How to Choose the Right Picture Lights for Artwork

I’ve often been asked by clients about guidelines for choosing picture lights to properly light their artwork, large photos, maps, or prints. I thought I would share some of the basic tips on choosing the right size and color picture light for your artwork.

The standard for choosing the correct size picture light has always been to pick one that is approximately half the size of the image itself (not including the frame). So if the image is eight inches wide, then you would select a four inch picture light. On the other hand, I have also read elsewhere that you should chose a light that is half the frame width, which I think probably appeals more to people’s sense of proportion than having anything to do with proper lighting. There are also certain situations that require a picture light that is the approximate size of the image itself, say a large abstract painting, where the focus of the artwork isn’t necessarily centroidal, but the edges are just as important.

There are two ways to choose a color for your picture light. The first and most obvious is to pick a color that matches the frame. Black, gold, brass, silver, and bronze are all very popular choices. The second way to pick a color is to go with a choice that compliments the color scheme of the room the artwork is going to be placed in.

I’ll basically just cover three styles right here: classic, contemporary, and slimline.

1. Classic
Above is the classic or traditional style. It has a forward sweeping shade that gives the light fixture an angled look. I imagine it gets its “classic” label because of its association with large, elaborate gilt-framed oil paintings.

2. Contemporary

Next is the contemporary style of light. This light has a rounded shade that is symmetrical and neat. It is meant to not overwhelm the picture with its own unique style, but to provide light and not get in the way. Other than that, the contemporary and classic looks are fairly interchangeable. It is simply a matter of preference.

3. Slimline

Below, you’ll see the Slimline style of picture light. This style is the first real departure from the traditional picture light “look” that we have been examining. It is characterized by a swooping, curved armature that rises above the shade itself and also by the shade’s striking narrowness. This style of light is going for a much more contemporary look and looks great over framed photos, prints, and drawings. It also is very useful in circumstances where the image is very wide and the light fixture needs to be de-empathized, which the slimline achieves with its namesake slimness.
I’ve provided these sample images of the different styles, but keep in mind that each style comes in a variety of colors, not just the ones shown. Also, as the lights get bigger and wider, they require additional arms to support them. So, whereas a seveb-inch light has one arm that connects it to the artwork, the 14-inch light will have two, and the 30-inch light will have three. If you have any questions about choosing, purchasing, and installing the right light for your picture, then please call our office at (212) 477-4319