How to Light Art Successfully


Whether in a showroom, gallery or home office, artwork needs proper lighting to make it stand out and enliven a space. In most cases, lighting art successfully will mean more than turning on the overhead light in a room. Each piece is unique and deserves its illumination to reflect that. Smart and well-thought-out lighting designs help tell an art piece’s story.

Learn about the types of lighting for art and what important considerations you can use to help you create a successful art lighting design.

Types of Art Lighting

Art can vary significantly in style, size, medium and frame. You’ll find as much variation in display lighting as in the art, with different types of lighting to accommodate and correctly display the pieces.

Each type of lighting fixture can have a different illuminating effect on a piece of artwork. It’s important to understand proper lighting techniques and how to use these types of lights.

Track Lighting

Track lighting consists of a track on the ceiling and individual lights that attach to it. This design allows you to slide the individual lights along the track and angle them according to your needs. Compared to previous track lighting fixture styles, many of these fixtures are now clean and minimalistic.

Track lights are a popular choice for exhibit lighting because you can easily move, add or remove the fixtures, making them ideal for exhibits that frequently rotate or change. With the flexibility of track lighting, you can adjust the lights when relocating an art piece without sacrificing the appearance of the piece.

Recessed Lights

Recessed lights, also referred to as ceiling-mounted lights or downlights, are another common lighting fixture for illuminating art pieces. Unlike track lighting, these fixtures are mounted inside the ceiling. Recessed lights effectively make the art the main focus since their position makes them less likely to draw attention away from the art.

Depending on the art piece’s size and the light’s angle and brightness, you may use multiple recessed lights to ensure you illuminate as much of the piece as possible. You can even adjust some downlights to different degrees, giving you more control over the lighting.

Since recessed lights are cut into the drywall and ceiling and cannot be easily moved, getting accurate light placement is crucial. Map out the lights so that the beams hit the artwork’s center without casting long shadows or creating a glare.

Picture Lights

Picture lights are ideal for situations where you want to avoid cutting holes in the ceiling or create an intimate art display. You can mount picture lights either directly to a piece’s frame or on the wall above it. Bringing the light source close to the art encourages viewers to stand up close and creates a sense of intimacy.

While you can hardwire picture lights into a building’s electricity, it’s also common to find picture lights that you can simply plug into an outlet. You’ll need to accommodate cords and outlets when this is the case. However, picture lights tend to be very decorative and can add to a room while elegantly lighting the art.

3 Tips to Keep in Mind

Lighting for art can be challenging — while it can change the visibility of a piece, it also changes how that piece is perceived. Art is also fragile, and certain types of lighting have the potential to damage the piece. Keep these considerations in mind to help you successfully choose your lighting and preserve the art while still doing it justice.

1. Avoid Natural Light, Heat and UV

Lights that emit heat or ultraviolet (UV) light can be extremely damaging to artwork. These elements can burn away the materials, especially if the fixture is too close to the piece. Natural light from the sun also exposes art to harmful infrared and UV light, which will damage the art and result in fading.

To prevent damage from lighting, place art away from natural light sources like doors and windows and position lighting fixtures at a safe distance to reduce the burning effect. UV filters are also effective, though LED museum lighting is ideal, as LED lights emit no UV and very little heat.

For especially fragile artwork, consider using low-watt lighting for short periods to help you conserve the art while also saving energy. Make the lights just bright enough for people to enjoy the piece and only keep the light on for as long as necessary before turning it off.

2. Consider the Artwork’s Surface

It’s essential to consider how an art piece’s surface and the light’s angle will interact when displaying art. For example, the angle of the light may create shadows on textured art. While that may be the desired effect with some pieces, you may want to avoid it with others. Additionally, certain lighting angles will create an unwanted reflective glare if the work is behind glass.

You’ll also want to consider the hues of the piece’s surface and the final appearance you desire, as museum lighting color temperature can alter the appearance of an art piece. For example, lights with a warmer color temperature will add a warmer hue to the piece, while cooler colored lights will add a cooler hue. Understanding the artwork’s surface and how you want the work to appear can help you better determine your lighting needs.

3. Choose Frames and Fixtures That Work Together

You may want to consider choosing your art’s frame based on the lighting situation or vice versa. Pay attention to how the lighting needs to be mounted and how the frame could cast shadows on the art.

For example, if you want to mount picture lights on the frames, it may be better to choose frames that are thicker and more decorative.

On the other hand, a thick frame could cast unwanted shadows on the art if you’re using recessed or ceiling-mounted lights. You may opt to keep the frames thin or forego them entirely with these lights.

Explore Lighting Solutions From WAC Lighting

When lighting something as potentially fragile as art, you should use the best lighting to protect the art and create an ideal viewing environment. Choosing the right lighting for artwork is important to ensure you’re properly displaying and conserving the art.

Whether you’re looking for lighting for a client’s home, a showroom or a gallery, WAC Lighting has high-quality lighting fixtures to complement the art and spotlight the piece. Contact us to learn more about what products we recommend for lighting art successfully.