Art & Design Art & the Artist

Let it Shine—Expert Tips for Lighting Art in Your Home

It’s not enough to simply display a fabulous art collection, in order to really dazzle, it also needs to be beautifully lit—here’s how to do just that

Art has given us many visionaries who were masters of light: Sorolla, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Monet, Turner. All captured the essence of radiance, suffusing their work with something that seemed to emanate from within it, or which drew the eye to the person or object they most wanted us to notice. But, say curators and gallerists, much like the light within a piece of art, the lighting surrounding it also needs to be carefully considered.

“Even the most beautiful art in the world can look inert, dormant, not yet activated, if the lighting is wrong,” explains Andrea Tarsia, director of exhibitions at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. “Lighting is crucially important; it’s the one thing that brings everything together. Part art form, part science, it is the component that breathes life into the artwork.”

A living room with art lit by aperture spotlights
Breathe life into art with bespoke lighting solutions. For example, in this home, Texas-based Lucifer Lighting used aperture spotlights to illuminate a painting, while lights within in-wall alcoves showcase 3D pieces and sculptures.

But where do you start? Industry-leading art lighting specialists Harry Triggs and Andrew Molyneux, founders of London-based TM Lighting, say that the top-tier considerations for displaying art at its best are the same, whether they are working with Historic Royal Palaces, Piano Nobile, Christian Louboutin, Damien Hirst, or a private collector.

Lighting is part art form, part science. It is the component that breathes life into the artwork—Andrea Tarsia

“It always comes down to a few key factors,” says Triggs. “First, the type of lighting—we always recommend the highest-quality LED. Then we consider your personal tastes and intentions. Do you want the lighting to highlight one particular work, or even one aspect of it, so that attention is drawn there the minute someone walks into the room, or do you want everything to have equal billing? How do you want the room to feel? Cozy, or more like an exhibition space?

“We also think about what you’re lighting. We would have different solutions for, say, an Old Master and a Hockney. Finally, what is the style of the room and home? Is it contemporary or classical? Energetic or calm? The answers to these questions will determine the type of lighting that we’ll recommend and supply, but the real magic is in the fine-tuning. There are infinite possibilities. It is an extremely versatile and effective tool—one that does so much more than illuminate.”

A stately room filled with portraits and tapestries
At Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, TM Lighting replaced outdated picture lights with energy-efficient LED versions, ensuring the full color of portraits, furniture, sculptures, and tapestries was brought to life.

Choose Your Lighting

High-quality LED is now used by museums and galleries throughout the world because it gives the maximum depth, texture, color, detail, and vibrancy—all without fading paintings. But when it comes to choosing the right LEDs, Molyneux recommends asking how well the light scores on what the company has defined as the three Cs: color rendition, color consistency, and color temperature.

For example, color rendition is how true colors look under that light. Daylight, the benchmark, has a color rendering index (CRI) value of 100, so Molyneaux advises aiming for a light source with a CRI of 95+. He believes it’s best to use the same grade of lighting by the same manufacturer for consistency and uniformity.

For color temperature, his tip is to note how the light influences not only the appearance and mood of an artwork but also how people feel about it. Warm white works well in the home, for instance, while cooler white is better for contemporary spaces.

“We might go for a neutral temperature for a seascape and for something much warmer for an Old Master to enhance the drama,” says Triggs. “It’s a question of finding the right temperature on a case-by-case basis and developing a feel for what works well for you.”

An enormous painting bathed in light in an otherwise dimly lit grand room
For especially large paintings or tapestries, it's important to use lighting products that distribute light evenly over the entirety of the artwork’s surface—such as these used by TM Lighting at Combermere Abbey in Cheshire, England.

Tailor Your Solutions

“The type of luminaire you choose should be tailored to the artworks and the space,” says Alexandra Mathews, executive vice president of Texas-based Lucifer Lighting, whose clients include the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Baccarat’s flagship store in New York, and the Beverly Hills Hotel.

She points out that tracking systems, which automatically direct lighting on to an artwork, even if it moves, “offer flexibility and are particularly popular with clients who rotate their artworks.” On the other hand, while small aperture spotlights can direct light on to the artwork and illuminate most of its surface, “the angle needs to be right, otherwise you run the risk of casting long shadows or creating glare. Similarly, large paintings can be very difficult to light, in which case you might have to use wall washers to bathe the wall—and the hangings on it—in light.”

Lighting is an extremely versatile and effective tool, one that does so much more than illuminate—Harry Triggs

If you’re lighting a 3D piece or sculpture, use spotlights, says Triggs. “You can position them to accentuate the form, but be sure to pay attention to the effects and mood you’re creating. Your lighting can age a face: uplight it and you might make it look angry; downlight it and you might make it look happy. In other words, you can totally manipulate a piece of art with lighting.”

A hotel bar with a wall full of artworks
Lucifer Lighting used a range of different picture lights to showcase a gallery wall in the bar of the Great Northern Hotel in London, drawing attention to particular paintings and creating a warm, cozy atmosphere.

Be Selective

Galleries and museums need to light every single work, but you don’t. You can select the pieces you’d like to highlight, or the ones that most need specialist treatment. “Try to look at the space as a whole and aim for a good balance of light,” says Molyneux. “It may well be that the overall effect is better when only key items are lit.”

Mathews agrees: “If you walk into a room and you notice lots of light, then you may need to tone things down. Lighting should be subtle, it’s the supporting actor that enables the lead to shine.”

The Ideal Solution

“The lighting and the positioning of pieces go hand-in-hand,” says Triggs. “In a perfect world, they would happen simultaneously. We have had clients whose primary consideration when they have moved house is their art collection, and who have brought us in at the very beginning. In such situations, we’re involved from the planning stage onwards and are able to create a truly bespoke lighting solution for each individual room and the art that goes in it.”

Banner image: Getty Images