go in the vignette on a console, like a vase or books, take that into account when choosing the frame size so they all play together nicely.

Look through the photos on the computer to see what the popular height to width ratios are. Old school photos are based on a 4:3 ratio where as photos on the mobile are taller and skinnier and the originals may have been cropped and the original has been deleted. This is where some photos might have to be widened or lengthened to fit the ratio you’re using. I’ve decided mainly on a 1:1, 1:2, 1:3, 4:3 and 4:5 ratios for the widths and heights and got the mats and frames to suit them. From now on if I want to change out a photo, I just have to check the ratio, size and what size I had the former photo printed at the store and I’m good to go.

I used to think photos didn’t need a mat and it’ll save money. Then I had photos getting waves in them and a little moisture under the glass. Ugh. The mat separates the photo from the glass and holds it in place. Use linen tape in a T hinge to attach the photo to the foam core board. There’s plenty of YouTube videos online on this method. The mat is there to show off your photo and says this photo takes pride of place in my home. Some people at gallery lights above the frame to highlight it.

I had to get some custom mats made for most of my frames but that’s what they needed. We don’t have access to a lot of frames with mats around here and postage for something containing glass would be expensive and risky.

Quick tips: So the frames don’t easily tilt instead of being straight, try a picture hook with two hooks instead of one, or use two separate hooks. Use hooks that support the weight of the frame. Nowadays they can hold up to 25kg or more. Also pop a little piece of adhesive felt (like you put on the bottom of furniture so it doesn’t scratch the floor) on the back side corners of the frame. This will allow airflow behind the frame to reduce the risk of moisture entering the frame.

If you don’t want to get a custom frame, try a gallery wall frame with a mat that has cutouts for several photos but substitute that mat for a mat with a single cutout. This may have to be custom made or ordered off the internet. The other thing to decide on is if you want acrylic or glass in the frame. Glass can tint the image and mat a little green and acrylic is safer and much lighter weight on the wall. Archival glass or acrylic is worth it for a valuable image or if the frame will be in sunlight that can fade the print.

Looking past the mat to see the potential in the size of frame.

I like to make the photo in Photoshop the same size as it’s going to be printed so hopefully there won’t be any pixilation. Because it’s going in a frame with a mat, I need some extra space around the edges (about 1/2″ or 1cm) so I don’t take the photo right to the edge. With the stone carving image, I’ll also be fading out the shadows around the edges so there’s not going to be a strong line of shadow right up against the mat that’ll be distracting. I’m going to ask for a mat that matches the colour of the photo so it looks like it’s floating in the frame.

My advice is to look at the ratio of the length and width of the frame, mat and photo. Your photo maybe twice as long as the height so you might think the frame should have a 2:1 ratio. Warning! If your frame has a 10″ x 20″ opening, and you have a 6″ x 12″ photo the sides of the mat have to be 2″ wide and the top and bottom sides will be 4″ wide. But if you want a 2″ mat around each side, the space for the photo will be 6″ x 16″.

Left: Lots of mats keep the ratio the same with wider tops and bottoms. I really don’t think it fools the eye saying the ratio between frame and photo are the same but that’s me. Right: I like my mats to have around equal measurements horizontally and vertically. That’s personal preference.

I use a ratio calculator and put the frame size, the mat size and photo size into my Illustrator program to see what it will look like before ordering the mat and photo.

Can you stretch the photo a little to fit that opening? Maybe, if it’s a photo of a person, they won’t want to be stretched out in the photo. If it’s a photo of a famous building, people will know if it’s been distorted.

If you want more mat on the top and bottom than the sides, take that into consideration too. Alter the size of the artwork in the computer as it may need to be stretched out a little if it’s just under or over that ratio. You’ll notice the centre circle in the stone carving image is a little different in each version and I’ve paid attention to it when re-sizing.

If the frame and mat size doesn’t house a standard photo size, try ordering the photo in a larger size and cutting it down to fit, change the outer size of the piece to suit the printing, but the size of the image should suit the mat cutout plus a little around the edge to stick the photo in place. Trim off the excess before framing. This next photo was made to fit the 10″ x 20″ frame with the 2″ mat from the last diagram. The inner opening where the photo is was 6″ x 16″ and I had to use the standard 8″ x 24″ photo size at the printer and crop it. I used the rectangles as a guide but erased them before printing the photo.

Keep a note of what size the photo will be printed, what frame it’s going in especially if you’re printing several photos at once. I put the photo size in the file name so I don’t forget.

Value and hues

Not all black and white prints are equal. Try getting all the prints that will be grouped together printed at the same time on the same printer. The undertones of some blacks and grey may be purple, pink or brown. This is noticeable if one print, or colour in the room has a different undertone to a print. It could make the print look tinted. Don’t get me wrong, there needs to be subtle changes in tones to make life interesting with a lot of things, I’m just saying analyse the colours to see if they work together to give you the look you’re after. Research how to make black and white photo tones their best. I think they come out better when there’s warm tones in the original photo. Try using the filters on your phone or photo editing program. It might take a few attempts at the printer to get the right tones and value (some printers need the colours to be e.g. a little cooler, more saturated and lighter to equal the settings on your monitor). Screens are back lit, photos are not.

Look at the specifications the printer uses for best results when making up the print. sRBG files which use internet colour codes might be better than a file in CYMK. sRBG apparently gives a truer representation of the colours you used.

If you’re using a photo or photos with lots of colours, be aware of colour mixing. Stand back and look at the photos at the distance they’ll be viewed at to see if the colours mix. It’s like mixing a rainbow of paint together where the colours will become one murky brown. The colourful effect will be lost.

Do you want a slight hint of colour in the photo? Will all the photos in the group be getting a colour too? If so, I’d finalise the layout of the art if you want the colours in the right areas. You may like to have warmer colours up the top transitioning to cooler colours on the bottom row.

Same thing with value (lights and darks). If three photos hanging together all have the same amount of lights, darks and medium tones, they would look boring together. Try having the outer two pieces be darker and the centre one lighter. Some gallery walls have the lighter pieces up the top transitioning to the darker ones on the bottom so they work together.

Do these work together? I’m not so sure. They show how darks and lights work together, they all have the same topic but they all fill the frame so there’s no negative space and are all on different angles. Putting a few photos together that will work in harmony can be more difficult than first thought. I like to put the group into Photoshop first to see if they need any adjustments so they work together. I made the outer two darker and the middle one lighter as they were all the same medium tones to start off with.

When choosing your photos, ask them if they work well together, how many photos are to be used, do any need altering in an editing program and what sizes should they be? They might have a smaller file size and be blurry when enlarged. I found I could turn slightly blurred or mediocre photos into watercolour prints and enlarge them without a problem. For my gallery wall, I’m going with the less is more scenario so each photo gets it’s moment to shine.

Have fun creating a gallery wall or piece of framed art, it can be a lot of logistics but the end results are rewarding.

Happy new year,


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