install picture and art lights

Whether you’re displaying sculpture, a fine print, or original art in your home, proper lighting can transform how much your art is appreciated.

In most cases, you’ll decide between area lighting and traditional single-item picture lights.

The area lighting is most popular, and usually the best choice for contemporary and modern art. Area lighting includes track lighting, a recessed spotlight above the art, and lamps that light from the floor. There are also a few styles of standing lamps that can provide focused light for your art.

TRACK LIGHTING

If you display several pieces of art in your home, and especially if you change the display regularly, track lighting is probably the best choice.

Small strips of track lighting can be purchased in kits for under $50 at many home improvement stores. Most offer the option of adding inexpensive additional lights, too.

After installing the track on your ceiling, point the light at or directly in front of the art. If this is the only light source in the room, the effect can be dramatic.

One of the best benefits of track lighting is the ability to point the lights in different directions as you change your room decor.

Be sure that your track lighting system uses common light bulbs. This will enable you to choose high or low wattage and different colors of lights for various kinds of art.

RECESSED LIGHTS

If you are displaying sculpture or other dimensional art and you do not plan to move it to another part of the room, consider permanent recessed lighting.

Recessed lights are sunk into your ceiling, and should be installed by an electrician. The light bulb–often spot lighting–is mostly concealed from view unless you stand directly under it. This provides a good clean visual impact when the light is not in use, during daytime hours.

Recessed light fixtures can also accommodate a wide range of bulbs, including different watt levels as well as colors. Especially if you are displaying monotone or metallic sculpture, vividly colored lights can create a spectacular effect.

FLOOR LAMPS

Dimensional art can look most dramatic when lit from the floor. Some spotlights are designed to rest on the floor or are mounted in place. When furniture or plants conceal these fixtures, the effect is modern and almost mystical.

These kinds of spotlights are generally inexpensive and readily available. They also accept most standard light bulbs, and are the simplest to move as you design your art displays.

However, these lights can get very hot. If you have pets or small children, floor-mounted spotlights can cause burns unless kept out of reach.

STANDING LAMPS

In most cases, standing lamps don’t focus enough specialized light to accent art well. The exception is any fixture that can be adjusted to provide directed light.

However, standing lamps are designed to brighten an entire room, and they can throw out considerable heat. If your art–especially acrylic paintings or mixed media work–might soften or melt when exposed to continuous heat, be sure to place the standing lamp at an appropriate distance.

While standing lamps are easy to find and generally use common types of bulbs, they probably won’t meet your needs for lighting your fine art.

And, if your art is permanently displayed in your home or office, or if it is very traditional art, single-item lighting may be a better and more aesthetic choice.

SINGLE-ITEM LIGHTS

Many collectors prefer small, individual lights over each painting. This is what you’ve seen most often in museums and some art galleries.

These lights use small, safe bulbs, usually a flashlight bulb. The inside of the light fixture is white enamel to provide maximum reflection for the light. This not only gets the most light from the small bulb, but it also disperses the light evenly.

On the outside of the fixture, picture lights are usually brass or brass plated. The standard size is seven inches long, but you can buy larger or smaller fixtures, based on the size of your painting. (If your painting is extremely large, area lighting–especially a recessed spotlight–is probably better.)

Picture lights are manufactured as regular, plug-in lighting, or you can buy a battery-operated style. Both work equally well, but if you are going to use the light often, batteries can be inconvenient to replace. However, the cord from the plug-in style must be concealed or it will distract from the art.

Most picture lights can attach to the wooden frame of your painting. Measure and mark the exact center of the frame before you begin work. In most cases, a simple screwdriver is sufficient to attach the light to your frame.

However, if your painting is extremely valuable or if you’re displaying fabric art or other work that does not have a wooden frame, you can usually attach the light to the wall instead. Picture lights generally come with three or four screws that can go through either side of the fixture.

Most picture lights have adjustable necks and swivel shades, too. If yours does not, be sure to position the lamp exactly where you’ll want it before screwing it into place. Experiment with the light on to determine this.

If you are fastening the light to a wooden frame, be certain to use caution as you put it together. If the frame is shallow or easily cracked, the screws can damage the frame. Stop if you see this happen, and repair the crack with wood glue immediately. Also, never try to attach a picture light to a plastic frame; it can cause permanent damage.

CONCEALING THE CORD

If your picture light has a cord, conceal it with furniture, plants, or a special covering. Your home improvement or electrical supply store carries sheathing for this purpose. In most cases, you’ll attach this sheathing to the wall with the cord tucked inside it.

Unless the covering matches your wall color, be sure that you can paint it. Even if your walls have a gloss finish, it’s best to use a matte finish when you paint the cord covering. If all you have is gloss paint to match your walls, after the paint dries you can cover it with clear matte acrylic medium. This is sold in gel or liquid form in the fine art section of most crafts supply shops. A single coat is enough.

MAINTAINING YOUR PICTURE LIGHTS

If you are using a battery-powered light, rechargeable batteries usually last longest. The expense of a charger will pay for itself quickly if you use your picture light often.

All picture lights work best when the fixture is kept clean. Although the bulb is small, it generates considerable heat, and dust on the fixture can smell musty if it gets very hot.

Picture light bulbs seem to have a knack for burning out just as company arrives to admire your art. Keep a spare bulb on hand for these occasions.

And, keep in mind that every painting should have equal lighting. If you put a picture light on just one frame and five others in the room don’t have special lighting, the display will look odd.

Picture lights can be purchased for less than $10 each at many home improvement stores. Take the time to install a light on each painting that you own. Your investment will be worthwhile when your art collection looks like museum quality work.

In general, proper lighting won’t make a ho-hum painting into a masterpiece, but it can certainly increase how much you enjoy your art and how others appreciate it.

Choose the right lighting for your home and the kind of the art that you display. When you sit down and admire the art around you, you’ll be glad that you did.

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