HOW TO LIGHT YOUR PAINTINGS LIKE A PRO
The right lighting can make all the difference when viewing a painting. Low light and hotspots can distort the appearance of a painting, while lighting that’s too warm or too cool can negatively impact the appearance of the colors in your painting.
In this article, we’ll cover the basics of lighting technology, how to choose the right color light, and give you some options when choosing lighting fixtures for your paintings. So, whether you want to install all new lighting to showcase your paintings, or you’re just looking for a simple plug-in unit, we’ve got you covered.
A quick note about sunlight; oil paintings are very durable and the colors won’t fade even if they’re hung in direct sunlight. In fact, sunlight can create beautiful light that shows the true colors of your painting, but they will, of course, benefit from being lit at night.
Let's dive in!
CHOOSING THE RIGHT BULB
The specifications of a light bulb are perhaps the most important details when creating beautiful lighting for your paintings. The particulars of lighting can get very technical, so in this article, we’ll focus on the two most important aspects of lighting that will show the true colors of your paintings: CRI and Kelvin.
COLOR RENDERING INDEX
The CRI, or Color Rendering Index, is all about how accurately a light source illuminates the true colors of an object. Think of it more as lighting technology, not to be confused with the color of a light itself. The rating ranges from 1 - 100, with 100 creating the most accurate, true-to-life colors. To show the most accurate colors of your painting we recommend a CRI of at least 90.
Kelvin (K) refers to a light source's coolness or warmth. The Kelvin scale ranges from the warmest color at 1,000 to the coolest color at 10,000. Mid-day light, which is the best for seeing the true colors of a painting, falls in the middle of the scale. This is why we recommend a Kelvin rating between 5,000 - 6,000.
That being said, this Kelvin range will have a cooling effect on the lighting of your home. To keep the atmosphere of your home cozy, it’s nice to have warmer lights throughout the house to create a balanced feel.
HALOGEN VS LED
Both Halogen and LED bulbs are both great lighting options when they have the right Kelvin and CRI ratings.
But LEDs consume far less energy, so we recommend high-quality LED bulbs for lighting your paintings.
Lighting fixtures come in a variety of options that range from hard-wired to plug-in and rechargeable. Each option has its own benefits and challenges. The following section will outline details that will help you to find a solution for your unique lighting situation.
Track lights are a very versatile way of lighting a painting. It’s a great option if multiple lights are needed for a large painting or for a wall with multiple paintings.
Recessed lights will function very similarly to track lighting, but with a more sleek design. Being that they’re installed in the ceiling they will need to be hard-wired and will require installation. Be sure to choose an articulating fixture so that you can get the perfect angle of the beam of light.
SURFACE MOUNT SPOTLIGHTS
A surface mount spotlight is a modern design option that's perfect for lighting a painting in a room with very high ceilings or if the ceiling has a design detail that you don’t want to disrupt. In this case, you can position this light fixture on a sidewall or on the wall above the painting. This is also the ideal solution if you want the effect of track lighting but want a more minimalist design.
The design of picture lights has come a long way from the large clunky brass fixtures that often come to mind. They now come in sleek designs with a modern feel that can easily blend into the background. If you want to go with a picture light, choose a light that has a fixture that fits the size of the painting (not including the frame), and be sure that the light emitted is directed down at the painting, not on the wall behind the painting or on the floor.
Picture Light Tip: If you’re designing a home and planning to install hard-wired picture lights, it’s best practice to know the total dimensions of the paintings (not including the frame), before buying the picture lights to make sure you get the right width picture light. The painting dimensions will be your reference for the length of the fixture as well as the placement of the picture light itself. Keep in mind that if the painting is hung at eye level, the center of the painting will be at around 4.5 feet - 5.5 feet.
A framing projector will perfectly highlight a special piece of art. This fixture is a tiny dropdown installed in the ceiling in the exact position for a certain painting. Framing projectors are fitted with lenses and cut-off shims that create a sharp, focused rectangle of light that perfectly fits the specific dimensions of a painting (not including the frame). This is a hard-wired unit that requires the installation and is best used in situations where you’re willing to invest in the lighting and commit to the placement of a painting. The result is a gorgeous effect that looks as if the painting is almost illuminated from within.
HOW MANY LIGHTS?
The number of lights will depend on the scale of the painting and how many paintings are on the wall.
One small or medium painting (up to 30”x40”) can easily be well-lit with one bulb.
Larger paintings (starting at about 45” in width) will benefit from multiple lights, keeping in mind that the best effect will come from lighting the center of the painting with limited light spill on the wall.
Putting your painting light on a dimmer switch will help your painting to be perfectly lit at any time of day, and if the rest of the lighting is relatively low, it will create a beautiful ambiance at night. Wired fixtures will need a separate electrical switch, plug-in fixtures simply require an adaptor at the electrical plug, and rechargeable fixtures will need the dimmer to be built into the original design itself. If you have LED lights, be sure to get an LED-compatible dimmer switch.
Sandblasted glass lenses will soften a hard scalloped edge from around the beam of light, creating a gentle faded transition of light. This is a great option when you have a wall that has multiple paintings because it creates a soft wash that helps create visual continuity.
Focusing lenses change the size of the light beam in relation to the size of the artwork, with the goal being that just the painting is lit without light spilling onto the wall around it. Focusing lenses can create a beautiful “pinpoint” lighting effect on a single painting at the end of a hallway, especially if you want to highlight the texture of a painting.
LIGHTING POSITION & DIRECTION
In most situations “downlights” from the ceiling will create the ideal lighting for your paintings. Think of recessed lighting and track lighting. When positioned at the right distance from the painting and angled correctly, downlights will create a beautiful wash of light over the entire painting.
The distance between the downlights and the wall will depend on the height of the wall.
When paintings are hung in a room with average height ceilings (up to 10 feet), downlights will be closer to the wall, 18” is usually a good distance. If your paintings are in a room with high ceilings (between 10 and 14 feet) the downlights will be farther away, up to 32”.
Downlighting may not be possible if the paintings are in a room with very high ceilings or if it’s not possible to mount lighting fixtures to the ceiling. In these cases a “surface-mount spotlight” on a side wall or a “picture light” can be used. For extra large paintings (starting at around 72” in height) two picture lights can have a beautiful effect, with one positioned above shining down and one positioned below facing up, illuminating the bottom of the painting.
When selecting a downlight option, be sure to choose a fixture that is articulating so that you can adjust the angle of the light. The direction or angle of the light will have an effect on how the light reflects off the painting.
If the light is too straight-on, the light will bounce off the painting and create a harsh glare in the eye of the viewer (this is particularly important if the painting has a reflective frame).
If the light is positioned at an angle that’s too wide or too close to the painting (less than 18”) the light will bounce off the painting and land on the floor which will reduce the focal point from the painting to the floor.
As a general rule the best position for articulating lights is a 30°- 35° angle.
Note that this rule doesn’t apply to picture lights because the light is spread out length-wise rather than in a singular beam of light.
Congratulations on making it all the way through this long article!
Whether you’re considering custom lighting or just looking for a simple lighting solution,
start with a bulb that has a CRI of at least 90 and a Kelvin rating between 5,000 - 6,000 and you’ll be on the right track.
Either way, every time you look at your paintings, the right lighting will be well worth it!
If you have any questions or would like a recommendation please feel free to reach out and we'll do everything we can to help guide you to creating beautiful lighting for your paintings.