How to Properly Light Fine Art | Artwork Illumination Basics

Before hanging a new piece of artwork on the wall, it is important to take a few minutes to think about how best to illuminate it. Proper lighting allows the viewer to fully appreciate the colors and details in a fine art photography print and can completely transform the viewing experience. After reading this guide, you will have a good understanding of the current best practices for lighting artwork in your home or office. The optimal methods for lighting fine art in 2021 are currently in a state of FLUX and there is a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get started!

Overview

  • Does properly lighting fine art really matter?
  • How to evaluate the existing room lighting
  • Tips for hanging artwork
  • How to select the best lightbulb for fine art
  • How to chose the best light fixtures for artwork
  • Important notes
  • Final thoughts

Does properly lighting fine art really matter?

Yes! Optimized lighting allows the viewer to see the artwork as it was intended by the artist. The photo below shows a print under standard and optimized lighting conditions. The standard lighting is certainly acceptable, but the print really sings when placed under optimized lighting.

How to Evaluate the Existing Room Lighting

Before making any big decisions about lighting, it is important to do a thorough evaluation of the existing space. Some rooms already have excellent lighting and others need a bit of optimization to make a piece of artwork come to life. Before hanging the print on the wall here are a few things to consider:

  • Does the room already have good lighting? If the area feels dark, additional lighting may be needed.
  • What type of artwork will be hung on the wall? Darker prints generally need more illumination than lighter prints.
  • Will the fine art print be illuminated by ambient lighting or will it be the brightest object in the room? Some people prefer to work with the existing ambient lighting to illuminate a print and others chose to install track lighting to accentuate the artwork.
  • What kind of existing light fixtures are present? Track lighting, recessed lighting, ceiling/wall mounted accent lights and table/floor lamps are the most common.
  • What types of lightbulbs are in the fixtures? LED (light emitting diode), CFL (compact fluorescent light), halogen and incandescent are the most common bulbs in use today.
  • How bright are the light sources? Artwork generally looks good when it is displayed on a wall with a Lux of approximately 100. Lux is a measure of intensity of the illumination on a surface. To get a general idea of the Lux of different parts of a room, consider using one of these free apps - Lux Light Meter Pro (iPhone) or Lux Meter (Android). Using the front facing camera, place your phone on the wall where the print will hang and press the "measure" button. The app will then show the approximate lux for that spot on the wall.
  • Are the lightbulbs dimmable? Lights are generally dimmed using a wall mounted switch, but some newer lightbulbs with WiFi compatibility can be dimmed using an iOS or Android app.

Tips for Hanging Artwork

  • Prints generally look best when the center of the artwork hangs 5-5.5 feet off the ground, which is the average eye height for adults.
  • To minimize glare from light fixtures, the angle of the light should be approximately 30 degrees.
  • Avoid direct sunlight on the surface of the print, since direct UV light can cause fading. Indirect light is OK.
  • Due to the risks associated with hanging prints on the wall (think about the locations of electrical and water lines!), I recommend having a professional install the artwork. If you are very comfortable with the installation process and you have another person to help, it is fairly straightforward to do it yourself.
30" x 60" TruLife Acrylic Facemount Print Illuminated by LED Track Lighting

How to Select the Best Lightbulb for Fine Art

All lightbulbs are not created equal when it comes to illuminating fine art! There are hundreds of different lightbulbs on the market today, but only a few of them are suitable for artwork. The best lightbulbs are able to cover most of the spectrum of visible light, without spilling over into harmful wavelengths that are just outside the visible spectrum. Infrared (IR) and ultraviolet (UV) light are examples of undesirable wavelengths, since they can cause damage to artwork. When choosing a lightbulb there are a few important points to consider:

  • Color Temperature: Describes the appearance of the light produced by a lightbulb (warm or cool). Color temperature is measured in degrees Kelvin (K). Low color temperatures (e.g. 2700K) are warmer (yellow/orange) and higher color temperatures (e.g. 5000K) are cooler (blue). Most homes use lightbulbs with color temperatures in the 2700K-4000K range, since the light is most pleasing. Several studies suggest the best Kelvin temperature for viewing artwork is in the 3600-3800K range. 1, 2
  • Color Rendering Index (CRI): A scale used to measure the ability of a light source to show the colors of various objects faithfully in comparison to natural daylight. A CRI of 100 represents the maximum value (natural daylight). Lightbulbs with CRI values above 90 are excellent for lighting fine art prints.
  • R9: A scale used to measure how accurately the color red is rendered by a light source. Red is a difficult color to reproduce and it is important to know how well a light can render reds. A R9 of 100 represents the maximum value. Lightbulbs with R9 values above 80 are excellent for lighting fine art prints.
  • Lumens: A measure of the brightness of a light source. More lumens = brighter light. Note: watts are no longer used to determine the brightness of a light, but rather to indicate how much energy is consumed by a lightbulb. Lumens are the new standard for indicating the brightness of a lightbulb.

Table 1: Relationship between lumens and watts for incandescent, LED and halogen bulbs

  • Lux: A measure of illuminance or how much light falls on a given area. Lux is used to measure the intensity of the illumination on a surface.
  • Beam angle / beam spread - Some lightbulbs are available in different beam angles, which indicates how wide of an area the lightbulb will illuminate. Beam angles range from 10 to 120 degrees. Smaller beam angles (10, 25, 36 degree) are spotlights which are used with track lighting, adjustable recessed cans and adjustable accent lights. Larger angles (60, 120 degree) are flood lights which are used with recessed cans pointing straight down (downlights) and some accent lights.

Table 2: Beam Angle Recommendations for Track Lighting, Adjustable Recessed Cans and Adjustable Accents

Light Emitting Diode (LED) Bulbs

Since their introduction in 2008, LED lightbulbs have quickly become the main sources of light in homes and are steadily replacing fluorescents in businesses. In the past few years, the quality of LEDs has improved significantly.

  • Advantages:
    • Extremely energy efficient, long lasting (10-20+ years), do not produce ultraviolet (UV) or infrared (IR) light
  • Disadvantages:
    • Higher upfront cost, some bulbs can flicker when dimmed
  • Recommendation for Lighting Artwork:
    • HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Select a bulb with a color temperature between 2700-4000K (2700K-3000K is preferred for bedrooms, living rooms, dining rooms, 3000K-4000K is preferred for kitchens, offices and work spaces), CRI above 90, R9 above 80, low flicker index. SORAA, Solux and Waveform all make high quality LEDs suitable for artwork
  • Best LED Bulbs for Artwork
    • Track Lighting / Adjustable Recessed Cans / Adjustable Accent Lights:
      • SORAA VIVID PAR30S/L - 930-1000 lumens, 2700K and 3000K, CRI 95, R9 95, full spectrum, imperceptible flicker, dimmable, 9/25/36/60 degree beam angles
      • SORAA VIVID MR16 - GU5.3 - 390-490 lumens, 2700K, 3000K, 4000K, CRI 95+, R9 95+, full spectrum, imperceptible flicker, dimmable, 10/25/36 degree beam angles
      • Solux ColorView LED Artlight - fixture for track lighting - 3150K, CRI 94, R9 94, no flicker, dimmable, adjustable beam from 12 degrees to 60 degrees
    • Recessed can downlights:
      • SORAA Vivid BR30 - 750 lumens, 2700K and 3000K, CRI 95, R9 95, full spectrum, imperceptible flicker, dimmable, 120 degree beam angle
      • Waveform BR30 - 800 lumens, 3000K, CRI 95, R9 80+, low flicker, 120 degree beam angle
      • Waveform Full Spectrum E26 BR30 - 800 Lumens, 4000K, 95 CRI, 80+ R9, dimmable, 120 degree beam angle
      • Method Lights ML LED Picture Light – 1280 lumens, adjustable color temperature from 2700K-7000K, CRI 95+, dimmable, adjustable light angle, adjustable beam angle, flicker free, includes a remote
    • Ambient Lights:
      • SORAA Vivid A19/A60 - 800 lumens, 2700K, CRI 95, R9 95, full spectrum, low flicker, dimmable, omnidirectional beam angle
      • Waveform Centric Home A19 - 800 lumens, 2700K and 3000K, CRI 95, R9 >80, full spectrum, flicker free, not dimmable, omnidirectional beam angle

Halogen Bulbs

Halogen bulbs have traditionally been used to illuminate artwork in galleries and homes, but recently there has been a shift to LED bulbs.

  • Advantages:
    • High CRI, more energy efficient than incandescents
  • Disadvantages:
    • Not as energy efficient as LEDs, some bulbs emit infrared and UV light, bulbs generate significant amounts of IR light (heat), which can damage artwork placed close the light.
  • Recommendation for Lighting Artwork:
    • RECOMMENDED. Select a bulb with low IR (heat) and UV output. Solux makes the best halogens for illuminating artwork.
  • Best Halogen Bulbs for Artwork
    • SoLux Colorview PAR - 3500K, CRI 98, 10/30/50 degree beam angles, ultra low UV and IR
    • Solux MR-16 3500K, CRI 98, 10/17/24/36 degree beam angles, ultra low UV and IR

Incandescent Bulbs

Invented by Thomas Edison in 1879, this type of lightbulb has been around for a long time! Once popular in homes and businesses, these lights have fallen out of favor as more energy efficient and longer lasting lightbulbs have become available.

  • Advantages:
    • CRIs are generally >95, available in a wide range of color temperatures (2700K-6500K), inexpensive
  • Disadvantages:
    • Poor energy efficiency, bulbs produce artwork damaging heat, short bulb life, most countries have been phasing out the use of incandescent bulbs over the past several years.
  • Recommendation for Lighting Artwork:
    • NOT RECOMMENDED

Compact Fluorescent (CFL) Bulbs

  • Advantages:
    • More energy efficient than incandescent bulbs
  • Disadvantages:
    • Poor color reproduction (low CRI), emit high levels of UV light which can damage artwork and cause fading, contain toxic mercury.
  • Recommendation for Lighting Artwork:
    • NOT RECOMMENDED

Xenon Bulbs

These bulbs are mostly used in automotive headlights and camera flashes, but there has been talk of using them to light interior spaces.

  • Advantages:
    • Color temperature is very close to natural light, high CRI
  • Disadvantages:
    • Expensive, not widely available, may emit UV light
  • Recommendation for Lighting Artwork:
    • NOT RECOMMENDED
30" x 45" TruLife Acrylic Float Mount Print Illuminated by LED Accent Lights

How to Chose the Best Light Fixtures for Artwork

There are a variety of different light fixtures which can be used to light artwork. The advantages and disadvantages of each type of fixture are outlined below, but finding the best light fixture mostly comes down to personal preference.

Track Lighting

Track lighting is a specialized lighting fixture that features a track and heads (lightbulb holding fixtures).

  • Advantages:
    • Track lighting is the most versatile fixture for lighting art since several different lights can be placed on the track and each light can be individually adjusted to shine on the artwork.
    • Artwork looks absolutely stunning when illuminated by track lighting.
  • Disadvantages:
    • Installation can be a significant investment
  • Recommendation for Lighting Artwork:
    • HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

    Recessed Lighting

    Also know as recessed canister lighting, high hats, or recessed cans, this type of lighting fixture is very popular in homes built in the past 20-30 years.

    • Advantages:
      • Very sleek and minimalist, since the majority of the fixture is hidden inside the ceiling.
      • Utilize a standard screw-in Edison socket which accommodate LED, halogen and incandescent bulbs.
      • Some newer recessed cans (WAC Lighting Oculux) have adjustable gimbals which allow the lightbulb to be angled towards the artwork.
    • Disadvantages:
      • Most fixtures are downlights that only shine straight down towards the floor. Use a bulb with a 60-120 degree beam angle to overcome this issue.
    • Recommendation for Lighting Artwork:
      • HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

    Ceiling and Wall Mounted Accent Lights

    These fixtures are mounted to the ceiling or wall and can have a single lightbulb or several bulbs pointing in different directions.

    • Advantages:
      • Accent lights are available in a variety of different styles.
      • Many types of accent lights can be angled towards the artwork.
    • Disadvantages:
      • Existing light fixtures may be mounted too far away from the artwork to properly illuminate it.
    • Recommendation for Lighting Artwork:
      • HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

    Wall Washers

    Wallwashing is a lighting technique where large light sources (usually LEDs) are installed at the top or bottom of a wall to “wash” the wall with light. This type of lighting is very common in museums, galleries and public buildings, but can also be installed in homes.

    • Advantages:
      • Modern look
      • Illuminates the entire wall and artwork
    • Disadvantages
      • Installation can be a significant investment
    • Recommendation for Lighting Artwork:
      • RECOMMENDED

    Ambient Lighting

    Floor lamps and table lamps can be great for creating ambiance in a room and can also be used to illuminate artwork. These types of fixtures are often used with some of the other lighting options discussed above, but in some homes they may be the only option.

      • Advantages:
        • Floor and table lamps can easily be moved to illuminate artwork.
      • Disadvantages:
        • Can be challenging to light a room and artwork with the same fixture. Consider adding additional ambient lighting fixtures if needed.
      • Recommendation for Lighting Artwork:
        • RECOMMENDED

      Picture Lights

      Picture lights or frame lights are mounted on the frame or directly above the artwork. Battery powered and wired lights are available.

      • Advantages:
        • These fixtures do an excellent job of only illuminating the artwork.
        • Picture lights can be a good choice when none of the other lighting fixtures discussed above are feasible.
        • LED lights are recommended, since the lights are placed in close proximity to the artwork.
      • Disadvantages:
        • To power the light, a cord may need to be run up the wall, which may not be aesthetically pleasing.
      • Recommendation for Lighting Artwork:
        • RECOMMENDED with LED lights

      Important notes

      • Every home and office is different and sometimes it can be challenging to figure out the best way to light the space. This guide will give you a great foundation about how to light fine art, but if you need additional assistance, consider hiring a Lighting Consultant or Interior Lighting Designer. Scott is also available to answer any questions you have about lighting artwork.
      • Working with electricity can be dangerous! If you decide to invest in new lighting fixtures, hiring a professional electrician to assist with the installation is highly recommended.
      30" x 45" TruLife Acrylic Facemount Print Illuminated by LED Track Lighting

      Final Thoughts

      Every piece of artwork deserves to be properly illuminated! After investing in a new fine art print, it is important to think about how best to light it. By carefully evaluating your existing space and selecting the best lightbulbs (LEDs) and light fixtures (track lighting, recessed lighting or accent lights) the artwork will look its best and will be appreciated by viewers for many years to come.

      Since the world of lighting fine art is rapidly changing, this article will be updated with new information as it becomes available. If you have any thoughts or opinions about lighting artwork, please share them in the comments below.

      If you are searching for the perfect fine art photography print for your home or office, consider browsing through Scott Smorra Photography's fine art galleries. Scott specializes in creating limited edition fine art prints which have been used to beautify a variety of interior spaces. If you have any questions about limited edition fine art prints or lighting artwork, please don't hesitate to contact Scott.

      Updated: 3/6/2021