Main image ‘Starry Night’ from the Van Gogh Gallery


Lighting the Art Collection in your Edinburgh Home

When we admire our favourite work of art in a museum we are seldom aware of the intricate work that goes on behind the scenes to show it to its best advantage. Take lighting for example. If exposed to the wrong kind of lighting – both natural and artificial – harmful UV rays will fade a painting and it will deteriorate over time. It therefore takes a close collaboration of experts to ensure it not only looks its best but can be enjoyed by art lovers for years to come. Edinburgh period home restoration specialist Mackenzie Hughes explains how you can apply the same lighting principles used in art galleries and museums around the world to your own personal art collection.

The best time to plan for lighting your works of art

When a valuable new work of art arrives at a museum the curator, the lighting designer and the conservator will collaborate on where it should be placed, what kind of lighting should be used and how the painting should look. The result may involve more than installing lighting for the painting itself, but for the whole building to set the overall ambiance. The lighting infrastructure may need to be changed, which could involve new lighting track systems and accessories. This may not be such an easy task to do at home so the best time to think about lighting your artwork is when your home is being restored or extended. That way you can plan it along with the rest of the building work.

When choosing a builder, architect or interior designer to include new lighting for your art collection, it’s important for them to have an appreciation of art and understand the complexities of lighting your collection.

Image from Saatchi Art

Lighting and Preservation

Artwork in a museum is not only there to be admired. The images portrayed, the materials used, even the frame itself combine to give us an insight into life around the time it was created. Preservation is therefore the number one priority. As feet is to metres, footcandles are to lux – two different measurement scales for the same thing – light intensity.

The conservator will decide the right intensity in footcandles or lux for the art in question, and the lighting designer will work their magic to make it look at its best with the minimum amount of light. When lighting your artwork at home, here are some recommendations depending on the materials used.

Sensitive art collections

In the past, wall lights were often put in place to simply highlight an objet d’art with the lights themselves a much lesser feature. This year however, wall lights will become bigger, bolder and works of art in themselves. Their purpose will still be to add accent lighting to key areas in the home, but they will no longer be the poorer cousin. The examples shown are from restoration projects by Mackenzie Hughes.

Sensitive art collections can include textiles, watercolours, photographs and drawings.  They should be displayed in very low lighting -maximum 5 footcandles – or 50 lux. If we compare typical office lighting which around 40-60 footcandles, we can see just how low this light intensity is. Drawings and textiles are particularly sensitive to light which is why museums will only show a collection of precious drawings for a short while before storing them in darkness for many months before they can be displayed again.

Image from Yuji Lighting

Less sensitive art collections

Oil and acrylic paintings can withstand a moderate amount of light which should be no more than 20 footcandles (200 lux) of lighting for paintings.

Least sensitive art collections

Least sensitive art collections include most metals, stone and glass which can take up to 30 footcandles (300 lux) and more without long-term adverse effects. By and large they are not light sensitive but check your work of art with a conservator at one of Edinburgh’s auction companies such as Lyon and Turnbull just to be sure.

The switch to LED lighting

Van Gogh’s famous painting, Sunflowers, was painted using a yellow pigment called lead chromate, otherwise known as chrome yellow. Over time the colours have darkened due to light exposure and nowadays artists use different yellow pigments to ensure their paintings will stand the test of time. However, all light will damage paintings eventually and, to address the issue, museums have over the last few years switched from traditional incandescent and halogen lighting to LED.

Both halogen – a variation on incandescent – and traditional incandescent bulbs contain UV which has no place in lighting artwork as it can cause irreparable damage. Even natural light should be dimmed to a degree in a room contain an art collection due to the amount of UV it contains. LEDs contain no UV, which why they’re less harmful to paintings as well as being energy efficient currently making them the lighting of choice for most museums around the world.

Two-Dimensional v Three-Dimensional Art

Flat art

Two-dimensional…or flat-art…is usually lit by track systems. This can also be done at home before the artwork is installed, by hanging evenly spaced light-fixtures, called wall-washers on the track on the ceiling in front of the wall. The wall-washers are angled to ‘wash’ the wall with light and highlight the artwork. The beauty of this type of lighting for your flat-art is that it is evenly lit. 

If, however, you are looking for a more theatrical, or dramatic lighting style a second track of lights can be hung behind the wall-washers and angled downwards. The intensity of the light can then be adjusted to suit each piece of artwork. A lighting designer can also advise on the correct lighting for highly-varnished or glossy surfaces, or gold frames which can cause glare. This usually involves adjusting the light to divert the glare to the floor.


Unlike flat, or two-dimensional art which is hung on a wall a sculpture will usually be placed on a pedestal and lit from four or more directions. In a museum a sizeable sculpture is usually placed in the centre of a room so that visitors can watch around it to appreciate the intricate detail. In a family home however, it is more likely to be placed in an alcove or near a wall rather than take up valuable space. There’s also the safety aspect, should anyone bump into it…not to mention the loss of value should it get knocked over.

Auguste Rodan’s ‘The Thinker’

For details of new lighting products on the market or for advice on lighting your home contact Mackenzie Hughes Edinburgh.

10 Tips for Art Collectors

  1. Think about preservation first – then aesthetics.
  2. Learn about lighting measurements (footcandles and lux) to determine the level of intensity for your artwork along with systems and fixtures. Or, hire an expert who can give you the right advice.
  3. To retain the value of your artwork, never hang it in direct sunlight. If possible install UV-blocking film on the windows.
  4. Buy the best equipment you can afford and make sure it has accessories to modify the light. There are good and bad LEDs so talk to suppliers or another reliable source before investing.
  5. Before you hang a painting, consider the best lighting solution for the wall where you want to place it. If you are planning to restore or renovate your home, or add an extension, speak to your builder or architect about planning the lighting at an early stage.
  6. Make sure your builder or architect understands the best ways to light artwork.
  7. Speak to your lighting designer, or other advisor about colour rendering. How well the light source represents the colour of your artwork can vary. Colour rendering is measured on a scale of 0-100. Traditional incandescent Tungsten Halogen lights have a colour rendering of 99 which is more or less perfect, but as we’ve seen they have their drawbacks in terms of energy consumption and UV content. LED lights can range between 80-98 on the scale so invest in LEDs with higher-colour rendering, in the mid or high 90s.
  8. For aesthetic purposes, use warmer colour temperature lights like 2700 kelvin LEDs or incandescent lights for paintings made before the Impressionist movement, which often have more browns and earth tones.
  9. Use 3000 kelvin LEDs for paintings from the Impressionist movement through contemporary periods. This will emphasize more vivid hues.
  10. In general, light should shine 25-40 degrees from the vertical, projecting from eye level.
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