How to Light Art: Create the Perfect Place to Showcase Your New Artwork

Bringing home a new piece of art is a somewhat momentous occasion.


It takes time to decide which piece for which room, which colours best match the décor and even which form best compliments the era of the architecture. Once all these decisions have been settled and the chosen artwork crosses the threshold a new issue arises: how to use lighting to show off your new addition to its highest potential.


If you have ever been caught out by dingy restaurant lighting or fallen victim to extra bright sunlight while attempting to capture a photograph, you will understand that the right lighting is essential when trying to show a subject at its best.


There are many potential pitfalls when it comes to lighting a piece of art, be it sculpture, oil painting or photographic print. Unfortunately, there is no magical one-size-fits-all rule that will count for each and every creation but there are a number of easy steps to take to make sure you are not doing your beloved new artwork a disservice, but there are tips you can follow to ensure you find the right light for the right piece.


Firstly, consider the type of piece you are lighting. Anything framed by glass or sculptures made or finished with something reflective will need to have the angle of the light adjusted to reduce glare. Paintings such as oils or sculptures with a textured surface will cast shadows when lit from certain angles. This may seem like a disadvantage but try aiming the light from a few different directions as shadow can create depth and drama which will add to the overall experience of the piece.


A second thing to note is the type of light. Although it may seem surprising when talking about lighting art, it is important to try and avoid natural light. Constant, direct exposure to strong natural sunlight will cause paintings to fade. The UV and infrared light will damage the piece over time. Halogen light can also damage art. Think of a magnifying glass directing sunlight onto an unsuspecting leaf, soon enough the leaf would discolour and eventually burn. This is the same for paintings having a halogen bulb directed closely at one section. This can be avoided simply by switching to LED bulbs as they do not emit UV and produce drastically less heat than their halogen counterpart.


So, now position, style of artwork and type of light has all been considered there is one more thing to think about, lighting fixture.


Celiing spot/accent lights


Already very popular in modern homes, spotlights are great for highlighting art as they are recessed or mounted on the surface of the ceiling to make the artwork, not the light source, the focus. As a rule of thumb for wall hung paintings, Lighting designer Doug Russell of Lighting Workshop says ceiling-mounted lights should be placed so that the light hits the middle of the artwork when the fixture is adjusted to a 30-degree angle. This will avoid casting long shadows by pointing downwards over the piece or reflective glare from pointing directly toward it.


Track lights


No, not the bulky office dwelling creatures of yesteryear. Track lighting has been reborn. Now cleaner and simpler, minimalist tracks share all the positives of ceiling mounted lights but also offer better flexibility. They are much easier to install, and cause less upheaval if a piece of art is moved around the room as the lamps can be simply repositioned without having to carve a new hole in the ceiling. The only downside may be that they are more obvious in the room than a spotlight.


Picture lights


If punching holes or attaching tracks to the ceiling isn’t an option, perhaps due to living in a rented or listed building, picture lights can closely highlight a piece of art and also add to the look of the room as they themselves become a decorative feature. These light sources an be mounted to the frame of the painting and use very low wattage bulbs to avoid damaging the piece. Russell says, “It provides a sense of intimacy with a piece of art and invites you to stand close for a look.” Although they do not require holes in the ceiling, picture lights still need power through cords which can be unsightly, this is something to keep in mind when considering placement.