The Importance Of Proper Art Lighting

Art is not just meant to be seen – it’s meant to be appreciated. Without the right art lights in place, your paintings, photographs, installations, or sculptures won’t look their best.

There’s a lot of debate among artists about what lighting and fixtures work best with artwork. Though some of it comes down to the observer’s preference, there are proven lighting approaches that will help bring out colors and forms more effectively.

How Can Lighting Improve The Presentation Of Artwork?

The difference between poor and professional lighting has a major impact on how people perceive a painting. High-quality, well-positioned lighting will bring out the subject’s colors better, with greater intensity and differentiation between color groups. The reds look more red, and the blues look more blue, and details are easier to see.

However, lighting brings out more than color values. Lighting also provides depth to the piece, whether it’s on canvas or on a pedestal. For instance, sculptures look dramatically different when shadows are cast in the right spots, and properly arranged lighting is key for this effect. Don’t underestimate the effect on canvas, either, which may seem like a completely flat medium. Display lighting, through the creation of subtle shadows, can establish light and dark values in the piece, reinforcing the artist’s own vision.

In short, effective art lighting supports the art’s intended purpose.

What Is The Ideal Color Temperature For Lighting Art?

Color temperature refers to whether a particular light is warm or cool in presentation. Color temperatures range from below 2000K (candles and low-pressure sodium lamps) to above 6000K (overcast daylight). As you might imagine, there’s a big difference between how a candle and how sunlight appears in terms of color. At the lower end, lighting sources are warm and better suited for artwork that also features warmer hues. At the higher end of the color temperature scale, light appears white, neutral, or even a bit cool, which is better for artwork that features blues, greens, purples, and other cooler hues.

Color temperature doesn’t refer to the fixture’s overall quality. It’s possible to find a warm light that’s brilliant and a cool light that’s soft and subtle. The thing to remember is matching the right color temperature to the right artworks. When in doubt, most artists stick to a neutral color temperature that won’t influence the subject’s color values in either direction.

Pay Attention To The Light’s Color Rendering Index (CRI) Rating

For thousands of years, artists relied on sunlight as a way to exhibit their art. In terms of color rendering capabilities, nothing else came close when the only other picture lights were candles.

Today, sunlight remains the gold standard for color rendering purposes, but it’s not the safest option for artwork. That’s because sunlight contains a lot of UV radiation, which will steadily degrade the pigments inside the art and cause discoloration over time.

Fortunately, modern artists don’t have to rely on the sun or on candles as their lighting source. What modern artists do need to pay attention to is whether their art lights are capable of properly rendering color.

All types of lighting are placed somewhere on the color rendering index (CRI), which is scaled from 0 to 100. Sunlight comes with a 100 CRI rating because it displays colors with perfect accuracy. For art display purposes you’ll need a fixture that comes with at least a 90 rating. Anything less and you won’t get the true color values in the piece. This information is usually easy to find and included with the box that the bulb comes in.

What Light Fixtures And Bulbs Are The Right Choice For Art?

A high-quality art light is one that offers excellent color rendering and the right color temperature, but that’s not all. The ideal art light will also emit minimal heat, which causes damage, and last for an extended period of time. With all that in mind, here are your fixture and bulb options:

  • LED lighting – LED lighting has made significant advancements in color rendering over the years, but it can still be difficult to find high-CRI LEDs. There are a number of good 80+ CRI bulbs, but for professional-looking art displays, you’ll need more.
    If you can get track down gallery-level LED art lighting, it will provide unmatched efficiency, reliability, safety, and longevity. LED art lights last for 50,000 hours or more, on average, emit close to zero heat, and require a fraction of the power that other forms of lighting need.
  • Halogen lighting – Among all lighting technologies, halogen bulbs remain the CRI king, with ratings near or at 100. As a result, many artists still rely on halogens for their studio or gallery spaces.
    The issues with halogen are longevity, efficiency, and heat output. Halogens output a lot of heat, but if the lighting fixtures are positioned away from the art, this isn’t a major problem. What may be more of an issue is how long halogens last, which is around 2,000 hours before replacement is needed. Halogen lighting is also inefficient compared to modern lighting solutions, but these tradeoffs may be worth it to capture better color quality from the subject.
  • Fluorescent lighting – Fluorescent lighting – CFLs specifically – provide close to 10,000 hours of performance and they output a lot of light. The problem with CFLs and all fluorescent lighting is that they do not properly represent warm hues. That’s a major issue for portrait photographers, who rely on those warm hues when photographing people.
  • Track fixtures – Track fixtures are mounted to the ceiling, and you’ll normally find several of them hanging from a single track. You can get creative with how track lighting is organized and how it’s aimed (because each light can be independently aimed), which provides layout options for a gallery. Controlling the glare from the track fixtures can be a challenge, and it does produce a noticeable amount of overhead clutter. If you’re going for a sleek approach, track lighting may be too intrusive.
  • Frame-mounted fixtures – Frame-mounted fixtures eliminate the need to install or replace ceiling fixtures. They also require less power to produce the amount of light you’ll need, and they can do a satisfactory job if positioned right.
    However, frame-mounted fixtures are so close to the art that any heat generation is a real threat to the canvas. With their close proximity, frame-mounted lights are practically part of the art, too, which will take away from the subject.
  • Art projectors – Art projectors are the ultimate art fixture, as they can be concealed in any space and shaped to fit any subject. Art projectors can run with various lighting technologies, including LED and halogen. Because they are framed to fit the subject, whether it’s a painting, sculpture, or something else, the effect is one-of-a-kind. Specifically, the beam is confined to the art only, and not to the surrounding wall. This makes the painting appear brighter and more vivid relative to its surroundings.

The Right Lighting Can Give Your Art New Life

The take-home point is this: There are numerous lighting choices out there for art, and they can be difficult to assess until you see them in action. Of course, artists have better things to do than try out every type of art light out there, so hopefully this quick guide will give you a starting point with your artwork. Whether you choose LED, halogen, track, projectors or something else, the right fixture will bring out the best in your subjects.

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