How to light your artworks

Down or up? Day or night? Two leading industry insiders give their tips for achieving museum-quality illumination at home


Photograph by Carol Sachs

‘Taking a priceless piece of art and transforming it so the client sees it in a different way is a joy,’ says lighting consultant Harry Triggs, who founded TM Lighting with product designer Andrew Molyneux in 2012. ‘They may not always be verbose in their praise, but you usually get a little twinkle that tells you you’ve done a good job.’

Having set out with the ambition of becoming the ‘go-to people for lighting art’ by using new high quality LEDs that offer far superior colour rendition, the two art lovers have created an impressive set of picture lights and spotlights, and now head a team based in an office and workshop near Russell Square in London. Triggs and Moyneux’s clients now include London’s National Gallery, Sir Antony Gormley and Christian Louboutin, and we sought them out for their expert advice on lighting a home collection.

Create layers of light

Triggs and Molyneux are not fans of gridding out a ceiling with downlights. ‘You don’t need to light the whole space,’ says Triggs. ‘Start at ceiling level with something that lights key furniture arrangements, mantelpieces or credenzas. Think of the room as a stage and light the locations in which the action takes place. Coming down to wall level, use something like picture lights to lower the apparent height of the ceiling, create a cosy ambience and bring out the colours in any artworks. Finally, add table lights and floor lamps around the room’s focus areas to draw people to them.’

... and switch to LEDs

European legislation is gradually phasing out incandescent light bulbs and the S15 bulb used in most picture lights, says Triggs, so as stocks run out, all picture lights will have to be upgraded. On a brighter note, LEDs do not emit the infrared and ultraviolet rays — and, more importantly, the heat — produced by halogens and other incandescent bulbs, which can damage delicate artworks. Other benefits include significant energy savings, lower costs and better light distribution. As Molyneux explains: ‘If the light intensity at the top of a painting is within three times that at the bottom, the eye tricks itself into thinking that the painting is evenly lit.’


TM Lighting was commissioned to install Picture Lighting in a show flat in Knightsbridge. It was crucial that each artwork was shown in its best light, as it would be in a gallery. The company matched its picture lights to the antique brass finishes in the rest of the flat

Position art carefully

Don’t hang paintings in direct natural light — the UV and infrared radiation can fade them. And think before you position them between large windows, as the eye will struggle to see the art during the day. Read our guide to hanging pictures for more expert advice.

Picture light or spotlight?

The main difference is that a spotlight creates a pool of light over an artwork, whereas with picture lights there is a more definite cut-off. Otherwise, it depends on client preference: picture lights come in a range of shapes, sizes, finishes and colours to work equally well in contemporary or traditional homes. In a minimalist space, however, a client might prefer a track and spotlights system, ‘which creates a gallery feel and offers flexibility,’ says Triggs, especially if the client has a collection that changes regularly. And in a house with beams across a low ceiling, says Molyneux, ‘a picture light might look too cluttered, while a mini spotlight would be discreet as well as flexible’.

Choose the right LEDs

A poor-quality LED can create a pallid, sickly light, ‘like a doctor’s waiting room,’ says Triggs. For the right quality of light in a home environment, he advises a colour temperature of 2,700K, a colour rendering index (CRI) of 95 or above and a reputable manufacturer to ensure the consistency of both qualities from one LED to the next.

‘Where most LEDs fall down is with the richer colours,’ explains Triggs. ‘Regal reds and royal blues go flat with a poor-quality LED, while a good one will really lift them and give definition.’ Again, Molyneux provides a demonstration by holding up two lights to a portrait of a woman. In his company’s light, which reproduces 100 per cent of the colour spectrum, the red of the woman’s dress and gold in her hair are much more vibrant than in the other light, which reproduces only 80 per cent.


The TM Slim Light was used to illuminate artwork in this private residence in London designed by NBB Design

Downlight or uplight?

Molyneux and Triggs tend to opt for downlighting works of art. ‘Uplighting artworks with big decorative frames creates scary shadows above the paintings, like in horror movies,’ says Triggs. Some paintings lend themselves well to uplighting, however. ‘One client had a three-metre-high canvas by Hendrick ter Brugghen, with a fire in the bottom that lit the faces above,’ says Molyneux. ‘In this case, lighting it from the bottom enhanced the way the scene in the painting itself was lit.’

Don’t feel you need to light every work

This depends on the nature of the collection. One commission, Molyneux says, involved 43 Picassos, all of which had to be beautifully lit: ‘Some works of art don’t have the same presence as others, or are in a position where lighting them won’t add to the atmosphere in the room as a whole.’


TM Lighting was commissioned to install Picture Lighting in this show flat in Knightsbridge

Set light levels for night-time

According to Triggs, this will also lift an artwork off the wall during the day. ‘You want the work to be lit, but you don’t want it to look as though it’s for sale in a gallery.’

Act with discretion

Although it’s often the result of a tremendous amount of work and research, good lighting should ultimately appear incidental — or even invisible — allowing an artwork to take centre stage. ‘We want people to see the artwork, not what’s lighting it,’ says Molyneux.

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