The Art of Gallery Lighting

Numerous studies into gallery lighting over the last 20 years have all, surprisingly, found the same thing. There is no single ‘best’ colour temperature for lighting an Art Gallery. 

Whilst the mean result is typically around 3500K - 3700K, research respondents consistently showed a rather wide range of preferences between 2600K at the warm end and 5700 K at the cool end of the kelvin scale.

So, if the colour temperature is not a key factor in gallery lighting, what is?


Firstly, let’s look at the purpose of lighting in a gallery space.

  • Navigation: Lighting guides our attention. When we enter a space, we see the brightest surfaces first and subconsciously interpret these as the most important factors in the room. In the context of a gallery, we can use this understanding to guide a patron through the physical building, and though the experience of an exhibition.
  • Tone: Lighting sets the tone or mood within a room. The tone required for one exhibition will vary from the next based on the subject matter. For example, an expansive, evenly washed, cool white surface may suit the display of progressive contemporary art, while the next exhibition may require a dim, moody, enveloping space with warm focused spotlighting.
  • Marketing: in a smaller gallery, the space needs to perform the double duty of exhibition space and retail floor. In a larger public gallery, the auxiliary spaces within; the cafe and gift shop, also need to motivate the patron to purchase.
  • Conservation: Thankfully for many curators, the problem of infrared light damage from powered luminaires no longer applies because white LEDs do not emit infrared, in contrast to their predecessors. LEDs reduce issues of damaging ultraviolet or infrared radiation, whilst also providing curators with a wide pallet of light intensities or colour temperatures to work with. It is worth noting that natural daylight which contains ultraviolet radiation, visible radiation, and near-infrared radiation can, along with many other environmental factors such as humidity and heat, contribute to fading, embrittlement or cracking and should be managed carefully within a gallery setting.

Lighting Design

Now that we know what we are trying to achieve, we can approach the task of lighting design. There are a few key methods that can be used to illuminate an exhibition.

  • Wall washing, also referred to as flood or blanket lighting: This method of gallery lighting evenly illuminates the vertical plane of the wall, opening the area and providing a feeling of expansiveness. This method is growing in popularity and best used for larger artworks or collections that should be viewed as a cohesive set. It will give the impression the artworks are an integrated component of the space.
  • Accent lighting, also referred to as spotlighting: This method is the more dramatic, theatrical approach to illuminating artwork. It allows the surrounding space to recede into the background and brings the artwork forward, focusing and holding the viewers’ attention. This approach is suitable for smaller artworks or to define a hierarchy in a collection through varying levels of light intensity.
  • Double layering: Double layering is achieved through the combination of wall washing and accent lighting. This method is also growing in popularity as it provides a dynamic feeling and the greatest levels of ongoing flexibility.

Final considerations

Finally, we need to consider the final technical details of the specified luminaries.

  • Lumen output: The ideal general lux range for viewing artwork is between 200-250 lux. This level allows detail to be viewed clearly, without being left in shadow (lux level too low) or washed out (lux level too high). Achieving the ideal lux levels will depend on a number of factors including beam angles and luminaire location.
  • Dimming: Dimmable fittings are highly recommended to ensure the lighting design can be fine-tuned to suit the desired tone for each exhibition.
  • Colour Rendering: The Colour Rendering Index, or CRI, should be as high as possible to ensure the colours used within the artwork are shown accurately. Low CRI luminaries will result in blackish blues and washed out reds, altering the overall feel of a piece.

All in all, there is no single perfect method for gallery lighting. The lighting within an exhibition is an art in itself, however, if we start with the needs of the gallery and design to suit, we can ensure a flexible and creative specification is achieved.

For assistance with illuminating your next project, just contact us.