Lowcountry Modern

Designing Your Home with Artwork in Mind

Photo: Dirk Vogel

For anyone building a new house, one of the things that deserves a discussion with your architect is the display of artwork. Whether it’s an extensive art collection, family portraits and photos, or just one very special piece, careful planning is important in showcasing the things you value most. Because there are so many variables, there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach when displaying your artwork. But, by applying a few simple strategies and avoiding certain pitfalls, your artwork will enliven the spaces it calls home.

The Artwork

Let’s first consider what you’ll be displaying. Different kinds of artwork have qualities that will influence how you display them.

Oil paintings can present problems without properly considering the lighting that’s directed at the them, producing unwanted spectral highlights. An evenly diffused light source works best for oil-base artwork.

Acrylic paintings are usually not glossy and therefore don’t have the glare problems associated with oils, so any type of light source may be used.

Artwork that has been placed behind glass often has problems with reflection and glare. Non-reflective glass with proper lighting placement can help solve these problems.

Sculpture and other three-dimensional artwork can be more complicated to display. These are ideally lit from three different angles. Some, however, can be lit by a single light source. In these cases, the location and angle of the light is up to the owner. It may look best lit directly from above, from below, or from one side to create a desired effect.

Photo: Alexandra Lechner

Ambient, Direct, or Both

When designing spaces that will have artwork, it’s important to consider whether you’ll use ambient, direct, or a combination of both.

Ambient light is the general lighting of the room. This is easily calculated using the area of the room (width x depth) multiplying that by 1.5: width x depth x 1.5 = Recommended Wattage.

The general rule for accenting a piece of art is to light it three times brighter than the rest of the room. So, if you are using a combination of ambient and direct lighting in a room, make sure the artwork’s lighting is three times brighter than the space’s ambient light.

Creating layers of light enhances the overall ambiance of the space. With today’s technology, you can create custom scenes that mix varying levels of illumination across both ambient and direct light sources for different times of day.

Work the Angles

The consensus of lighting professionals is that a 30-degree angle from the vertical viewing plane is optimal for projecting light onto a piece of art, preferably, from a ceiling-mounted source, and aimed at the center of the work.

If the piece has a large frame, adding 5 degrees to the angle can help avoid casting an unwanted shadow on the work. To accent the texture in a piece of art, reduce the angle by five degrees. If the angle of the light source is too close, it will produce unwanted raking shadows. If it’s too far way, it could produce unwanted glare.

For large pieces, even illumination is best achieved with either a linear surface-mounted light or multiple recessed fixtures from above to ensure full light distribution and prevent glare and annoying shadows.

Light Fixtures

To best illuminate the art work, it’s best to use bulbs that have a Color Rendering Index (CRI) of 90 or above. The index is a scale from 0–100 that rates how accurately a light source reflects color and intensity compared to natural light.

As far as the light source’s temperature, 2000–3000 Kelvin (K) is considered the best range for artwork, producing a warm, soft glow that will highlight the work without distorting the color palette.

World-renown museums are installing LED (light emitting diode) lighting. These bulbs emit less heat and block ultraviolet light rays. While more expensive, they’re a sound investment in the long run by consuming less energy and not causing damage to your prized photographs and paintings.

Ceiling-Mounted Accent Lights

Directional pinhole spotlights are a great way to illuminate individual art pieces. They can be recessed or surface-mounted. Their ability to adjust the light’s direction and control the light’s beam spread ensures that all the artwork is illuminated, not just a portion of it.

Photo: Gustavo Bernasconi

Track Lights

Track-lighting systems perform much the same as ceiling-mounted accent lights, but provide the additional advantage of flexibility. A recessed ceiling fixture isn’t easily moved if you decide to relocate a painting, but track lighting allows you to conveniently move a fixture or take one off.

Photo: Dirk Vogel

Wall Washers

It’s not necessary have to have dedicated lighting for each artwork. Instead you can wash the wall with light. Using wall washing fixtures is a more casual way of lighting artwork that delivers a wide distribution of light. They come in many types including recessed, surface-mounted, and track-mounted fixtures that can be placed on walls, ceilings, and floors. Wall washers accomplish two things.

Photo: Dirk Vogel

First, they create a brighter wall where art is displayed. Second, indirectly light the rest of the room. This technique is preferred by many contemporary art collectors. It also provides flexibility for changing what’s displayed on the wall. Since it’s evenly lit, there’s no need to add, remove, or adjust fixtures.

Picture Lights

Picture lights are mounted on the wall or directly on the frames of individual artworks. As a result, the fixtures are typically equipped with very low-wattage bulbs. Picture lights create an intimate space in front of the work and are better suited for smaller works of art. However, there are a few manufacturers that make very large picture lights capable of illuminating areas taken up by larger pieces.

Because of their visibility and location, the style of these lights should be considered with the overall look and feel of the room. While the fixtures themselves don’t require rough-in during construction, picture lights with cords require an outlet and hard-wired models need power run directly to them, so coordinating this during the design process is crucial.

Things to Avoid

It should go without saying to avoid direct sunlight. But, I’ll say it. Avoid. Direct. Sunlight. If the artwork is particularly delicate, e.g. works on paper, this is especially important.

Wherever possible, use walls that are north-facing, and avoid westward facing walls that receive the brunt of afternoon heat.

Avoid using fluorescent bulbs. Just don’t use the garish things.

Avoid unsecured and frame-attached lighting. Lighting fixtures that aren’t properly secured could move and damage your artwork, especially frame-attached fixtures. Avoid these wherever you can, but if you must use them, take extra precautions to ensure they’re properly attached.

Decorative light fixtures can cast unwanted patterns of light and shadows on walls were artwork is being displayed. Narrow spaces like foyers, hallways and smaller rooms are particularly susceptible to this occurring. Beautifully designed decorative light fixtures should be given enough space for their own appreciation while not compromising the display of your artwork.

Decorative lighting by David Trubridge.

To minimize damage, keep halogen lamps a safe distance away and equip the fixtures with lenses that filter UV light. Better yet, use LED bulbs. LED bulbs do not emit UV light and produce very little heat. Think ahead and invest in the right lighting during the design and construction of your new home so it doesn’t end up costing you what can’t be replaced.