How to Properly and Professionally Light Your Artwork

Emilie Trice | May 20, 2021

Photo by T. Q. on Unsplash


Have you ever considered the physical journey an artwork makes from the studio to a collector’s home?

Successful artists not only select the right materials for their art, but also consider how external factors such as lighting may affect their work throughout the documentation, sales, and installation process. 

  • Art is digitally photographed for promotion, both online and in print.

  • Work is displayed for sale in temporary settings such as galleries and art fairs.

  • Collectors install and display their new art in their homes.

  • Buyers can preview art through apps or via online viewing rooms (OVRs) under various virtual lighting conditions.

For artists, dealers, and buyers alike, displaying your art correctly will enhance the work’s beauty. Even a minor oversight or miscalculation, however, can detract from a piece’s aesthetic impact. Thus, it's important to consider all aspects of the artwork’s documentation, display, and installation at every stage of its life cycle.

Lighting art for proper documentation 

Digital technology means artists now have access to a wide range of online sales platforms. Whether you're selling your art via the web or working with a gallery, it's absolutely essential that the digital file of your artwork is a true representation of the piece in terms of color, scale, perspective, and detail.

Collectors who love your work will generously refer you to their friends and could become long-standing patrons of your art. Ensuring that the documentation of your work is as professional-looking as possible will bolster your sales and add credibility to your artistic practice.

Photographing art is a three-step process:

1. Choose soft, natural lighting conditions

Take your work outside on a cloudy day. Find a position where smooth light strikes your image from above, and try to avoid any harsh shadows or bright flecks of sunlight. Natural light is usually sufficient, but you may also like to use a reflector or artificial light to fill in any areas where the light is uneven.

2. Use a tripod

Place your tripod at the center of your artwork. If you're using an easel, keep both the easel and the artwork as upright as possible. If you're leaning your artwork against a wall, make sure your camera is aligned at the same angle as your art. 

This keeps the sides of your artwork parallel to the sides of the photo, and avoids any unnecessary perspective corrections in post-production which can require expensive software.

3. Edit your digital file

Artists have mixed views on using Photoshop to edit the image of their art, but this is a vital step in the documentation process. Your digital file should be corrected to ensure the colors match the original work. Tone and contrast should be enhanced to compensate for any lost details. 

Digitally remove any dust, speckles, or scratch marks related to your camera lens, but don't alter the work itself. The goal is to make your art look as close as possible to its real-life experience without over-editing.

Photo by Highlight ID on Unsplash

Use light to your advantage at temporary exhibitions such as fairs

The problem with light at art fairs is that it is dynamic light that's often beyond the artist's individual control. This means artists need to work within the confines of the light that already exists, where the light itself is prone to change throughout the day.

Indoor art fairs tend to have pre-defined indoor lights or awkward windows that are not always geared towards displaying art. Outdoor art fairs can present anything from the perfect overcast day to sharp sunny contrasts with unsightly reflections. 

These factors can be challenging, but there are some simple guidelines you can follow to optimize the lighting on your art in just about any setting.

  • Use what you have available. Many art fairs charge for power outlets, so try to innovate with the natural light as best you can.

  • Place your art in a way that allows most of the light to come from above. Higher light sources create softer, more even lighting.

  • If reflections are an issue, position your work at a 45-degree angle to the light. This reflects light off the work without shining it directly at the person who is looking at your art straight on.

  • If contrasts are an issue, use an artificial light or reflector board to reflect light into areas of dark shadow. This evens the tone and makes your artwork easier to see.

  • If conditions change, don't be afraid to move your art to a better location. This may mean setting up again or adjusting your setup, but it will ensure your art looks its best throughout the day, which will help with your sales.

How can artists know if their work is properly lit?

Finding the right lighting for art is a balancing act. Art often looks best when it's lit with a perfectly neutral light — however, perfectly neutral light can also feel cold and unwelcoming. 

The gold standard for picture lighting is to use lights with a color temperature of 2700 to 3000K. These lights have a relatively neutral impact on the original colors, and still cast a soft yellow glow that makes indoor settings feel warm and welcoming. 

Warm lights with a temperature of 2700K are recommended for any setting where the comfort of the room is as important as the art displayed.

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In studios, museums, art galleries, and spaces where the art itself takes precedent over the comfort of the room, it's recommended to choose lights with a temperature of 3000K. These lights are slightly more neutral than the warm indoor lights but can be a little stark on the eye.

Best practices for lighting art in your home

Poorly lit art detracts from its aesthetic intent, and the viewer’s perception of it will suffer as a result. If art is well-lit, however, it can actually appear more beautiful and “important.” Consequently, how you light your art can define how much you enjoy your art, so it's essential to choose the right lighting for your art collection.

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1. Lighting art with attached lighting

Plug-in lights are fixed to the wall, yet fully customizable. This gives you complete flexibility to place the right lights exactly where you need them. Art is best when lit from above, with soft-toned light that floods the image evenly. Look for lights that are similar in length to your artwork, and choose a warm neutral glow at 2700K to 3000K.

You may like to use a virtual demo room to trial the perfect picture lights for your space, before you install any attached lighting. This is recommended as a means of previewing a piece of art in your intended space before purchasing it.

2. Lighting art with built-in lights

Direct wire lights are restricted by their position, but easily customizable. The trick is to cast a soft pool of light that's as large as possible to diffuse the light throughout the room. Look for lampshades in neutral colors, and avoid letting any naked bulbs stick out the bottom of the shades.

Built-in lights should have light bulbs that fall within the 2700K to 3000K temperature range to mimic the look and feel of bespoke picture lighting.

3. Lighting art with ceiling spots

Ceiling spots are a superb way to utilize your space because you have the choice to either use framing projectors as track lights or individually installed as monopoints. You can direct ceiling spots in any direction or work with reflected light to brighten a space without needing additional lights.

Angle ceiling spots at 45 degrees toward your art, and light it from above. If your ceiling is a lighter color, point one of your ceiling spots at the ceiling to enhance the ambient light. This is particularly effective in dark corners, or spaces where the natural light falls short.

4. Lighting art with unattached lights

Floor lamps and table lamps provide excellent fill-in light and can be repositioned to suit your art. Unattached lights need height and should always be placed above the midline horizon of your artwork. 

Place two unattached lights of similar size on either side of the art, then move them slightly forward to enhance the natural textures.

The key to lighting art is balance

Picture lights make or break the entire look and feel of your home. They also have a direct impact on how well a particular piece of art will sell in a gallery or market environment.

The secret is to create soft, smooth lights using large lights that are naturally diffused. A color temperature of 2700K - 3000K offers neutral light, with a comfortable glow that's ideal for a domestic space. These lights are equally suitable for a museum or gallery where color needs to be seen in optimal conditions. 

Lighting is a personal preference that should suit your unique style, home, and art.

Look for symmetry, always light art from above, and aim for a 45-degree angle wherever possible—then choose the lights you love! Your art will thank you. 

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