Tips to Light Artwork Properly
Lighting unlocks something special in already captivating works of art. It reveals the rich texture and layers in paintings. It shows viewers the true colors an artist intended to portray as they created their piece. Because lighting is such a vital part of the art-viewing experience, it’s essential to know the right lighting types and fixtures to use with art. Tips to light artwork properly will make this significant decision easier.
Whether you’re helping a curator and need an art museum lighting guide or working with a hotel to draw attention to its displayed art, this guide will help. Discover artwork lighting tips from what type of light fixture to use to how to angle it at the artwork.
Types of Artwork
To determine how to light artwork, it’s vital to know what type of art will be on display. Different media and materials will interact differently with light. Some surfaces are more reflective than others. The artwork’s textural dimensions will also influence how it looks when illuminated. Work with your client to know which types of artwork they want to display, whether they’re:
- Oil paintings: These artworks are glossy and rich with depth and life. Because of their finish and texture, it can be challenging to light oil paintings. Intense lighting creates specular highlights or bright spots of light on the shiny surface. When illuminating an oil painting, choose the right fixture.
- Acrylic paintings: These have a matte finish unless the artist completes their piece with a glossy varnish or frames it behind glass. An acrylic painting without a frame or glossy finish won’t have the glare and shine problems you’d have with oil paintings. When illuminating an acrylic painting on its own, use LED lights for a glossy or framed painting.
- Watercolor paintings: These artworks typically have a matte finish and a flatter texture. If someone puts a watercolor painting on display, though, they’re most likely putting it behind glass in a frame.
- Prints of photography: Photographic prints or digital art need different lighting depending on their finish. Prints may be matte or glossy and displayed without a frame or in a frame with glass. Select LED luminaires such as track, recessed, spots and picture lights for a versatile lighting option that works with either glossy or matte art displays.
- Sculptures: Sculptures have three-dimensional surfaces ranging from shiny to matte. Depending on the display, viewers may be able to walk around the entire sculpture to view it. Avoid illuminating it from one direction. If the light is directly behind the sculpture, it will wash out the details. If one light shines from under or above the sculpture, it will cast severe shadows. Diffused light sources from multiples angles work best. Of course, the artist or curator may have their own lighting vision you’ll need to help create.
Types of Light Fixtures
To know how to illuminate a painting or different works of art, see what types of light fixtures you can choose from. What you select will depend on your client and their needs, and you have various options. WAC makes it simple to find the right light fixtures with our quality illuminating solutions. Combine artwork lighting tips with these possible fixtures to create a beautiful display of art and light:
- Track lighting: Track lighting is most suitable for art museum lighting and galleries. If you’re working with a gallery or museum with rotating exhibits, suggest track lighting for a versatile solution. Gallery curators can move, add or remove track heads as necessary as the displays change. Adjustable track heads are flexible enough to change with rotating displays and exhibits. Framing projectors are ideal for focusing on the artwork itself with easy, onboard beam angle adjustment.
- Picture lights: These lighting solutions are functional and decorative fixtures. You’ll need to install a picture light for each piece of artwork. The result is intimate lighting that draws the viewer in. Picture lights work well for long-term installations and displays with few pieces in one area. Hotels may use picture lights to illuminate artwork hanging in hallways or the lobby, for instance. Many of these styles are adjustable for different shapes and sizes.
- Ceiling lights: If your client would prefer the art to be the only focus of their display, suggest ceiling lights. With these fixtures up and out of the way, visitors can focus on the art. Use ceiling lights that mount flush such as an adjustable monopoint or adjustable recessed ones for subtle lighting solutions. Many ceiling light options let you adjust the lighting angle, making them suitable for changing displays.
Importance of the Size of the Artwork
One of the other essential artwork lighting tips is to consider the artwork’s size when you make lighting recommendations. Art comes in all sizes, and that means lighting solutions for artwork do too. You want to avoid choosing a light that’s too large or small for the art. If a light source is too large, it may shine too much light on the artwork or distract from it. Too small, and you risk illuminating a portion of the artwork rather than the entire piece.
Consider the size of the art especially when using picture lights. These lengths of light will either attach to the frame or mount on the wall above the art. Choose a picture light with a length anywhere from about half to three-quarters the length of the art, including the frame. Use this guide to determine what size picture light you should use based on the width of an artwork’s frame:
- Eight to 14 inches wide: Get a 4 1/2-inch fixture.
- Twelve to 18 inches wide: Get a 5 1/2-inch fixture.
- Sixteen to 24 inches wide: Get a 7- or 9-inch fixture.
- Twenty-five to 37 inches wide: Get a 14 1/2- or 16-inch fixture.
- More than 35 inches wide: Get a 30-inch light.
There is some overlap between what light fixture width you should get for certain frames. If the frame is narrow and the art is larger, opt for the wider light fixture option. For wider frames and smaller pieces of art, you can select the smaller light fixture.
If you aren’t using picture lights, the art’s size is still important. You may need a larger light fixture for a larger work of art, especially if you’re only using one light to illuminate it. Make sure your client relays the size of the artwork they want to display so you can make the right lighting decisions.
Measuring the Position and Light Intensity
The final tips to light artwork properly are choosing the right lighting fixture and installing it correctly. Make your considerations based on the type of light and intensity to select the right fixture. Install the fixture correctly by considering the best angle to position it for proper illumination.
How to Position Artwork Lighting
The light fixture’s angle significantly impacts the display. Lighting artwork at a 10-degree angle from above or below essentially points the illumination source down at the art, which will create significant shadows that obscure it. Going back too far, around 45 degrees, will have the opposite impact — you risk creating a glare as the light shines on the art too directly.
Instead, use a 30-degree angle to minimize glare. If you’re lighting an oil painting or art with texture, subtract 5 degrees from the angle. You’ll accentuate the texture by adding slight shadows but avoid anything extreme that will obscure the art. For larger pieces, angle the light about 35 degrees to bring it back and illuminate more of the artwork.
Type of Light to Use for Artwork
When deciding how to light artwork, consider the type of lighting you use, too. LED lights are ideal for bringing out the best in any type of artwork, and they don’t risk damaging the work. LED is particularly well-suited for valuable pieces since it doesn’t emit ultraviolet (UV) or infrared light. Those types of light sources cause damage, like fading, that would alter the artwork’s appearance over time. UV light can also deteriorate materials — like paper and cloth — and media, like ink and paint.
LED lighting doesn’t have the same impact on art that UV and infrared light would have. As a bonus, LED light sources are more energy-efficient than their incandescent counterparts — by up to 75% — and they have a 25-times longer life span.
What Light Intensity to Choose for Artwork
General tips for lighting artwork suggest accenting a piece with lighting that’s three times brighter than the rest of the room. That may involve using dimmer lights in the rest of the space or selecting brighter artwork lights. What your client chooses will depend on the purpose of their space. Galleries and museums prefer to emphasize the artwork, while hotels, restaurants and other businesses may only use the artwork as an illuminated accent.
If you’re lighting a gallery or another space with multiple works of art, consider the area as a whole. Unless the curator or client wants a particular piece to stand out more than the others, you’ll want a similar lighting intensity for every piece. From there, you can select a light fixture controlled by a dimmer to achieve the maximum output of lumens.
Other Lighting Qualities to Consider
Other than the intensity of the lighting fixtures, there are additional factors you should consider. These qualities influence how the colors in a work of art will appear to viewers. The eye’s light receptors transmit light to the brain, which receives that information and translates it into color. The wrong type of lighting will skew the perceived colors, showing the viewer art that doesn’t look as the artist intended. Use lighting to help maintain the art’s appearance to the viewer by considering:
- Color temperature: You’ll find LED lighting in various options across the correlated color temperature (CCT) spectrum. Remember that lower numbers in Kelvins (K) signify warmer light that mimics natural or incandescent lighting for ambiance. Select warmer light for artwork since higher numbers mean cooler color temperatures
- Color rendering index (CRI): A light’s CRI refers to its ability to represent color accurately relating to natural light on a scale of zero to 100. A low CRI indicates a light that does not display true color well — it would be challenging to distinguish an artwork’s different hues and shades. A high CRI that is ideally 90, to display art in the best possible light.
Other Artwork Lighting Tips
While the technical aspects of lighting intensity and style will show you how to illuminate a painting or other artwork, additional suggestions will help you meet unique client needs. Follow these additional tips to light artwork properly:
- Test it out: If the artwork is available after you’ve installed the lighting, take a look at it. Check for dramatic shadows or glares that appear and might hinder the art’s appearance. Consult the client, curator or artist for help with evaluating the lighting.
- Look from all angles: Depending on where an art display is, visitors may be able to view it from different distances and angles. Look at the artwork from different points throughout a room and try to minimize glares by adjusting the light to the correct angle.
- Work with the client: Artists and curators may have a more particular vision for their art display than a client in a hotel or restaurant would for their artistic accents. Work with the client to determine what lighting they would like to showcase their pieces. Determine if the lights should have warm or cool color temperatures, how intense the lighting should be and what types of fixtures the client wants.
- Consider the room and the art: Think about the space you’re adding light fixtures to. While the art will likely be the centerpiece of the room, the lighting should still be cohesive with the room’s design. The art featured in a client’s displays in their gallery or room will also give you a clue into the style they're after. Traditional art styles in ornate frames suit the look of a gold-colored picture light. You can choose luminaires with finishes that match or complement the frames. Modern galleries or spaces work well with the industrial tailored look of track or recessed lighting.
Contact WAC for More Artwork Lighting Tips
If you have any questions about illuminating artwork, WAC is happy to help. We pride ourselves in being there for you every step of the way, from determining your lighting needs to purchasing what you need for your clients. WAC provides lighting solutions that combine function and beauty, essential for any client displaying art. For over 35 years, WAC Lighting has built long-term relationships with museum owners and curators, artists and related professionals needing cutting-edge technology, and we’re ready to share our knowledge and lighting products with you.
Contact us to learn more about how to light artwork with our quality, long-lasting fixtures.