So you’re ready to show off your art or photography collection. How should you light it for maximum impact? Brilliant Lighting designers receive questions from amateur home gallery owners quite frequently…here are a few tips we share to help make the most of your collection.
Whereas most rooms require a balance of ambient, task and accent lighting, the gallery will be heavily skewed toward accent lighting. After all, our intention is to clearly accentuate the art on display. This article will not address ambient lighting in gallery spaces except to say that it should be simple. The following tips outline the configuration of accent lighting for the actual artwork in the room.
Choose a Flexible Lighting System
Art galleries, even home galleries, should typically be equipped with a picture lighting system that may be easily reconfigured to illuminate new or relocated pieces easily. Avoid directional cans (recessed fixtures that pivot to direct light). These fixtures may rotate to light different areas, but you will not have enough light for an especially large piece. Historically, track lighting and monorail lighting have been the systems of choice when lighting galleries.
Choose Lamps with Good Color Rendering Abilities
The Color Rendering Index of a lamp (aka light bulb) is, in simple terms, its ability to display the colors of illuminated objects. More specifically, CRI is a number between 1 (monochromatic light) and 100 (the sun) representing the breadth of the visible light spectrum a light source emits. For example, fluorescent lamps such as those in office buildings and many kitchens obviously have a very low color rendering index. Many colors look the same or nearly the same under such light. Most incandescent lamps have very high CRIs. Unfortunately, they lack precise directional characteristics desired when lighting art. One benefit of low-voltage track and cable systems is that they typically make use of halogen lamps. Halogen lamps combine nearly perfect color rendering abilities (typically 100) with precise beam control.
Color Temperature is another factor determining how colors appear to the
eye under a specific lamp. The concept is fairly intuitive in that warm
colors will be more vibrant under ‘warm’ lamps and cool colors are richer under ‘cooler’ light
sources. Incandescent bulbs emit warm, if not yellow, light while halogen lamps such as those
found in most contemporary track lighting,
cable lighting and
monorail lighting systems emit
extremely white light in the mid to slightly warm range.
In short, halogen lamps are excellent choices when lighting artwork.
Choose a Lamp with Proper Beam Spread
One lighting problem unique to artwork is that the size of the lighted area is very specific. Although the size of the cone of light that surrounds the artwork need not be the exact size of a specific piece, an extremely large cone lighting a small piece may look odd since the eye will be drawn from the piece to the illuminated wall. More importantly, the cone must be wide enough to illuminate the entire target area. Lamp choice is the easiest way to vary the width of a light cone without moving fixtures. Choosing the proper lamp is simple once you understand the concept of beam spread.
A lamp's beam spread is simply the width of the cone of light it emits
as you move away from the
source. Popular labels for lamps with
different beam spreads are spots and floods. In reality, commonly available lamp beam spreads vary from 10 to 60
degrees calling for the addition of more specific terms such as ‘narrow flood’
or ‘wide flood’ for lamps along the spectrum. Brilliant Lighting defines each as follows:
- “spot” describes lamps with a beam spread of less than 15 degrees
- “narrow flood” describes lamps with a beam spread between 15 and 30 degrees
- “flood” describes lamps with a beam spread between 30 and 50 degrees
- “wide flood” describes lamps with a beam spread greater than 50 degrees
Barn Doors and Framing Projectors
Many spot light fixtures offer accessories that will allow light to be easily confined to reduce glare and form certain shapes. Barn doors are the most basic of these. They are simple, adjustable opaque shades that block direct glare from fixtures.
Framing projectors serve a similar purpose, but go a step further by introducing a set of lenses to allow the precise direction and shaping of a light cone. Properly installed, framing projectors will confine the light to the exact borders of a painting which creates an eye-catching contrast effect with the background. For large galleries, the use of barn doors and framing projectors may reduce direct glare from other fixtures as well.
Before employing barn doors and other accessories, fixtures should be mounted at the proper angle to see if glare will be a problem. When mounting fixtures, endeavor to aim them at approximately a 30 degree angle up from straight down. This steep down angle will prevent reflected glare from the surface of the artwork.
To achieve the desired 30 degree mounting angle in hallway galleries, consider using a monorail lighting system. Monorail is field bendable to allow the formation of gentle 'S' curves. Installing these curves in a hallway and attaching track heads at the widest point of the curves will allow you to achieve the proper angle in narrow hallways.
Lighting Three Dimensional Art
Lighting three dimensional art is a bit more involved than lighting hanging artwork. Light orientation will greatly impact the appearance of each piece. Lighting from one direction will produce shadows and isn't typically recommended unless the goal is to draw attention to dramatic contours. Often, it’s best to consult with the artist when lighting sculptures.