Setting up lighting for your art studio has to be one of the most frustrating aspects of being an artist. I only recently got my studio lighting to a point where I am generally satisfied. Before that it was either too dim, bright, cool, warm or glary.
It has been no easy task getting to this point. Hopefully this post will save you some frustration in setting up your art studio lighting. I am not going to dive deep into the technical side of things, as I want to keep this as simple and actionable as possible.
Why It Is So Important To Get Your Art Studio Lighting Right
The light you paint under is the single most important factor which determines the colors you see in your painting. It is something that will influence every color decision you make.
So of course, it is important that you put effort into setting up your art studio lighting correctly so that it is a pleasure to paint under. Otherwise you may notice over time that all your paintings all seem to be too cool, warm, bright or dull, as a result of you trying to compensate for poor lighting.
When I first set up my art studio lighting, I was under the misconception that I needed to cram as much light into my studio as possible. So I opened all the windows, installed strong overhead lighting and even purchased some additional lamps.
But what I did not realize at the time was that more light is not necessarily better.
I could not just flood my studio with light and call it a day. Instead, I just needed to ensure that I had enough good light. When I write good, I mean pleasing to paint under. This may change from person to person.
The tricky part about studio lighting is it can be very difficult to tell if your lighting is poorly set up whilst you are under that light. Our eyes are incredibly good at adjusting to the surroundings, so what may seem like normal lighting, could actually be very cool, warm, bright or dull lighting.
First, Do A Quick Audit Of Your Current Lighting
The first step in setting up your art studio lighting is to do a quick audit of what lighting you already have. You should do this before you rush out and purchase an expensive home lighting system. Sometimes, all you need to do is make a few adjustments to what you already have, rather than go out and purchase all new equipment.
After doing your audit, consider if you need to adjust any of these light sources or add more light sources based on the information in the rest of this post.
Below is a photo of my studio (ignore the creative mess). As you can see, I have a medium-sized window with blinds to my left of the painting and overhead fixtures. I have a soft box there but I only use that for filming. All I needed to do to fix my studio lighting was replace the overhead light with a strong and more color balanced fluorescent tube and change the position of my easel in relation to the light. I did not need to go out and purchase all new equipment.
Angle Of The Light
The angle of the light in relation to your painting is the first thing I want you to consider. Ideally, the main light source will be behind you at a 45 degree angle to the painting. This will help:
- Spread the light evenly over your painting. You do not want half to be clearly lit, and the other half to be poorly lit. This would be a struggle to paint under.
- Make sure there is enough light on the painting.
- Avoid any glare on your painting (which is just light bouncing back at you). Below is an example of the glare you want to avoid whilst painting.
You should also make sure the light source is at a reasonable distance - not too far away as there would not be enough light hitting the painting, and not too close as the light would be uneven on the painting.
Tip: If you are not able to move the light source, then move your easel. You can even tilt your easel downward if needed.
Intensity Of The Light
The intensity of the light is determined mainly by two things:
- The actual intensity of the light source.
- The distance of the light source from the painting. The greater the distance from the painting, the weaker the light will be on the painting.
It is important that you consider both of these factors. A strong light source which is too far away will still appear weak on the painting.
When purchasing lights, there are five things you need to look for. The type of the light, watts, lumens, color temperature and color rendering index.
Here are some of the different types of lights:
- Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL)
Watts are a measure of how much power a light source uses, rather than how bright the light source is. Lumens however are a measure of how much light is actually produced. So when comparing the intensity of two different types of bulbs you should use lumens not watts. Watts is useful for comparing bulbs of the same type.
I am not going to compare all the different types of bulbs, as many others have already done this and the answer seems to always be the same. I recommend you stick with reasonably high wattage LED, fluorescent or CFL bulbs. The actual wattage and how many lights you need will vary depending on how far the lights are from your painting. Just make a judgment call and adjust as needed.
Color temperature and color rendering index are discussed below.
Temperature Of The Light
Not all light is the same. Different light sources have different temperatures. Your colors will look different under the warm light of a sunset compared to the cool light of an overcast day.
Color temperature is measured by the Kelvin scale, illustrated below:
Here are some important reference points for natural light:
Clear blue sky: Cool temperature (bluish-white).
Midday Sun: Around neutral (white)
Moonlight: Slightly warm temperature (yellow)
Sunset: Very warm temperature (orange)
Artifical light also varies in terms of color temperature. You could have a very warm (orange) artificial light, or a very cool (blue) artificial light.
The color temperature of a light bulb is usually indicated by the manufacturer on the box.
In my studio, I use high quality 5,000K fluorescent lights. Prior to that I was using fluorescent lights which were 4,000K (a slightly warm light). As a result, my paintings always ended up being far too cool, with blue dominating. This is because under the warm light I was unable to properly see blues, so I overcompensated by using too much blue. As I took my paintings out of the studio into a more neutral light, the dominance of blue became apparent. Below is one of those paintings, which turned out fine but as you can see I certainly favored the blue color tree:
Here is the tutorial for the above painting.
I suggest anything from 5,000 to 6,000K. This is a fairly balanced color temperature to paint under. Anything outside of this range may be too blue/orange.
Color Rendering Index (CRI)
CRI is basically a quality rating of how well a light source is able to faithfully reveal colors. Natural daylight has a CRI rating of 100. As artists, our aim is to replicate natural light in our studios.
When you are buying your lights, you should look for a CRI rating over 80 (the higher the better).
Artificial Versus Natural Light
In a perfect world, we would all have large, North facing windows to allow an abundance of natural light into our studios. But in reality, most of us need to rely more on artificial lighting. In fact, even if you do have a large North facing window, you would want artificial lighting for painting at night.
Artificial light has some great benefits:
- It is consistent. You do not have to worry about the natural light constantly changing.
- It allows you to paint at any time, including night.
- You can tailor it to meet your needs. If you want to paint in a warm light, then you can set up warm lights. If you want to paint in cool light, then you can set up cool lights.
In a perfect world, I would have both - a large North facing window and lots of high quality artificial lights for painting at night.
Studio lighting does not need to be that complex. At the end of the day, all that is important is that you have:
- The right angle of the light
- Enough good light (reasonably high lumens and 80+ CRI)
- A balanced color temperature
The easiest solution is to just grab a few compact fluorescent lamp bulbs around 5,500K and secure them at a 45 degree angle to your painting.
I will also say there is no perfect lighting solution. You will probably need to be creative and find out what works for you.
Affiliate disclosure: There may be affiliate links to recommended products in this post. If you purchase through any affiliate links I will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you. These funds are used to help grow this website and spread art education to people around the world. Thanks!