Everything you need to know about lighting your beautiful art.

Illumination About Illumination

Ever notice how the walls in your living room change color as the sun does its daily dance from morning to night? Ever notice how diamonds sparkle in a jewelry store? Ever notice how fluorescent lights make you look like you just had a near death experience? There's a simple reason for all of this: light determines what we see, so the quality of light illuminating our art will have a very significant affect its appearance.

In my experience as an artist, light is as much a part of art as paint. When I am in the latter stages in the creation of a piece, I'll start carting it around with me. I put it in the kitchen, take it to my hair salon, hang it up in my bedroom or put it outside. The difference the varying light makes is so significant that I would never call a piece finished until I had seen it in many environments and made adjustments accordingly. Being an artist really makes me aware of light, in the same way that being an oenophile makes someone aware of the amazing nuances in a sip of wine. What was once hardly worth mentioning soon becomes an array of beautiful subtleties you can't believe you had missed.

If I had my way, I'd sit you down in a wooden chair and lecture you about the benefits of proper art lighting. I'd go on and on, gradually changing your whole understanding about the subject and watching you very, very closely to make sure I stopped just before you slugged me. But since you're not going to let me do that, here it is, the cushy version, all you'll likely ever need to know in less time that it takes to brush Mr. Woofles.

This information is not only useful for lighting art, it applies to lighting your home in general. There are few things that will contribute to or detract from the overall ambiance of a room more than lighting.

I will cover the main aspects of artificial light only, natural daylight is another subject that needn't be addressed here.

Let's begin with looking at the most common types of bulbs.

  • Incandescent: the old fashioned bulb that is now phased out. Works well for art. UV radiation is moderate (more on this coming up).

  • Fluorescent: this type is little short of a curse when visual impact matters. Great for lighting up a stack of tires or pallets of dog food, but art? uh...no. Fluorescent bulbs emit a lot of Ultraviolet Radiation (UV) that will fade pigments over time; not good. Save this type of bulb for places art wouldn't dare set foot in. That being said, there are specialized types of these bulbs that do work reasonably well, read on.

  • Halogen: also being phased out due to poor efficiency and high running costs. Galleries used these for years and they worked well but created a lot of heat. Overall a good choice until you can obtain LED's.

  • LED: This is the way to go. Very inexpensive to run, last a long time if you purchase good quality bulbs, and produce very minimal UV which would fade and damage pigments. Be careful with dimmers though, not all LED bulbs work with all dimmers. Look on the box to see if the bulb is dimmable; some are, some are not. There are industrial version of these bulbs that last longer and can be obtained at a specialty store.

Okay, that's the short of it — but I'm not done with you yet. Let's get just slightly technical and milk every last photon from those colors.

Color temperature is the warmness (more yellow, like a candle or fireplace) or coolness (more blue, like the snow at twilight) of a light source. The temperature is measured in degrees and is often indicated on the light bulb box. For lighting art, we're looking for accurate color rendition, which means a light that is fairly neutral. A bulb with excessive warmth will accentuate the warm tones in the art, also muting and possibly “muddying” the cooler tones. Too cool of a bulb will have the opposite affect, murdering all your nice yellows and reds and making your art (or room) look cold and stark. There's really no such thing as the correct color temperature for lighting art (or a room); it's a matter of personal preference, but somewhere in the 2700 to 3500 degree range is what most galleries and museums use. 2700 is a very common temperature for bulbs you buy in most stores. It's quite yellowy/warm but gives a cozy feel that people are used to. I prefer 3000 to 4000 for most art. It's still warmish, but more neutral, offering more accurate color rendering than 2700 degrees. You can get bulbs that are 5000 degree's but it will likely feel too cool and stark for you. Many halogens and LEDs have the color temperature labeled on the box. Try to find something more definite than "cool" or "warm" or "daylight"; look for a number. If all they have is "warm", they are probably 2700s. If it says "white light", it's hard to say what the temperature will be, likely anywhere from 3000 up.

Because most of us are so used to looking at art and rooms in warmer light (2700 degrees), a whiter, clearer, more neutral light can feel a little too white and perhaps un-cozy at first, but remember, it's just what we're used to and it doesn't take long to create a new "normal". When I first switched to 3000 degree bulbs in my art studio and hair salon, I couldn't decide whether to squirm or have a smilefest. But it didn't take long for me to love how bright and clear all the colors looked.

CRI (Colour Rendering Index) is a measurement of how accurately a bulb will render colours. The higher the number, the more accurate the rendering. Most halogens and LEDs you purchase at the hardware stores have a CRI somewhere is the 80's, which is fine for art. Using bulbs with a CRI of 90 and up is even better. Unless you're using specialty fluorescent bulbs, the kind you usually buy at the hardware store have a CRI that would make whoever painted your lovely work of art take to violence. If you do want to use fluorescent bulbs, go to a lighting store and ask for high CRI bulbs, at least 80.

Lumens: this is an important one. Lumens is the actual amount of light the bulb puts out. Just because a bulb is high wattage, doesn't necessarily mean it's high lumens.

If your room has mainly table lamps and/or recessed ceiling lights and that's what is lighting your art, here's an easy way to find out if more direct lighting from a pointable light (like a track light) would make a worthwhile difference. Put an LED flood light in a table lamp without the shade, pick it up, and point it at the art. Move around, side to side, closer, further away; notice how colors, and indeed the entire room changes. Try it in the daylight and at night. And give it a few tries on different days, it may take some time to get a clear feeling about it.

If you're building a home or doing major renovations and planning on installing ceiling lights, make sure they tilt enough to illuminate your art and are not too far or close to the art. Consider your art when designing the room lighting.

More light is not always better light. Too much light will cause reflection and you won't see colors accurately, not to mention possible UV damage to the art. Dimmers are useful in this regard. Start low, then slowly bring the light level up until you see nice, rich colors. Try to get a feel for the art piece. Does it feel like it needs bright light? Or is it softer and moodier, alluding to gentler things? If you're using LEDs, you must either purchase the dimmable versions or install special dimmers made for LEDs. Halogens get warmer (more yellowy) as they dim.

By now you're either totally enthralled or looking in the fridge. Either way, here's an easy, step-by-step approach that will get you most of the way to well lit art in a jiffy:

1. Get some LEDs (dimmable, if you're using dimmers). If you like brighter light, buy high lumens bulbs, anywhere from 800 to 1100 lumens. If you prefer warmer, more yellowy light, choose 2700 degree color temperature; 3000 to 4000 degrees if you prefer whiter, crisper, more accurate light. It's okay to mix different temperatures in the same room. Consider giving the slighter whiter 3000s a try; just buy one if you want to experiment.

2. Get yourself up on a ladder or pull off the shades on your lamps and pluck out whatever bulbs are there. If you've been using those horrible, art destroying fluorescent bulbs, hang your head in shame for a minute or two, go out to the forest, bury them for two full moons, then use them to light up your back porch. Apologize to your art and promise you'll never do that again.

3. Insert your shiny new, magnificent LEDs, point them, smile like you just got a kiss, go "Woo Hoo", and, if you feel so inclined, pump your fist.

Well, that's it then. You just learned how to make your home an even nicer place to be. Happy room, happy art, happy you, happy artist!

Ever wondered how to clean your art without destroying it? Want to know what a Giclee is? Or what to do when someone you love gives you a painting you hate? All this and waaaay more at The Painted Lamb Archives, right here: