Using Gallery Lighting to Illuminate Your Framed Artwork

Written by Mark Rogers

A home is not a museum — there aren’t any guards to protect the valuables, and the house wasn’t built only as a way to display artwork. But even though you may not have all the bells and whistles of a museum, you can still light up your artwork professionally with a few gallery lighting techniques.

What Is Gallery Lighting?

Gallery lighting, also called museum lighting, refers to the method used to illuminate artwork in a professional setting. Museums use this type of lighting to illuminate artwork not only so that the viewer has a clear, unobstructed view of the sculpture, painting, print or photograph — it is a way to get rid of reflections and shadows on picture frames — but so that the artwork’s most important features are highlighted appropriately.

Lighting the right way is actually its own field of study — the Illuminating Engineering Society was founded over a hundred years ago to address these very issues. They take into consideration the five “controllable qualities of light”: intensity, movement, angle, distribution and color, as well as the types of lights available. The Smithsonian American Art Museum, for example, created a video featuring the different ways in which light was used to enhance the gallery’s contents. Its complexity is surprising, with a series of halogen floodlights and incandescent spotlights precisely illuminating a sculpture — and the result is striking.

How to Use Gallery Lighting at Home

While it may not be entirely possible to control all five qualities of light in your own home, you can still create a dramatic effect by keeping a few tips in mind.

  • Choose to highlight a specific piece or the whole room.

Unlike the rooms of a museum, which are built for the sole purpose of displaying artwork, the rooms of your home are built to be lived in. You may choose to have a room whose purpose is more geared towards displaying artwork, such as a study — this means that you have more of an opportunity to light for the objects, not the people in them.

If you have a sculpture, you can choose to mount spotlights in various locations to highlight the piece, which may make the lighting in the rest of the room a bit darker. You could also choose to strategically place table or floor lamps around the room to create layers of light rather than lighting the artwork alone, says lighting consultant Harry Triggs. Alternatively, if you have one large painting in an often used living room, you may choose to mount a row of ceiling lights above it — the painting will still be illuminated, but you can still see the rest of the room clearly.

  • Select the type of light fixture.

There are numerous light fixtures used in museum lighting, including ceiling lights, track lights, wall washers and picture lights.

Ceiling lights, which can be recessed or surface-mounted, light from above. When using ceiling lights, ensure that the angle is at 30 degrees — any less, says lighting expert Doug Russell, and you’ll get shadows. Any more, such as 45 degrees, and you’ll get glare on the picture frame.

Track lights offer similar advantages to ceiling lights, but they are more adjustable and easier to install. They may not have the same clean, professional look as recessed ceiling lights, but they are more suited to homeowners that don’t want to renovate their house simply to light artwork. The same rules in terms of angles apply: 30 degrees, no more and no less.

Wall washers are more dramatic, illuminating the entire wall rather than a single piece of artwork. This is particularly useful if you would like to highlight artwork in a room that still needs to be adequately lit, such as an office or living room. A wall washer can be placed at the floor or ceiling — and, since the entire wall is lit, you don’t have to worry about keeping that one piece of artwork indefinitely.

Picture lights are one of the most common ways to light artwork at home. They attach to the top of the picture frame itself, casting light downwards. While they can truly bring attention to the artwork and come in a range of colors, styles and sizes, you must be careful of the type of light and its intensity so as to not damage the artwork, as the light source is very close to the artwork.

  • Pick the type of light.

UV light is a known enemy of artwork, causing some of the most severe damage over time. Even though you may keep your artwork out of direct sunlight, many types still emit UV rays and create heat. Instead of using standard incandescent light bulbs, opt for LED light bulbs, which emit less UV light. Halogen bulbs are often used, but they do emit heat and can damage artwork if they are used for long periods of time. You could also choose to frame your artwork with UV-filter glazing to further protect your art.

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1 thoughts on “Using Gallery Lighting to Illuminate Your Framed Artwork”

  • Linda

    If you want to illuminate a piece of that is 53 in wide what width should a the picture light be?

    • Joely Rogers

      Hi Linda, I'm afraid we can't answer that question. I would check with an interior designer or even a gallery owner. I did a little research though and found this article. It might help
      you get started.

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