Lighting an art studio can be frustrating and daunting. I’ve tried a lot of different studio art light systems over the past 30 years. I’m going to keep this blog short and just give you some ideas and quick tips to help make your lighting decisions easier for the times you’re painting indoors.
The best way to share lighting advice I think is to place each idea in its own category.
North light is the standard for most professional artists. It seems to be the easiest light to work with in order to determine correct colors and values in our paintings.
The trouble is, not everyone has a north light window to paint under.
Another problem is short winter days. December in Fairbanks, Alaska when I was in high school gave us about 3 hours of twilight – no need to pull down shades for movies. Although, that did give us a lot more time to watch the amazing Northern Lights!
During the 90’s In Colorado I worked with two north light windows about 8 feet off the ground that extended up to 13 feet. Having the windows up high helped block reflected light from the ground. Since Colorado has over 300 days of sunshine, the north light windows worked amazingly.
North light windows were not a perfect solution though. Even with all that wonderful north light I still noticed shifts in the brightness of the light from morning to afternoon – and sometimes I needed to work at night.
So, I purchased an expensive track lighting system that was created for artists. I think I found the company through an art magazine ad. I bought two sets.
The bulbs were halogen and they got hot. The light they produced also tended to cause glare and bright spots on my painting. I liked that I could swivel the lights, but finding the right angle to paint from was still difficult.
Since I didn’t know of a better light system, I used them for several years. Usually, the track lights were used in conjunction with north light or some type of fluorescent lights.
They made it tough to take photos of my paintings without getting little spots of bright light on the edges of paint texture. I found I was spending hours using Photoshop to remove the bits of glare so I could use the photos for shows or my website.
The lights now sit in a storage room – Kristie wonders why I’m keeping them around – maybe you could help me answer that?
My Studio Lights Today
Now I use 4 fluorescent bays called ‘Troffer’ lights (about $50 each – plus $5-7 for each bulb). They sit about 7 feet above my palette since my ceiling is almost 10 feet high.
Four bays are probably overkill.
The idea was to have plenty of light so I could see all the nuances of color as I painted. I’ve come to the realization though that having that much light causes me to paint the values a bit darker without being aware of it. In other words, when I take my paintings to a place like a gallery where the light isn’t as strong, my paintings look darker than they do in my studio.
For the average painter a bay with two 4-foot bulbs or one bay like mine with 4 bulbs is probably enough.
Notice that one of my bays is dark – the ballast died. That happened to one of the others a few years ago. I bought another ballast from Amazon for about $13 and replaced it myself.
It’s not super complicated, but it’s still a hassle to replace the ballast. Fortunately, the other two ballasts have lasted about 10 years without any trouble. I haven’t replaced the recent one because I decided I have enough light without it.
The Troffer bays I purchased 10 years ago are fluorescent, but today you can get LED bays (about $70 each at Lowes). I haven’t used the 4-foot LED bulbs, but they seem to be superior to fluorescent bulbs in every way and can last up to 100,000 hours.
LED’s may be something to consider since fluorescents are being phased out. Plus, LED’s are dimmable so you can adjust the amount of light you need.
The nice thing about my light setup is that I don’t have any glare on my paintings, regardless of the angle I’m standing in my studio. That goes for when I photograph my paintings as well.
Fluorescent Bulbs for Studio Oil Painting
Finding the right bulbs so I could paint with accurate color was not easy.
At first, I used two different GE bulbs I found at Lowes – one called Sunshine and one called Daylight. What was the reason for two different bulbs? One was 5000K and one was 6500K.
The 5000K bulb was too warm (yellow) and the 6500K bulb was too cool (blue). When I combined the two it seemed to give me an ideal light that approximated north light.
One day I did a bunch of research on lighting for artwork and found some bulbs called Blue Max Maxum 5000. They are full-spectrum lights.
Even though they are listed as a 5000k bulb, when I tried them out next to the other bulbs they seemed to be right in the middle of the two. So, that is what I use now.
Once they start to burn out, I will probably replace the bays with LED’s. Of course, I will also experiment with the color temperatures of the bulbs until I get as close to a north light situation as I can.
The other option I am considering instead of the LED’s is a light I saw at the Plein Air Convention called Method Lights. They are not cheap ($129), but the reviews by artists and others are excellent.
The ML-Direct Plus art studio light is super convenient because it’s a screw-in base that fits any standard light fixture. Instead of installing large bays and searching for the perfect bulbs, we can use an existing light socket or even one of those clamp-on shop lights.
They are completely adjustable – both in positioning and color temperature! With the Method Light, we can set the color temperature to mimic any type of light from north light to overcast to a sunny day.
I’ve not tried them out myself, but a lot of artists seem to love them. They even have a portable one for traveling and plein air painting. I will purchase one of them soon and give you an update when I take it out on location to paint.
It even comes with a remote.
Lori McNee does a great job of describing the benefits of the light. On her website she also has a code that enables a 10% discount – she says to use SAVE10LORI. You can see her blog post about the lights here: https://www.finearttips.com/2017/10/art-studio-lighting-for-better-paintings/
I’m not sure how well they will work for photographing glossy oil paintings, but I’m excited to try them out.
Lighting our studios so we can see and paint accurate colors and values can be daunting. Fortunately, lighting options overall seem to be improving dramatically.
We don’t want light that will affect our color perception negatively, but we also don’t want to get too uptight about it. I’ve painted in all kinds of different light situations over the last 40 years and somehow it seems to have worked out.
Remember, if our values are correct we can get away with about any color combinations. So, even if our paintings look a bit different in the studio than they do in a gallery, it will probably be just fine. Focus on a strong design and correct values and you’ll have a winning painting whether you have perfect light to work with or not.
What lighting have you found works best for your studio?
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This is such a valuable subject…thank you! I have never found the perfect lighting situation although mixed lighting seems to have come closest – a cold and a warm light together. I’m going to investigate some of your suggestions. Thanks again for this article.
This was very helpful. I also have a track light in my studio and my window is facing north. But I can tell you that gooseneck track light cooks my brain after 45 minutes. They were expensive at the when both them but they are so easy move the heads around in the angle that I need. Unfortunately the are fluorescent. Hence the brain cooking.
Color temperature is not the only important thing to look when choosing a light. Spectrum is even more important. Most of the CFL lights have strong peaks and valleys in their spectrum, which lead to color distortion which the eye cannot compensate (in contrast to the color temperature). Look for lamps with as much higher Color rendering index (CRI) as possible.
Yes, CRI is very important. The max CRI is 100, and so try to find something at least 90. You can get high CRI lights at places that sell photo studio equipment, or on Amazon. 5500k is about right for daylight.
For those looking toward one of the best solutions: Lustra50.com
You will be amazed. These lights are designed for amazing true daylight balance and you can control the amount of light you need!
That is a lot of information, and much appreciated. I am using a west window light, sometimes a clamp on light with an LED, and a daylight bulb. Far from perfect. There are concerns about health and LED lights, and other bulbs, and light frequencies plus insomnia from using certain lights. A deep subject that we can all use to “shed more light on” , excuse the pun!
This has been an ongoing issue for me. I have western exposure and a Solartube skylight. Incandescent and LED combo. But get plenty. Of glare with photos, so I take photos outside. Tjanks for the excellent article. Method lights soud great! Will check them out.
This has been really helpful as I am converting my garage into my studio and finding the right light was difficult. So I followed Bills recommendations and have installed cool and warm fluorescent lights and some hanging soft lights. I’ll let you know how it turns out when my studio is complete and running.
Thanks for this information..my next sale i will buy the 129.bulb to go in my shop light..now i sit facing a south exposure. L.
Thanks so much for sharing this valuable info.
You are welcome, Patsy! Glad you enjoyed it.
Your informative articles are so helpful! Through trial and error between incandescent or fluorescent next to LED there in no comparison. LED lighting (daylight) for me is the closest thing to ‘Full Spectrum’ lighting. In Indiana there are a lot of cloudy days and SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). But the LED placed effectively is my answer to perfect lighting.
Great to hear Robert! LED has come a long way since I created that lighting video in 2012. LED has opened up all kinds of options. Eventually, I will probably replace all of my fluorescents with LEDs.