Showing Your Art in the Best Light

Whether you are hanging photographs in a gallery, studio, or home setting, it is important to ensure that the lighting you select presents the work as beautifully as possible. If you are showing, for example, large-scale images of industrial scenes, you may want to use intense lighting that brings out every tiny detail. However, impressionist works that incorporate shadows and blurred forms may look their best with diffused illumination that creates a wash or generalized glow. As always, it is best to experiment and see what suits the piece.

Ideally, the ambient lighting in your display space should be a bit lower than the light on the artworks, so brighter rooms will require more illumination of the displays. It is best to remove any sources of harsh or glaring light; if there are windows to the outdoors, shades or blinds can provide more control over the environment.

Picture lights at Ananda Lima's open studio exhibition. Photo courtesy of  Ananda Lima

Picture lights at Ananda Lima's open studio exhibition. Photo courtesy of Ananda Lima


If your space has on-ceiling track lighting, the fixtures can be moved and pivoted at will, allowing for adjustable light coverage, intensity, and color temperature. In-ceiling cans offer a cleaner look and some flexibility with the direction of the light and bulb choice, but you will have to plan your hanging locations around the positions of the cans.

Individual picture lights, as shown in Fig. 1, can be an elegant, if somewhat formal approach. Traditionally, the need for AC power required either visible cords or in-wall wiring, but the advent of LED bulbs has made battery-powered picture lights a feasible and wire-free option, especially in smaller spaces that do not have to operate for many hours.

Another approach, which combines the benefits of both track and picture lights, is a picture hanging system with integrated lighting, Fig. 2. Gallery Owner Teyjah McAren likes how the system can be adjusted to spotlight individual works, or create “an overall glow.”

Lastly, if your space has limited options or you are on a tight budget, the humble clamp-on work light can be an excellent choice. They cost only a few dollars at hardware stores, accommodate a wide range of bulbs, and offer a lot of placement flexibility.

With these and other moveable fixtures, pay attention to the angle at which the light hits the photograph—if the light source is too close to the wall, you are apt to create shadows, but if it is too far out, the light can create glare on the surface of the work.

Integrated art hanging and lighting system at Teyiah's Art Den, Salmon Arm BC. Photo courtesy of  Teyiah McAren .

Integrated art hanging and lighting system at Teyiah's Art Den, Salmon Arm BC. Photo courtesy of Teyiah McAren.


Whatever hardware you use, selecting the right light bulb is important to the aesthetic presentation and preservation of the art. LEDs are a good choice as Halogen bulbs can provide appealing light, but also produce UV wavelengths and substantial heat, which can damage the photographs. Choose models that include UV shielding (e.g., General Electric’s Precise Constant Color line) and make sure that the bulbs are far enough away from the piece that they do not feel any heat. The same is true for traditional incandescent bulbs. As a rule, avoid fluorescent bulbs, which generate UV rays and tend to distort colors.

A bulb’s color temperature has a significant impact on how your artworks look. Lower temperature ratings (under 3000 degrees Kelvin) produce warmer light, higher temperatures produce cooler light. You will need to evaluate your specific display to choose which looks best, and check bulbs carefully for their temperature rating. Ideally, select one type of bulb as your standard and buy some spares to avoid distracting differently colored beams.

Also, note that reflector-type bulbs (such as PAR and MR16 types) come in a range of beam shapes—as narrow as 10 degrees to as wide as 50 degrees or more. This can be useful in matching the size and shape of works on display to the position of available light fixtures. Use a narrow beam if you have a small piece that’s relatively far from the light source, or a wide beam for a larger, closer piece.

With these tips in mind, a sophisticated art display is simple to achieve.

Guest contributor Pete Dunn is director of marketing for Gallery System Art Displays, which supplies art hanging systems to thousands of galleries and other exhibition venues. It is his good fortune to be the son and husband of visual artists, which has provided him with hands-on display experience.