by Joelle Steele

Whether you are an artist or a collector, the display of a painting demands that it be lit correctly. This becomes very evident when you look at the same painting under different lighting conditions. Without the correct lighting, that painting can look very dull and lack the vibrant color that is revealed once it is lit properly.

In museums and art galleries, works of art are not generally displayed under light for long periods, since all kinds of light can damage paintings over time. These venues are instead open to guests for certain hours and the lights are turned off immediately afterwards. But in your studio or your home, your art may be on permanent display more or less indefinitely, and you can't just walk around in the dark in an effort to protect your paintings. You will instead want to light your art so that you can enjoy it, and you may additionally want to light it even better at specific times for your guests or prospective buyers.


Your home or office lighting is probably just fine for everyday viewing of your art. Your space probably has a variety of different kinds of lights, including table and floor lamps, task lighting, ceiling fixtures, and recessed lighting. These may additionally result in the use of a variety of lighting types, including incandescent, fluorescent, and halogen bulbs. Add to those any natural light that comes through windows and skylights. Combined together, all of these lights create the overall ambient light in your environment, and how much light this creates and how it affects your art depends on how many lights are in use, the quality of those lights, how close they are to your art, and how long they are kept on.

In general, your everyday lighting will probably sufficiently illuminate your art for general viewing. It will probably not damage your art as long as the warmth from that lighting is not felt on the paintings themselves, and if the lights are not left on for longer than an average of about 8 hours per day. But if you want to accent your art for short periods of time for guests or collectors, you will likely need to provide additional lighting that is two to three times brighter than your current ambient lighting can provide. Here is a breakdown of how certain kinds of light affect art.


Natural light is basically sunlight, whether it streams full force through your windows, is muted by fog and clouds, shines directly or indirectly, reflects off a wall, comes from a certain direction, or shines in at a specific angle. Sunlight makes most paintings look fantastic. Unfortunately, its UV and infrared rays destroy almost all art that is exposed to it. The UV rays alone will gradually fade the colors in paint. So, instead of inviting natural light into the room where your art is displayed, it is advisable to control the exposure to sunlight with drapes and shades that protect the art, particularly at the times of day when there is the most natural light entering the room.


Most homes and offices have both incandescent and fluorescent lighting. Incandescent bulbs emit a lower color temperature that accentuates the warm colors of the spectrum, while fading out the cool ones. This means that your art will not be accurately lit by incandescent lighting alone.


While we are all being encouraged to "go green" and use fluorescent lighting in our homes and offices, these types of lights do not accurately portray colors because they do not emit light across the entire spectrum. In addition, fluorescents have high levels of UV rays that accelerate the fading of colors at a greater rate than that of incandescents. It is for this reason that museums and art galleries do not ever use fluorescent lighting, and you should not even consider using it to light the art in your home or office.


Halogen lamps are incandescent lamps that house halogen gas and a tungsten filament. They last longer than incandescents, but they burn very hot. Halogen light is a pure white light that emits a higher color temperature than do the incandescents, meaning that the halogens better accommodate cool colors. Halogen bulbs must be handled carefully so that contaminants from your skin do not weaken the clear quartz, causing it to leak gas or explode. Hold the bulbs by their porcelain bases or use gloves when installing them. Low wattage halogen lighting, used in combination with incandescents, is commonly used to illuminate art, since together they light both the cool and warm colors.


The first wave of LEDs were not good for use in lighting art, but the most recent LEDs tend to be a lot more like halogen lights. But if you thought halogen bulbs were expensive, be prepared for LED bulbs that cost almost triple that amount. But, the LEDs last a lot longer than halogens, they are not as hot, and they do not emit UV rays. When buying LEDs to illuminate art, look for bulbs with CRI (color rendering index) values greater than 90 for the best color accuracy.


In most cases, track lighting is the most flexible and adaptable way to light your art. It can be adjusted to light entire walls or just a single painting. And each track can hold several individual lights that can be moved around to fit your needs. Recessed lights also have a little degree of movement, and they may work for lighting your paintings too. It is unlikely that you will want to install any small lights on the frames of your paintings when track lighting, if installed and directed correctly, is far less likely to damage the art.

Avoid shining light directly onto a painting. Instead, aim your light at an angle — about 25-35 degrees F — to minimize glare and shiny spots. Experiment with the angle until you find one that works for a particular painting, and remember that the smaller the angle, the better any texture will be accentuated.


Art is an investment that needs to be protected. By learning how to safely and effectively light your art, you will ensure its appearance as well as its longevity.

This article last updated: 10/18/2015.