How to Light Artwork


Leaf series in office lit by track lights

When it comes to showcasing your art, there are two things that are crucial to making your art look its best:

1. Great framing, of course

2. Good lighting

It is amazing how little attention people pay to the lighting of art.  Good lighting is crucial to enjoying your art.  How best to light your art?  Here are some tips:

The best way to light your art is with hard-wired directional lighting.  Directional lighting is usually adjustable, usually mounted on or in your ceiling, and is directed at your art, as opposed to down lighting or general lighting which lights an area of your room or a countertop.  Directional lights usually have a fairly tight light pattern that lights the art at which it is directed and not much more.  Directional lighting includes track lights, eye-ball type recessed lights, and suspended directional light systems.  The advantages of directional lighting are:

  • It focuses the light on the artwork, highlighting the art
  • It can be adjusted for intensity using a rheostat
  • Warmer or cooler bulbs can be used to highlight the colors in the art
  • The room can be lit with just the art lights, heightening the drama of the room
  • Reflection is minimized

Directional lighting is usually done when a home is built or remodeled because the wiring and installation is easier with the walls opened up.  In some cases, if you have access to an attic, directional lighting can be retrofitted.  Ideally the directional lighting would be on its own circuit with its own switch with a rheostat.  Often people like the ambiance of a room with the directional light highlighting the art and providing soft lighting for the room.  The only drawbacks to directional lighting are the cost and the difficulty in retrofitting in many cases.

Abstract landscape well lit in a den

Abstract landscape lit with two picture lights


Picture lights work to light art, but they have some drawbacks.  With a picture light, it can be hard to get enough distance from the art to wash the whole piece with light.  The electrical cords on picture lights can be unsightly.  Some of the cord ugliness can be mitigated by hiding the cord behind furniture or encasing it in a cord conduit that can be painted the color of the wall.

There is an increasingly large array of picture lights for different applications.  There are traditional picture lights and very modern lights.  There are mantel lights that have a base that allows the light to sit on a mantel or buffet and light art from below.  There are corded lights and LED lights powered by regular or rechargeable batteries.  Some picture lights have remote controls.  There are picture lights that mount to the back of the frame, to the wall, or even to the ceiling.  The battery-powered lights allow placement of the lights anywhere without the unsightly cords, but battery life is limited and the batteries need to be changed or charged periodically.  In short, picture lights solve some problems but have their limitations.

When you are building or remodeling your home, take the time to figure out where you are likely to place art and plan for good directional lighting for those places.  Be sure your architect or contractor is thinking about art locations and lighting.  It may be worth it to hire a lighting designer to help you think through all the issues and show you lighting systems that you didn’t even know existed.  No matter how great your art is or how beautifully framed it is, if it is not lit well, your enjoyment of it will be compromised.