How Lighting Brings Art to Life

Installing the correct lighting can have a transformative effect on how artwork is displayed, bringing out the drama and detail in every painting or sculpture. TM Lighting’s LED schemes have illuminated everywhere from London homes to country houses, shops and galleries. Here the firm’s founders, Harry Triggs and Andrew Molyneux, explain their craft, and the difference that the right lighting can make to an interiors scheme.

Are there any mistakes that people commonly make when lighting artwork?

Lots! It mostly happens when people don’t understand the pros and cons of the light source being used. So it will be using the wrong colour temperature or colour rendition, or using a light source that is damaging to the art.

Are there certain rules to follow when lighting artwork, regarding brightness, colour temperature etc?

The question of brightness is a little simpler than temperature. To achieve a balance of light in a room with a variety of artworks, each artwork will require a different level of light – for example, a dark painting will require to be lit with more light than a light one. There are also conservation guidelines on lux levels (ie, the intensity of light) for delicate works of art.

Generally speaking, we try to light art in the home in such a way that you can see the artwork in its true colour and as naturally as possible – it’s as much of a crime to over-light a painting as it is to not have enough light. So we would put enough light onto the art to see it, but not so much that it appears obviously lit. It’s a fine balance.

Colour temperature also involves a fine balance, although there are some rules of thumb. The three things to consider are: the style of art; their surroundings; and the blending of the two. Contemporary art may well lend itself to being lit with a cooler colour temperature (3500 K to 4000 K and above).  However, classical works often lend themselves to warmer colour temperatures (2700 K or 3000 K).A cooler colour temperature in a classical home will look out of place, because, historically, it is not something that fits our preconception of the lighting colour within that space. But that’s not to say that a contemporary work of art does not belong in a classical environment, or vice versa.

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Trinity Hall, Cambridge. colour temperature, brightness and colour rendition are balanced against the type of artwork and its setting

Separate to colour temperature, choosing lights with a high colour rendition (CRI) is really important. CRI is the depth of colour that the light emits. In order to be able to see an object, light has to bounce off it. If a light source emits only 80% of the colour spectrum, the eye will see only 80% of the object’s colour and the effect will be muted or faded. Our picture lights use the latest in high-CRI LEDs to achieve true colours in every piece of art, setting them apart from others in the market.

How do those rules differ in a home to a private gallery?

Commercial lighting of art is very different. In a commercial space, you would generally light it with as much punch as possible, to be able to see every detail of the work. The total amount of light on the art is raised for a limited period of time – it would be the same as having a quarter of the light intensity on the art, for four times as long.

Do you use different fittings in museums and private residences?

Yes, we would in almost all instances use tracks and spotlights in museums and galleries, because rolling art collections need greater flexibility. In private residences you have many more weapons at your deposal. Our product selection would always be sensitive to its surroundings, the heritage and our client’s preference.

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The dining hall at Trinity Hall, Cambridge: residential settings require completely different treatments to museums and private galleries

What is the secret of bringing artworks to life?

Having a true passion and understanding of art. Sculpture requires more skill to understand its form, and how to enhance that form with light and shadow. The same sculpture can be portrayed in many different lights (in every sense of the phrase) to completely alter the work.

Can you have non-intrusive light fittings for residential settings?

Yes. Again, they need to be appropriate for the environment.

Can these lighting be integrated with a wider lighting system such as Lutron? Are they dimmable?

Yes, but we would always argue against ‘effect lighting’ when it comes to fine art – instead, we would propose to set the light level for each artwork specifically for that work.We always aim to light the art in its best light, and if dimmed, that can affect the way in which it is perceived. Of course, every picture light is locally dimmable, so you can balance the light in the room.

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Lighting a framed letter from Sir Winston Churchill, in the Hyatt Regency’s Churchill Bar, London

Do you also make fittings for the whole house?

We have a range of fittings available for most eventualities. These are all focused around the lighting and portrayal of art specifically.We would only advise a client to use our products if it were appropriate for the job.

When would you ideally get involved in a project – do some people leave it too late? Is retrofitting easy?

We ideally get involved as soon as possible. This allows the most flexibility for the client, ensuring they install the correct infrastructure. It also helps in terms of available stock, and in case something needs to be customised, or built bespoke. Many people leave it to the last minute, which adds pressure to all parties involved. Picture lights are a reasonably straightforward to retrofit, but some of our other products would require additional preparation.

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Works by Sir Peter Lely at Weston Park, Shropshire, lit by TM’s Picture Light

Do you have a favourite residential project you’ve worked on?

Every house is different, each work of art is different, and there are different problems to solve, so often the last project is a favourite. But a few stick out. One project had a very serious post-impressionist art collection, and it was a true privilege to work on lighting this collection, and to have the opportunity to see works of art that are not on show to the public.

Another project close to our hearts was at Burghley House, where we were set the challenge to light floor-to-ceiling murals. Obviously, being a heritage building, nothing could be attached to the walls or ceiling, making the project quite a challenge. But the result was truly magnificent!

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