Lighting Art

lighting art

Working with people to find the right place for a piece, or the right piece for a place, often involves lighting considerations.  Here are some ways to think about light as you place and rotate the art you own, as well as make new art selections.

Light’s Purpose

First consider the purpose of light on the art.  It’s different for a gallery than for a home or office.  The gallery’s objective is to sell.  At home, it’s probably to add to the overall character of a room and to invite contemplation of the art in conversation and over time.  A gallery will likely strive for a constant “wow” with the lighting and placement, to feature each piece as though it is center stage.  In the home, the room’s focus necessarily shifts – it’s not all about the art, though it’s important that the art looks good in different lighting conditions.

Recognize that the changing light in a room over the course of a day and evening can be a wonderful source of finding nuances in your art.

For most of the day, the most likely source of light for your art is the window.  For each wall, become familiar with the direction of natural light, whether it is diffuse or direct, and how it changes over the course of the day and the year.  Does the wall get moonlight?

The Artwork’s Own Light

Still Life Set Up
I set up this stack of vertebrae from different animals for a still life painting. I set it near our south facing studio window to take advantage of the strong light casting a beautiful, almost flying, shadow from the bones.

Understanding your artwork’s composition will help you place the piece well, and get the most out of natural light.

Consider the source of light in a painting.  Is it a single source or multidirectional?  Can it be enhanced by the placement in the room?

Here is the final painting, “Backbones”. It would show well with either diffuse natural light, or light coming from the left. But strong light from the right, and the resulting shadows near it, might subconsciously confuse the viewer. I applied a matte varnish to this painting to reduce glare.

I once saw a wall sculpture with a fractured sensibility placed in a room that gets splintered light from an old window, an interesting energetic complement.



A bold design can read well in a naturally darker corner of the room.  Split Fig would benefit from such a location.  Split Fig

The bold shape reads easily.  Just a little light lets you come in close to see more.


Protection from direct sunlight is one of the best things you can do for your fine art and furniture.  As I often have to remind myself, if you have a window shade, don’t forget to use it.

light on the wall
Light on the studio wall.

This studio wall gets glorious direct sunlight for only a few minutes each day, two times a year.  Enough to wear on most pieces of art and good to know about.

When looking at art, talk to the artist or gallerist about your own natural light conditions.  When asked if a watercolor of mine was a good choice for an atrium, I had to advise against it, recommending the collector seek a medium more resilient to strong direct sunlight, such as a glass or steel wall sculpture.

Glare is a common frustration.  Glare resistant glass or Acrylite is one solution for framed work.  A cold wax medium or matte varnish (which contains wax) is sometimes appropriate for oils or acrylics.  Knowing where glare is the biggest problem in your home will help in your art and/or framing selection.

Artificial Lighting

What are you going for?  Start with the natural.  Look at your art under natural daylight to see the most about it.  Color quality, texture, detail.  Then you’ll know what you want to be able to see under artificial light.

Get to know the lights you have.  Improvement can often be made simply by changing a bulb, repositioning a lamp, angling a track fixture or having two art pieces switch places.  You’ll find lots of internet tips on lighting systems, full-spectrum bulbs, and framing just searching “how to light artwork in the home”.

I offer a few other considerations:

I’ve noticed a shift in personal tastes.  Many people are prefering cooler ambient light to warm incandescent.  Know how your personal preferences for light will work with the art you select.

We’re working with a mixture right now in the studio/gallery:  some halogen (on the warm side), some LED (true color balanced, cool like daylight), a little daylight flourescent, and of course the window.  I encourage trying a piece in different light.  People are often surprised by the different things they see.

Watch out for shadows from lampshades or other objects.  Floor and table lamps’ primary purpose, and placement, is usually not to illuminate art.  Work with, rather than against, their uneven light when grouping art.

If you do have a track system, use its flexibility.  Though it sounds obvious, the reality is that there can be an inertia to adjusting the light placement, especially with hard to reach high ceilings.

I’d love to hear your lighting tales.  Enjoy thinking about light and art.

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