How to Light Artwork in the Home

How to Light a home art Gallery

The increasing respect for fine art as an investment means a responsibility for creating an environment in which art is beautifully illuminated without damage by light.

Home Lighting: Lighting a home art gallery

 Retailers, remodelers, and interior designers who are often asked to retrofit interiors may be inspired by two architectural firms – Jones Studio and Olson Kundig – that are recognized leaders in homes designed specifically to showcase world-class art collections.

In their projects featured in the recently published book Contemporary Villas, (Strahan/McMillan/McMillan, Schiffer Publishing), each architect first designs a unique structure that makes the most of natural light. Then a plan is devised for electric lighting that replicates daylight. Architect Eddie Jones of Jones Studio in Phoenix says, “Every condition deserves a thoughtful, specialized response. Out of respect for the artist, we prefer to daylight the art. Daylight illuminates the (entire) space while electric light focuses on the art.”

 Pat McMillan: Home Interior Designer

The structure: admitting and controlling natural light. In the Logan House by Jones, it was decided that the design program would be about four distinctly different galleries. He explains, “Since the Sonora desert is well-known for its clear white light, so brilliant that it must be diffused to avoid damaging the art, each gallery would utilize a different daylighting technique.”

Gallery One has 6’-deep, parabolic white plaster shafts that bounce, reflect, and evenly distribute natural light throughout. “These shafts begin as a circular oculus and warp to a square, integrating an adjustable electric lighting grid. The grid doubles as the mounting point for suspended art-hanging walls and can be relocated as needed,” Jones notes, since the Logan collection is flexible and constantly being re-considered, loaned, and expanded.

“Gallery Two is a glowing cube,” Jones states. “Here, natural light is diffused first through a translucent film sandwiched between layers of glass that surround a 6’-high x 20’-square ceiling cavity. Next, light rays strike the white fabric that stretches across the entire ceiling. Rays are reflected, further diffused and softened, then evenly spread throughout this gallery.

Gallery Three – called the Black Box – has only a hint of natural light, which is filtered through the cast-glass iris of the sandblasted eye pattern on the exterior of cast-in-place concrete walls. “These eye-pattern motifs are used as architectural devices to strategically identify spaces in the house that contain only art,” Jones remarks.

Gallery Four is specifically shaped to accommodate the famous 30’-long Murakami painting entitled Supernova. “This space is naturally lit from clerestory windows which gather north light and reflect it off the opposite white bulkhead,” he adds.


Meanwhile, the project An American Place – a lakeside house near Seattle by Olson Kundig Architects – contains a premier American art collection. An imposing double-height gallery extends from the steel-and-wood entry canopy through the center of the house to a wall of glass that frames a view of the lake. Against that wall is silhouetted a massive bronze sculpture of a standing nude. Cutting across this gallery/hall is an extended gallery. From the north end of the house, this secondary gallery leads from an intimate study and master suite through spacious reception areas, ending at a glass bridge that connects to the upper level of a two-story guest quarters.

“The main house was scaled to heighten the impact of the art collection. Natural light is carefully balanced, and the paintings are unobtrusively protected from direct sun,” explains Jim Olson, whose design technique for beautifully balancing ambient light often involves clerestory windows.


Replicating natural light. Generally, all art galleries should have an easily reconfigured lighting system that makes quick work of illuminating new or relocated pictures. Track and monorail systems that bend around curved walls and ceilings work well. Monorail systems are especially helpful when areas involve narrow hallways.

The track need not create stark lines or a high tech look on the ceiling. In American Place, the track lighting is barely evident.  Baffle-like trim shields both sides of the track from view, blending unobtrusively with other trim work. Only a portion of each fixture along the track is visible.

Jones chose low-voltage halogen track fixtures to artificially illuminate art in all four galleries in Logan House. “The track lighting system has responded easily to the changing of exhibits,” he notes. When choosing the light source, Jones opts for “the most appropriate and energy-efficient lamp” although he adds that halogen provides “the clearest” light. “Switches that offer control flexibility is my rule,” he affirms.

While consensus is that track lighting and halogen lamps are excellent choices for illuminating artwork, art dealers advise against using recessed fixtures that pivot to direct light. Although these fixtures rotate to light different areas, art dealers believe they do not provide enough light for large artworks. (Note that the two homes featured have very large-scale pieces.)

Lighting sculpture. One look at the monumental bronze statue of a standing nude in An American Place makes clear that properly lighting sculpture is very different from illuminating hanging art.  For example, there’s the matter of creating shadows—or not! If a shadow is called for in order to highlight a dramatic silhouette, then light from one direction. If no shadow is desired, it is necessary to light from more than one direction.

To accent, or not?  Interior design generally demands a balance of ambient, task, and accent light. In the Logan House’s living room gallery, floor lamps augment the ceiling fixtures. (Interior designers will want to be sure that task lights will have bulbs compatible with the temperature of those used on the track system illuminating the art.)

Ordinarily, the illumination for any art gallery could involve a variety of accent fixtures, including flood and spot lights on tracks. Large-scale paintings call for wider flood lights; tiny framed art or sculpture may need a spot light. According to these architects, it is better to have the right fixture than to try to force an inadequate light to do the job. Savvy lighting retailers will be able to guide customers with informed choices of fixtures that remain unobtrusive, focusing all attention on the art!


Interior designer Pat McMillan Is co-author of Contemporary Villas and 14 other books on architecture and interior design, including Home Decorating for Dummies, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2014.





Captions for Logan House



The living room gallery lighting blends natural ambient light, recessed ceiling fixtures, track lights, and floor lamps. Photography by Robert Reck



A large-scale painting on the dining gallery wall is lit by recessed ceiling fixtures. Photography by Robert Reck



In the bedroom, glass walls provide ample ambient daylight. Large artwork is lit by track fixtures with halogen lamps. Swing-arm wall lamps provide elegant, bedside task lighting. Photography by Robert Reck



In Gallery One, lighting in a grid pattern provides evenly-distributed, consistent lighting for a continually changing display of art. Photography by Ed Taube








A monumental bronze sculpture dominates the main gallery, lit naturally by a large glass wall and clerestory windows. Track lighting focuses on the art.



Discreetly installed track lighting focuses on wall-hung art.



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