Famous for his ability to paint the subtle nuances, Rembrandt offers paintings, like his Self Portrait, with a unique, luminescent quality.
What is art lighting?
For many artists, art and light are synonymous. For instance, Rembrandt's paintings are famous for their luminosity. Just consider any of the portraits by the Dutch master on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City or any of a number of important museum collections worldwide. While Rembrandts look pretty good in any light, there are certain methods to properly lighting your masterpiece. While the MET's Rembrandts seemingly glow of their own accord, they do employ the aid of various light sources. In short, lighting is critical when coupled with fine art and even a slight difference in direction or type (fluorescent, incandescent, halogen, natural, etc.) can make all the difference. Like anything else, art lighting is a compromise and requires some expert advice.
I know what you are thinking, this art stuff isn't so hard. The answer is simple, natural light, right? Most artists are trained in art schools flooded with natural light, so the answer is natural light. Many people believe that sunlight is the best type of light for art and it would follow that art looks best in natural light. True?
Sorry, but no. There is no simple answer here, this is art, remember. Art's not easy. Anyway, natural light is hard to control in general terms. It causes a big problem for art, particularly, paintings and works on paper. The infrared and ultraviolet (UV) rays of natural sunlight can damage works of art. UV rays are so harmful that it can, over time, fade works on paper especially pastels, prints, photographs, and watercolors. Also, textiles will fade in sunlight in a matter of only a few short months. That means your notion to redecorate in the "cozy, country style" and hang your great Grandma's colorful crazy quilt on the wall that faces that big picture window in your sunroom is definitely a bad idea. I discuss the topic of art framing and glass options in another Art Advice column. So, in short, natural light isn't the easy answer.
Incandescents have their good and bad points. They bring out the warm colors within the color spectrum such as the red, brown, orange, and yellow tones. You can probably notice how this painting by David Baker enhances the reds and pinks over other colors. But if you have a seascape composed with blues and greens (i.e., the cool colors), then an incandescent light won't bring out all of those cool colors. The blues, greens, and violets within your works of art will be flattened out by incandescent lights. So, these lights are better than natural or fluorescence but are not the entire solution to the lighting problem. Complicated, isn't it?!
Fluorescent lights aren't the easy answer either. Museums and galleries don't use the fluorescent bulbs as a common practice because they give off a high amount of UV rays which are harmful. In addition, fluorescent lights do not emit light across the entire spectrum of colors and this is problematic.
Although museum professionals have not "blessed" the halogen light because of the strong white light that it emits, halogens are among the best lighting solutions if installed properly. A low watt halogen light may prove to be a very good lighting solution and in our example using the Baker painting, the subtleties come through with a halogen light. A low watt halogen-based bulb has been recently introduced which redirects damaging UV and infrared rays of light. Once again, the use of a halogen light at low wattage may prove best for most works of art.
In short, as a museum curator and art historian, I do not
keep works on display for long periods of time since all light (natural and
artificial) is damaging to works of art and antiques and as a result will
devalue your pieces over time. Thus, I do not recommend direct lighting
systems and I never recommend that any direct light be placed at any angle
on artwork or antiques.
Natural light (Sunlight) -- art looks great but some art will deteriorate in this light.
Fluorescent -- Not recommended for art in most cases.
Incandescent -- Great for warm colors but not recommended for cool colors.
Halogen -- A combination of halogen lighting and incandescent may be most suitable for the widest range of art lighting situations. Museum professionals have not yet accepted that halogens are completely non-damaging to works of art.
I hope this column answers some of your lighting questions. I will supplement this discussion of art lighting with some additional information about displaying art in your home, gallery, and office in the future. Feel free to contact me with any questions or comments.
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