Home Hacks

Frame it with Paint

November  8, 2017

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A picture frame can serve a practical purpose: to preserve value by protecting a delicate piece from environmental threats like light, moisture, dirt and oil. Just as often, though, the frame is a way to communicate value. A well-framed piece is in short and silent conversation with the viewer. The color contrast against the wall flags you down (“hey you!”); the complement between artwork and frame encourages inspection (“look at me!”); and the existence of a frame announces importance, inviting you to consider the piece in context (“I matter enough to merit a frame.”)

If you're a serial renter or don't stay in one home for long—or simply fear the commitment of traditional framing—you can spark this dialogue without a hammer and nail. You can build a removable, reconfigurable gallery wall by using paintable contact paper to highlight each piece.

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After scoring a rosewood and teak secretary for a song at an online auction, I was searching for artwork that would coax out the veneer’s tonal range. The idea for a vignette formed when an artist I adore and avidly follow on Instagram, Richard Haines, posted that he had released a zine of figurative sketches. His tawny, black, white and gray drawings of men—while imminently contemporary in subject—often remind me of classic photographs in how they are rendered. So to build out my gallery wall, I visited a local thrift shop to sift through bins of neighborhood photographs in sepia and grayscale, settling on a photograph of my Brooklyn street from 1928 and a snapshot of a serviceman. (I wish I could say the serviceman was a relative. He’s not, but I love how his hair and posture mirror the sketch. He is looking forward, while Haines’s model is looking backwards, as if peering back in time at his neighbor.)

With my trio of artwork on hand for reference, I selected three paint colors I could layer to create a distinct “frame” for each piece: Behr’s Milk Paint (the off-white), Creek Bend (the gray), and Natural Bark (the brown). The key to the effect pictured is to balance consistency and variation. For consistency, each frame is sized in increments of 1/2 inch and every frame pulls one color from each of the others. For variation, I cut frames of various thickness, mixed up the use and order of the colors, and layered them in three different ways: one with a single border, one with a double overlapping border, and one with a double concentric border.

To create your own removable and reconfigurable gallery wall, you’ll need:


You can apply this technique to any medium you like, so long as the piece is lightweight. Use a sketch, a watercolor, photograph, a postcard, a map, a page from a book, sheet music, a handwritten note, a thin textile, etc. Get creative!

Paintable contact paper

If you’re comfortable painting directly onto your wall, you can skip this! Just be sure to use painter’s tape for crisp edges, and a template or architect’s triangle to keep your corners a sharp 90 degrees.

1-3 paint colors

I like to select my colors from within the piece (imagine that you’re manually replicating the dropper function in Photoshop!), aiming to draw out more subtle tones, and avoiding colors that could overpower the artwork. If your frames are small, like mine, you can get away with purchasing sample tins to save money and reduce leftover paint.

I used Behr Marquee in an eggshell finish in three colors: Milk Paint, Creeks Bend and Natural Bark.

A simple and elegant way to make artwork sing. Photo by Mark Weinberg

A ruler or measuring tape

Paper cutter, or X-ACTO knife and straight edge

If your contact paper is small enough to fit on a paper cutter, this is the swiftest method of cutting it. If not, pair an X-ACTO knife with a straight edge, aligning the factory edge of the contact paper and the straight edge with the top of something square to keep your angles 90 degrees as you cut.

Command poster strips, adhesive putty or removable mounting squares

The idea here is to use something strong enough to adhere the artwork to the contact paper, but gentle enough that it won’t damage the artwork if you want to remove it. I used a combination of 3M’s Scotch Mounting Putty and Command Poster Strips.

Painting supplies

A paintbrush, foam brush or mini foam roller, like Wooster’s 4” paint roller. If you use a roller, a paint tray. Sandpaper or a sanding sponge, like 3M’s fine grit sanding sponge, and clean, dry wiping cloth. A dropcloth or protective paper to keep your floors clean.

The instructions are simple: Measure your artwork, determine a border color and size, cut and paint your border, let it dry, and then attach the contact paper to the wall according to the paper’s instructions. (On this last step, use tension and a firm, flat palm to spread the paper evenly and smooth out air bubbles. Using a straight edge that’s too sharp could scratch the paint. If your piece of contact paper is large, enlist a friend to help hold the paper taut while you press it to the wall.) Once your borders are arranged how you’d like them, slap a removable adhesive on the back and center it on the border.

Step back and enjoy. Remount and reconfigure as often as your lifestyle (or disposition) requires!

With a few tools and a bit of inspiration, your home (whether house, apartment, or room) can feel like, well, a home. We've partnered with The Home Depot to bring you DIY home renovation tips, tricks, and hacks so you can make your home the home of your dreams.

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An indoor and outdoor enthusiast. Happiest cooking at home with a podcast on, or hiking towards a campfire meal. Believes the best design is simple and approachable. (And thinks DIYs should be too!)