Oscar Wilde once wrote that “all art is quite useless”, although he was referring to sheer lack of intrinsic value rather than its ability to stimulate, create mood, or embellish. We fill our lives with things that challenge or make us happy – useless things, often, but they are things that please us and even define us, nonetheless.
When we display artworks within our homes our motives for doing so might vary. Perhaps the aim is merely to enliven or adorn surrounding décor, to accentuate ambience, or to provoke thought, whilst creative types might only seek an outlet for their art. But how do we best display our pictures, or paintings, or photos? How best to light them? Click here to go straight to our picture light section.
Positioning is vital
Having acquired or perhaps created your piece of art, where should you position it? Our primary concern here is lighting, but if you’re looking for advice on physical positioning then you should aim for the centre of a picture to be at eye-level, which is typically somewhere between 145-155cm from the ground.
A common-sense piece of advice is to avoid hanging art near to radiators and heaters, and we’ll accompany that with some aesthetic advice: allow sufficient space between sizeable artworks for them to breathe, and not jostle for attention. Complementing – not competing – is key. With smaller pictures and paintings a more confined layout can often work, especially where the subjects are cohesive.
As a rule of thumb and where the fitting allows, aim for a 30° lighting angle between fixture and artwork to minimise any likelihood of glare. Slightly less acute with larger pictures and a little more acute if you’re looking to accentuate texture.
Daylight and UV radiation
When it comes to lighting, daylight is impossible to beat for sheer quality. It enables us to see all colours accurately by its continuous spectrum.
Daylight is great for viewing art, but there’s a king-sized caveat: it emits UV radiation as part of its electromagnetic spectrum. You don’t need to know the science, but UV light has a harmful and irreversible effect on organic materials, which includes paper, paints, dyes, inks, pigments, and your skin and eyes! In all cases excessive exposure is not advised, so you should only consider hanging art in direct daylight or sunlight if the art is repeatable, which is conceivably the case if it’s an inkjet print or derived from a digital file. Equally, if you have UV protection in your picture frame or windows you can afford to be a little more blasé! Click here for a guide to preserving your artwork.
Unless you live in a cave, of course your artworks are likely to be exposed to some level of ambient light, but you should at least avoid hanging unprotected art anywhere exposed to direct sunlight. If you produce your own art you may be able to extend lifespan through your choice of materials, e.g. inkjet prints achieve greater longevity by use of pigment inks on porous paper, or by the use of dye-trapping polymer printing papers with regular inkjet inks.
At the end of the day – artificial lighting for art
Having weighed up the slings and arrows of daylight illumination, what type of artificial light is best for artworks? All of the main lighting technologies have inherent advantages and disadvantages.
Often revered as the undisputed king of museum and art lighting, halogen lighting is crisp, bright, very pure and white, so it’s ideally suited to showing off your pictures, paintings, and photos. Being an incandescent light source, halogen is inherently colour accurate, with a CRI rating that unwaveringly measures at the maximum 100 or thereabouts. The only drawback with halogen is its lack of efficiency in todays energy saving terms.
Our stunning Gainsborough Picture Lights are available in a choice of sizes and finishes, using halogen candle lamps (available separately) for great-quality art illumination. A built-in on/off switch on the back plate allows independent control, and the light is dimmable through an existing mains dimmer-switch should you want to modify its output or usage of power.
Fluorescent lighting itself emits varying levels of UV radiation, so you’d be unlikely to see it in close proximity to a priceless work of art, yet it is often to be seen in museums as a means of overall illumination and sometimes includes a built-in UV filter to increase its suitability as a picture light. As well, fluorescent lighting offers something like a 40-50% energy-saving advantage over modern-day halogen lamps and approximately 70% over original incandescent lighting.
Lifespan is also impressive in fluorescent lighting, with picture lights typically using efficient T5 tubes with longevity of up to around 15,000 hours (model dependent). Only bettered in this respect by LED, fluorescent models are often a little more affordable up front.
The Rembrandt Picture Light is an elegant art-lighting solution drawing just 14W of power with its supplied T5 tube. The modern-looking Rembrandt has an adjustable light head for optimum positioning and an independent on/off switch on its back plate, and you can select from a range of finishes to best complement your picture and décor.
A pleasing alternative to the Rembrandt is the Goya 365 Low Energy Picture Light, which comes in fluorescent and LED versions in a choice of finishes and sizes. Both height and angle can be adjusted with this fitting, so perfect illumination is easy to achieve.
LED (and choosing colours)
LED offers distinct advantages as a picture light, not least of which is its super-economical use of power, which is something in the region of 90% less than old incandescent technology and 60-70% less than typical energy-saving halogen. Since LED saves energy by staying relatively cool, it is also inherently useful as a means of illuminating art in close proximity. And let’s not forget, they now use LED lighting in the Louvre Museum!
One of the historical disadvantages in displaying art with LED has been in colour accuracy – it lacks the continuous spectrum of daylight or an incandescent light source, which in turn makes it less dependable for displaying all colours well (violet and aqua hues are often a little problematic, for instance). The Kelvin temperature or CCT of a lamp is always worth considering when lighting art, too: a warmer light will complement reds or oranges in a picture or painting, whilst cooler lamps are better for accentuating cooler colours.
For most of our purposes, LED is a great means of displaying our art economically and effectively, and it’s a light source that literally lasts for years.
Lighting Direct offers a selection of LED picture lights for your consideration. The Goya 460 LED Picture Light, for example, is beautifully contemporary in appearance with a style that enhances your artwork rather than competing with it. In addition to the usual angle adjustment of the light head, the Goya also uses a height-adjustable bracket for extra fine-tuning of illumination. This is also a particularly wide picture-light ideal for illuminating larger objets d’art!
For the ultimate in easy installation, our specially selected LED Battery Operated Picture Lights fully exploit the power-efficent nature of LED and require no connection to mains. Better still, these lights come with a remote control and are dimmable, so you can alter output and consequently mood, whilst also preserving battery life. The supplied remote control can adjust multiple lights, so this is a particularly well-oiled solution to creating a home gallery.
Colour, finish, and style
You might ask yourself what colour of picture-light fitting you should buy. Well generally you’ll match the finish of the fitting to match the artwork, which may or may not already blend seamlessly with the décor. Think about complementary colours when selecting a finish: a brass or bronze finish might pair nicely with a warm-coloured picture, whilst chrome or nickel might partner well with cooler colours.
Then there’s style, and here you might look at the nature of the artwork and its frame or presentation. Modern-looking picture lights tend to be sleekly designed and often a little minimalist, whilst the traditional style tends to be a more rolling, elaborate affair. A ‘classic’ style is often reminiscent of a particular era, although the distinction between that and ‘traditional’ is often never made.
The dimmable Teetoo 350 Picture Light is typically contemporary in its design, and uses an integrated transformer and low voltage halogen capsule (available separately) to provide superb illumination for your art.
Examples of traditional design might be the Elegant Iron Picture Light in black/gold, and the Onedin Picture Light. The latter uses halogen lamps for crisp, bright white illumination.
Size and type of lights
As a rule of thumb, picture lights should have a width that is at least half that of your picture, although slightly less will often suffice. You might note that the wider of these fittings tend to use fluorescent or LED tubes or strips, as opposed to multiple money-burning halogens. LEDs also have the advantage of being very small, which in recent times has given lighting designers extra scope in producing compact and very slim housings and fittings.
The focus of this article has been on individual picture lights ideal for household purposes, but of course there are other ways to light pictures. If you’re in the habit of moving your photos, prints, or paintings around – as commercial galleries might be for instance – you might like to consider a track lighting system. This also works if you’re exhibiting pictures either of or on a grander scale. Lighting Direct stock expandable track lighting systems such as the Acorn 3 Light and Track Kit, which can be upsized from the initial 1-metre, tripled-lamped length to an impressive 30-metres maximum.
You may need to call in an electrician to install it, but once installed a track lighting system allows you the freedom to move your art around and ‘track it’ with movable spotlights. In this kind of set-up you need to pay careful attention to the beam of the lights, which should provide adequate coverage for each piece rather than burning a hole into the middle of your paintings. The pros often use a mixture of flood and narrow-beamed spotlights for precise effect.
A final flourish
In choosing a picture light or set of picture lights there are several things to consider; narrow your search on Lighting Direct by using the handy set of search tools to the left of screen.
If you have any desk or table lamps dotted around your home you might quickly try out their effect on your pictures, as a very rough idea of what to expect from particular technologies and hues in a picture-light. Remember: warm lights for warm subjects and cooler for cool. For black and white art you can take your pick, with cooler lights more closely resembling our perception of neutral daylight and warmer lights creating a cosier, more relaxing ambience.
Here is a second, thought-provoking quote from the one novel of Oscar Wilde: “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors”.
To view the full range of lighting options for your artwork please take a look at our picture lights section.
For more inspiration try our Lighting Ideas area.
Andrew Evangelidis Head of Buying
Andrew is an experienced buying professional who takes an entrepreneurial approach to identify new lighting solutions and ensure Lyco have first-to-market ranges for our customers. Having previously worked for well known brands such as Wickes, Carphone Warehouse and Toys R Us, Andrew has now turned his hand to sourcing commercial lighting and ensure our customers receive top brand quality products at marketing leading prices. He manages a team of commercial and decorative buyers who travel the world finding new products that our customers don’t even know they need yet.