You’ve gathered an incredible collection. Every piece is up on the wall and hanging level. You’re all done, right?
Not so fast. You still haven’t taken care of the most critical part of the process: lighting.
Knowing how to light artwork on the wall is one of the most important skills for gallerists and private collectors alike. Without the right lighting, you cannot expect to get the most out of the work you have, and the wrong lighting can even damage your collection.
As you might expect, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. If only it were that easy. In fact, there are more than a few ways that poor lighting choices can take away from a painting. So some knowledge and care are needed.
That’s why I have assembled the guide below. This will get you to start thinking about how to light artwork on the wall, particularly for photo gallery lighting. Once you get the lighting down, you’ll find that your artwork is transformed — able to shine in all its glory on the wall.
Picking the Right Source for Lighting Artwork on a Wall
When it comes to light sources, there are more options today than ever. The trick is knowing the relative pros and cons of each. Getting the right source of light is a major step between having a work of art that captivates and one that no one notices.
Your main choices are Ceiling-mounted access lighting, Track lighting, Wall washers and Picture lights. Let's look at each in detail.
Ceiling-Mounted Access Lighting
These are spotlights that are mounted directly to the ceiling. These can be mounted to the surface or into a recess, providing sleek and obscured housing — giving a clean, minimalist look.
These lights need to be placed far enough away from the wall to hit the centre of the artwork at a 30-degree angle. You can also adjust the spread of light, matching it to the size of your art. This will give a soft, even light to a piece, balancing the look and eliminating sharp highlights. And because it shines at an angle, you reduce any shadow cast by the piece.
Track lighting is perfect for those looking to change out their artwork frequently. These are similar to ceiling-mounted lights, but they are fixed to a track, allowing you to move them accordingly.
In the last decade, there are many affordable options for track lights that go beyond the bulky versions you might be used to seeing. Nevertheless, they still require tracks lining your ceiling, a turn off for some. But getting the benefits of ceiling-mounted lights with more versatility, in the long run, will be the perfect approach for many — particularly galleries.
Wall washers are also mounted lights, able to be installed on your ceiling or floor. But wall washers are a much more general approach — lighting up the entire wall. Depending on your overall interior design, this can be a perfect, low maintenance solution.
While they don’t require any adjusting once you install them (although you can attach them to tracks if you wish), they are a much more general way to light artwork. This is a less striking presentation, but many collectors enjoy wall washers because of the low maintenance when switching out work.
Picture lights are the most direct approach, being mounted right above a work of art — sometimes directly on the frame. These are low watt sources with very little spread. You can find battery-powered versions, but many will require wiring.
These lights provide a wonderful, low-light option. But batteries wear out and need to be replaced, just as wires can create eyesores. On top of that, not every room will look great with several small light sources. But when the situation calls for them, they can work well.
Framing and Artwork Surface
How you frame your work is critical to how you light it. For instance, picture lights require a sturdy frame to attach to. But other options, like wall washers and mounted lights, might benefit from smaller frames that will cast less of a shadow.
The surface is also important. Glass can create glare, requiring special attention for the light angle — this can be an issue in photo gallery lighting if many pieces are prints behind glass. If the artwork is a painting, the texture can create shadows. For some paintings that’s good, and the angle can be manipulated to emphasise these features. On the other hand, softer light at a more level angle can eliminate unwanted shadows.
Whether you are lighting a print or an original painting, you have to protect your work. Try to eliminate:
- Ultraviolet light
- Infrared light
These will cause fading and colour shifting over time.
To keep your artwork safe, follow these tips:
- Avoid sunlight
- Avoid direct lighting that heats the surface of your art
- Never light with fluorescent lighting
Getting the Right Bulb
There are two main light bulbs you can use namely: Halogen and LED.
Halogen: natural-looking light, but high heat, inefficient, and creates ultraviolet light. It was once the most popular option because it mimics natural light and works much better than incandescent bulbs, but these generate a lot of heat and ultraviolet light while also wasting energy.
LED: efficient and safe for art, but you need to buy the right kind. LED is now the preferred option. LED’s are long-lasting and super-efficient. And today, they are available in many colour temperatures. It is recommended that you shoot for a warmer light, around 2,700K with a colour rendering index (CRI) at or above 90.
If you follow these tips, you’ll know how to light artwork on a wall like a professional. Great lighting gives your artwork the presentation it deserves. At the same time, it can ensure that your artwork lasts for generations.
Take the Time to Light it Right.