Types of Lighting For Art

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Is your art being shown in a good light? Discover the best methods for lighting art, and make everything from prints to gallery walls shine

1. Ceiling-mounted accent lights

Best for: making the art—not the light source—the focus

“Pin spotlights that direct light onto individual artworks is a great way of illuminating them,” says Mishaan. These ceiling fixtures can be recessed or surface-mounted, and they allow the direction of light to be adjusted. They can also be specified with a range of light-beam spreads, so “you can ensure that the light covers most of the artwork,” not just a small part of it, he says.

As a rule of thumb, adds Russell, ceiling-mounted lights should be placed so that the light beam hits the center of the artwork when the fixture is adjusted to a 30-degree angle. “If you light a piece of art at ten degrees, which means you’re really close to the wall and pointing almost straight down, you’re going to end up casting really long shadows below the frame,” he says. “If you go back too far, to 45 degrees, then you’re pointing too directly, and you’ll get reflective glare.”

2. Track lights

Best for: a constantly changing display

Track-lighting systems have come a long way, and many now have a much cleaner, more minimalist look than the tracks of decades past. Equipped with the right lamps, they perform largely the same as ceiling-mounted accent lights but provide a few more advantages, says Russell. They’re easier to install, for one, and offer future flexibility.

A recessed ceiling fixture can’t be moved without drywall surgery if you decide to relocate a painting, but with track lighting “you can easily move a fixture or take one off,” he says. “The trade-off is that you have something that may not be so beautiful installed on the ceiling.”

3. Wall washers

Best for: a flexible setup

“You don’t necessarily have to have lighting that hits every painting,” says Mishaan. “You can wash the wall instead.” Wall washers come in many forms—including recessed, surface-mounted, and track-mounted fixtures that can be placed on walls, ceilings, and floors—that deliver a wide distribution of light.

“You’re creating one bright wall where art is displayed, and indirectly lighting the room,” says Russell, noting that it’s a technique preferred by many contemporary collectors. “It’s a more casual way of lighting art,” he says. It also provides built-in flexibility for adding, removing, or relocating art in the future; because the wall is evenly lit, you don’t have to adjust a thing.

4. Picture lights

Best for: an intimate display—and renters

Picture lights are mounted on the wall or the frames of individual artworks. “It puts the light source really close to the work of art, typically with very low-wattage lamps,” says Russell. “It provides a sense of intimacy with a piece of art, and invites you to stand close for a look.”

Because they’re decorative fixtures, these lights can add to the look of a room, says Mishaan. “There are some very attractive picture lights out there.” However, he warned, even though you don’t need to cut holes in the ceiling, you’ll need outlets for picture lights with cords, or power for hard-wired models.

For large-scale artworks, notes Russell, companies such as Modulightor and Academy Light can make extremely large picture lights capable of illuminating great expanses.