Light pictures or artwork well and not only will they come to life but the entire space they are in will benefit. Carefully chosen artwork and prints play such an important role in all interiors, so learning how to illuminate art well is an essential skill for any home designer.
However, you do not have to light your space like a gallery to achieve great results, but you do need to know what you are doing. Learn from a lighting designer’s proven practical guide on how to light artwork & pictures in your home.
See The Best Artwork and Picture Lighting for Your Home for our buying guide and best recommendations.
First consider the wider context of the space the artwork is in and how important each picture is to the room. For example a large fine art prized possession will demand attention and should be lit as a focal point of the room whereas a wall with an assortment of pictures such as along a corridor would be lit differently to a single picture above a fireplace.
Artwork and picture lighting play an important role as contributing accent lights. Successful lighting design ensures the balance is adjusted so there are always highs and lows of light levels and a lit picture offers the opportunity to introduce a contrast within the room by standing out as highlighted features.
Lighting for artwork should therefore be brighter than their surroundings and naturally when a framed poster, picture or artwork is lit specifically, they will be at least three times brighter than the rest of the room’s lighting. This will draw the eye to it and is your opportunity to create some drama. Choose which artwork should stand out more and let the others play a supporting role (if there are more).
For any picture to stand out as a feature, the rest of the space they are in should have it’s lighting reduced so it remains the brightest part of the room. Plan ahead to ensure feature lighting has its own circuit of power to the other lighting circuits, so the features can look brighter whilst the other circuits are dimmed or turned off.
The successful technique of lighting art or best method to light artwork starts with your wider context choice of how important the picture or pictures are to the room.
Light the picture individually, so the entire object is lit and is the brightest amongst its surroundings. Light spilling over from this feature and other surrounding general lighting will help boost some light onto other pictures if they are in a group, but it’s important to single out a hero. This is a Feature Light Layer
Lit artwork creates ideal accents of light within interior spaces, where individual or groups of pictures have enough light to highlight them but not dominate the space. Use picture lights over framed pieces but also consider wall washing a large group of pictures if that’s not possible.
Light each picture individually with a chosen method of either even illumination from spotlighting or a collection of picture lights over each one.
When considering how to light artworks, the subject matter helps steer the choices. Framed posters on a wall could benefit from being generally lit, a framed watercolour would need an even wash of light and an oil painting could benefit from emphasising the brushmarks.
These flat medium subjects will usually be behind glass and look best with an even wash of light over them. The light source needs to have the space to widen the throw of light so do not use a close artwork or picture light, rather opt for an adjustable recessed downlight or spotlight on a track.
Downlighters tend to have a maximum directional adjustment of 28 to 30 degrees from vertical (pointing straight down) and you want to aim the middle of the beam of light to the middle of the subject.
To calculate how to do this see The Best 5 Ways to Light Artwork & Pictures on a Wall
The distribution of the light plays an important role in evenly lighting art. LED downlights and spotlights use internal reflectors and lenses to direct the light forwards from within the light itself, and these combinations unless considered thoroughly can create overlapping and uneven edges to beams that can be seen on the wall and pictures.
Track Lighting allows flexibility of positioning of spotlights with the source of light lower in the space creating a more direct wash of light. The source should always be above the head to minimise any potential shadowing from a close viewer.
Wall washing is a technique of lighting that illuminates a whole wall including any pictures that are hung on it, by throwing light down the wall from the top downwards. When there is a collection of frames sometimes the whole wall will become the accent source of light and it’s efficiently executed with wall washing.
The textured surface of an oil painting will create surface shadowing from a direct light source from the ceiling. This can be a desired effect as it accentuates the hand crafted image or can be a distraction, depending on the subject matter. You can minimise the highlighting and shadows by reducing the angle the light hits the artwork with a wider more ambient general light with a wide beamed source from a track light or recessed downlight.
A lighting technique to negate shadowing is to provide a complimentary source of light from the opposite direction, such as light from below as well. This could be additional reflected light from a bright reflective floor, an adjacent table light or if they are not options then a wash of light from above lower down the wall creating a general wash of light across the pictures.
Specifying the appropriate artwork lighting is a dizzying combination of choosing the right light source types, where the light should come from, the beam width sizes, the quality of light, the colour temperatures and levels of illumination! All must be considered to fine tune the optimum method to light your artwork, so let’s break the elements down so you can make the right choices.
LED light sources are the best:
Halogen Capsules & A Lamps
Picture colors are reflected back to the eye by the light falling on them and a common measurement of how well color is rendered from artificial light is the level of colour rendering or CRI.
All artwork should be lit with the highest quality of light source as possible. The measurement is currently in RA, with LED rendering colour at 98 RA or 98% true to life. General LED lamps currently render colours at approx 90RA which is acceptable.
Fluorescent lamps do not render colors well, halogens and incandescent lamps do but they are largely an outdated source.
Another little consideration is a the colour of white you would prefer your light to have. The color of white is given a ‘temperature’ in a measurement called a degree of kelvin, typically:
When buying LED lamps for some recessed downlights or spotlights you certainly have a choice of color temperature. When buying LED downlights, spotlights and artwork picture lights, the manufacturer may offer a couple of choices of color temperature, so choose what you think will suit the subject matter and just as importantly how the reflected light from the picture will impact the room.
Learn more at How to Choose LED Color Temperatures
A beam width is the angle at which the created light is adjusted to leave the light fitting, typically from downlighting and spotlighting. Wall mounted picture lights do not usually have specified beam widths.
For accent lighting a picture from a downlight the light needs to be tightened to focus within the frame as best as possible, so a medium beam of around 26 degrees works best with a downlight approx 600mm or 2ft from the wall. For general lighting a collection of images will need a wider wash of light from wider beam widths.
See Calculating Beam Widths (link) for more
An appropriate amount of light needs to be set for the time of day you want the images to be lit. The same image can have various levels of light on it depending on the use of the space they sit in.
For example, a collection of lighting down a corridor would be lit the same at all times, but the same group in a dining room or lounge would benefit from either dimming the output or reducing the amount of light surrounding them so in the day the picture would fall back as part of the room but at night become the focal point of drama for the room. Plan how this happens.
Artificial lighting is not just for the evening but can play an important role in the day too especially during winter darker days. How much daylight does your artwork naturally receive and ask whether it will need supporting on darker days? A well lit group of pictures on a wall will act as a reflector of light and brighten any space. Use picture lighting as a lighting tool.
When choosing picture and artwork lighting, consider the whole rooms lighting as there could be a generous amount of ambient light already falling on the space the art is on and will only need a supplementary boost – for example from a single downlight or a carefully positioned table light.
A largely dark subject matter in a picture will reflect less light compared to a lighter coloured image. So the amount of light required to make the image a feature and the brightest part of the room, will need to be higher than other artwork. This can be achieved by either reducing the amount of surrounding light within the room or doubling up the source of light onto the picture and include the source on a dimmable circuit so the output can be balanced according to the time of day. For example, use a twin recessed downlight or a high output spotlight at least 900 lumens in output.
Total control of the light over an artwork can only be attained through a good dimming system that allows you to choose the level of light you are happy on the picture and within the room at the appropriate time of day.
For example, the collection of framed pictures acts as a feature in the day and is well lit even in daylight hours to ensure they remain the focus and help add lots of light back into the room. However, at night their role changes and becomes supplementary and acts as an accent light to gently light the wall and create a cosy atmosphere.
Low voltage lamps are no really longer used but they had a welcomed characteristic of warming up their colour of white light when they were dimmed, creating a moodier warmer atmosphere at lower light levels. However, LED sources will remain the same colour of white at any dimmed level. If warming the light when dimming is the desired effect you want to achieve then there are LED lamps that will mimic this behaviour of a LV lamp and become an amber colour when the light is reduced.
Wall hung artwork lit by picture lights will naturally be brighter where the source is and decrease in luminance as the light travels. If you want as even an illumination as possible from a wall mounted picture light then boost the depreciating light further down the image by considering what other accent layers can assist – table lights, floor lights as well as other wall mounted art and picture lighting.
Refer earlier in this article for more on – How to Light With an Even Illumination
Framed pictures and images behind glass will partially reflect their surroundings and especially bright sources of light. A recommended lighting technique to help minimise glare and reduce reflectance is to angle the light onto the picture from a remote source, such as a recessed downlight or spotlight that sets the light source deep within the body of the fitting and uses a frosted lens with a black baffle. See Choosing Artwork Lighting (link) for more.
Glare free picture frames are recommended if you cannot move the lighting that may be bothering you.
LED Lights safe for artwork as emit almost no UV radiation and infrared light, so they make ideal picture and artwork lighting sources. With virtually no heat created the fabric of the image will not be diminished by an LED source.
Bespoke picture lighting will allow you to create any length, but it’s expensive so a general rule for lighting wide artwork is to widen the beam width from recessed downlighting or spotlighting. Moving the position of the light source back from the image will also allow the light created to spread wider.
We recommend grouping downlights in multiples too so the light can overlap invisibly on the picture.
See our comprehensive buying guide on The Best Artwork & Picture Lighting for Your Home (link)
Considerations of style of picture lighting as well as technique. Contemporary settings benefit from a combination of individual clean lined artwork lights as well as using angled light from recessed downlights and track lighting.
A traditional or classic aesthetic can be enhanced by using bronze and brass finishes with slightly more elaborate designs.