The Art of Lighting

technology profile - lighting

The Art of Lighting

A conversation with three lighting design professionals about illuminating artwork.

BY Douglas Weinstein

Preservation Architecture staircase and piano



PROPERLY LIGHTING A WORK OF ART MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE in the world when it comes to displaying it. A painting that moves you in the gallery will not have the same effect if it’s bathed in shadows or otherwise improperly illuminated. Intelligent lighting design is meant to place your art at center stage, eliminate unwanted glare, and protect your investment over the years.

I recently sat down with three lighting design professionals to talk about considerations when it comes to illuminating artwork. Carolina Prendergast is the Manager of Design Solutions for DMF Lighting, Jordan Hobart is Founder and Principal at H2E Design, and Mark Schuyler is the Founder and Principal Designer for MSLD.








DOUG: This is a big subject. Where do we get started?

MARK: Residential lighting for art is not terribly complicated if you get in early, and the designer is qualified, meaning that they are knowledgeable about the specifics and that they have done a lot of work in this niche. In a residential setting, we’re not looking for museum-scale perfection – we want to make the art look good but not disrupt the rest of the space.

CAROLINA: I agree that a qualified lighting designer getting in early on a project goes a long way to ensuring that the homeowner is going to be satisfied with how their art is displayed. One simple illustration is asking the homeowner not only how important their art is in their life and how much they care to invest in illuminating it properly, but whether the art is placed permanently or is the art going to be rotated occasionally, just that simple question brings so many variables into the equation. If permanent than the placement and beam optic will need to be specifically designed for that piece. If you rotate art, then you have to have a rather flexible lighting design with either adjustables, wall washers or a combination of the two, depending on the space.

JORDAN: And you also need to consider the actual artwork itself. The size of the piece, the thickness of the frame, height of the art, etc. And I even extend the initial discovery questions to fabrics and furnishings – the art is only one aspect of the space and we need to determine how the entirety of space is intended to be illuminated according to the homeowner’s preferences. Art is the thing we lead with as far as a lighting plan, because the emotional value is so important to people who take their art seriously.

Preservation Architecture pool



DOUG: Okay, so there’s a lot to unpack here! Let’s start with the space itself. What are your concerns?

JORDAN: One key takeaway is you can’t talk about lighting art too early because of the framing issue. As we figure out the floor plan, you have to go section by section of the framing to understand how much space you have to work with.

We had a client who designed his own house by and large, and he was really talented for recognizing the way to design a space. One day the framing is up and he walks down the main hallway and there is a truss running right down the middle – but the truss is in the way. “We’ll just shift the lights over”, was the builder’s reaction! And it is not uncommon to find that lighting is an afterthought on most projects. I tend to find that the same thing holds true about art. So when we are brought onto a project we ask where do you think you will be placing your art and then we can communicate with the builder where we intend to install the fixtures or back boxes. We claim the space. And so at the end of it all, it is going to look intentional and that it was planned.

MARK: As Jordan describes, you need to evaluate the overall dimensions of the space and determine where you want to place lighting fixtures so that they can be incorporated into the build specification. Communicating with the other trades is critical. As far as the overall space, the finish reflectances in the room matters more than the amount of light emitted in the space. If the room — the walls and floors — are high reflectance in order to make that room look balanced, we have to increase the amount of light on the art itself.

What we’re looking for with illuminating art is contrast – bringing out the art as it pertains to the rest of the space. As a rule of thumb we’d like the art to be five times as bright as the surrounding space so it draws the eye and stands out. But you have to also factor in the color of the art itself – is it a bright piece or is it saturated with lots of browns and blacks?

And let me just say that proper power quality is also important. If you don’t have good grounding or the electrical distribution and lighting control system isn’t built properly, that is a significant obstacle. Lighting is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to what a house’s power quality is — compared to a semi-conductor in the fridge, electric lighting seems to look odd early. We always stress that qualified electrician needs to check the wiring before the finishes are applied – it’s critical to redundantly verify that the wiring is correct and retested throughout the final stages of construction.

"A big question is always, what is the height of the space? Is it a flat or pitched ceiling? The height helps us define what fixture to use, beam spread, and what tilt or angle we’ll use."CAROLINA PRENDERGAST | DMF LIGHTING

CAROLINA: A big question is always, what is the height of the space? Is it a flat or pitched ceiling. The height helps us define what fixture to use, beam spread, and what tilt or angle we’ll use. We have a luminance chart we share with our lighting designer partners which shows the beam spread from different height levels – we use that to see how many fixtures to use and the beam spread depending on ceiling height. The more art in an area means you have to either use a few fixtures with wider beams or more fixtures with narrower beam spreads. These are just starting points, as you also have to consider, like Jordan mentioned earlier, what the exact piece of art is and how wide the frame is, etc.

Besides the ceiling height and whether it is pitched, I’d also agree with Mark that how the rest of the space is going to be illuminated impacts how we light art so we can get the proper contrast. So we’d want to know how the homeowner envisions lighting their space – do they want a warm, incandescent-type of color temperature around 2700K or a brighter illumination in the 3000K range?

And finally, I’d want to understand how they like their art to be lit. Do they like a lot of contrast with the surrounding space or just softly illuminated art. And there are differences in the types of art a homeowner has to consider – perhaps a landscape piece can be more softly lit to highlight everything as opposed to a Picasso where there are objects of various colors which you can highlight by giving contrast within the piece.

JORDAN: I’d also point out that you have to consider the color of the surrounding space – what’s the color of the walls and furnishes – because if the lighting reflects off those walls, it will cast a hue. A useful tool is a color tunable light so you can compensate for the daylight outside or compensate for the color of the space. You can actually enhance the color of the art, illuminating it with the appropriate color of light.

Bar with Samsung The Frame TV


"I’d also point out that you have to consider the color of the surrounding space – what’s the color of the walls and furnishes – because if the lighting reflects off those walls, it will cast a hue."JORDAN HOBART | H2E DESIGN

DOUG: Obviously, there is a lot that is involved in lighting design and experience is a big factor in choosing a lighting designer. And getting that person in early. How do you educate a client in determining the level of importance of the various layers of lighting that go into a project?

MARK: Two things might be helpful to understand art lighting. First, a mockup of what you are recommending to the Client is important. Test the light according to all of the things we’ve been discussing and let the homeowner decide if that works for them. We all experience light differently, so what is acceptable to you might not be acceptable to the client.

Second, all light is destructive to art. Full stop. Being careful of uV– and while most LED doesn’t really have much uV – is important. All visible light, including from LEDs is destructive. How long the client wants a piece of art to last determines how many hours it is illuminated. The benefit of LED is there is no infrared, so you don’t get destruction from IR radiation like that created by incandescent or halogen light sources. The bottom line is to think about how many hours and how intensive any given piece of art will be illuminated – which is why some owners rotate their art periodically.



"Test the light according to all of the things we’ve been discussing and let the homeowner decide if that works for them. We all experience light differently, so what is acceptable to you might not be acceptable to the client."MARK SCHUYLER | MSLD

CAROLINA: I’d say that most if not all clients where their art is important to them also have fine furnishings and fabrics that they also want to intelligently illuminate. So exploring and demonstrating various solutions goes a long way to educating the client so they can make informed decisions. While every project has a budget, in the grand scheme of things intentional lighting has about the biggest impact of the ambiance of a space and the wellbeing of the family members.

For me accent lighting is where I start because it usually highlights important artifacts, textures or details in a space and then infill with general light. This way you can control how a user experiences the space and guide their views to important pieces like artwork.

JORDAN: Yes, there is going to be a budget, so you have to work with the client to determine what is most important and what areas are the most important for them to have properly illuminated.

I was working with the son of a famous impressionist painter and showed him a few examples of LED lighting and explained about CRI (color rendering index) and other terms we use in my profession. We talked about various qualities of LED lighting and discussed color. We took a much better quality LED than he had been illuminating one of his father’s works with and he said he had never seen the texture and color purity and depth. So accuracy for your art is critical, if the emotional value is important to you.

Talking with clients about the quality of their art, the intrinsic value or emotional response they get from viewing it, is part of the discovery process. We like to show our clients decent lighting and an example of excellent lighting – decent lighting is okay for your laundry room, but in the master closet and for your art, you really need excellent light.