How To Light Art

People frequently ask us about the best way to light artwork. It can be a complex subject, whole books are written about lighting. What I’ve learned about lighting is from designing three art galleries, talking with experts and reading books such as Interior Lighting for Designers, by Gordon and Nuckolls. Here are some of the basics about installing art lighting in your home.


Track lighting and recessed cans are the preferred types of fixtures for lighting artwork because of their flexibility for aiming at artwork. Track lighting is the most flexible system for moving lights and aiming at artwork. Recessed lighting with adjustable heads are attractive for their clean look but aren’t quite as flexible as track. Recessed lighting with fixed lights are used for wall washing and ambient lighting, not very suitable for art lighting. High-end fixtures can include louvers and filters for focusing light just on the art, reducing ceiling glare and filtering UV rays.


MR-16 low voltage bulbs because of their compact size are a very popular bulb for lighting of art in residential and retail situations. They provide a wonderful white light and are available in a variety of beam spreads. These low voltage systems use a transformer on the fixture or hidden in the ceiling. The bulbs emit a small amount of UV rays which are filtered by the glass lens that comes with most MR-16 fixtures. TIP: Do not touch the inside of the bulb because your finger oils will make it burn out sooner.


PAR 30 bulbs are larger than MR-16s and have a standard screw-in base. They are commonly used in residential recessed cans and track lighting in art galleries.


Light Placement should be set so that the light strikes the wall at 30 to 45 degrees, measured to a point at eyelevel on the wall, approx. 60” from the floor. A steeper angle than 30 degrees will create deeper shadows and shallower than 45 degrees may cause reflective glare. On an 8 foot ceiling place your track or recessed cans 20” to 36” away from the wall and on a 10 foot ceiling, 42” to 60” from the wall.


Incandescent flood lights are not suitable for art lighting.


Fluorescent and LED are very energy efficient and have made much progress with full color spectrum but not yet good enough for art lighting.


Picture lights, budget $29 to $500, mount directly onto a picture frame or wall and are usually powered with an extension cord. There will be a separate discussion about the variety of picture lights.


Avoid UV light rays because it causes fading. UV rays are present in sunlight and small amounts in fluorescent and halogen lighting. It is recommended to use UV filtering glass in all picture framing and to avoid direct sunlight.