Putting art in the spotlight: What you need to know

I had been away for a few days on business and knew I would come home to a house full of drama.I couldn't wait.

While I was out, a pair of electricians had been clambering around my house installing accent lighting, that third layer of lighting (after ambient and task) we all tend to neglect but shouldn't. I'm going to stick my neck out on a light pole here, but I believe accent lighting — well-placed spots highlighting art, accessories and architectural features — is the most underused yet most dramatic design tool we have. It's the secret sauce.

Heck, it can make your kid's paper maché cat look museum-worthy.

But many DIY designers stop short of adding them. Why? Here are a few reasons:

  1. Where is the fun in paying for a home upgrade you can't touch, smell, taste or hear and can see right through? I'll tell you. After living in and decorating umpteen houses, I have found that nothing adds drama to an interior like accent lighting.
  2.  They think accent lighting is for other spaces. "So many people think accent lighting is for fancy hotels or museums," said Michael Murphy, interior designer and trends producer for Lamps Plus, a Los Angeles-based lighting retail chain. "They wrongly think it's expensive or not attainable."
  3.  Because accent lighting is the finishing touch, you think you have to be finished with your house before you install it, and whoever feels finished with her or his house? Meanwhile your fabulous art stays in the dark.

"I hear all the time from customers who buy art from a gallery under lighted conditions then get it home and wonder why they're disappointed," Murphy said.

Folks, listen to me: Art lighting is to fine art what good posture is to fine clothes. It elevates the subject, although you don't know why.

Thus, I knew early on that I would want to add accent lighting inside our happy yellow house, but I also knew that before I put holes in the drywall, DC and I would have to agree on what art we were keeping, letting go of and buying for our blended home. (We went 10 rounds for each of those decisions.) Once we finished rearranging, adding, removing and demoting art, I said: "Lights, camera, call the electrician."

For those who want to add a little drama to their homes, here are Murphy's tips for accent lighting. Lamps Plus also has online experts to talk you through this:

Choose your spots. Look around your home and select what you want to feature. Consider wall art, sculptures, and accessories, art niches, fireplaces and archways.

Be selective. While most people don't use enough accent art, be careful not to overdo. Art lighting is like perfume, a little is enchanting, too much overwhelms. I wanted accent lights to enhance principle art, to wash the accessorized bookcases, and to spot the coffee table.

Choose your fixture. Depending on how committed you are to your art placement, art lights can be permanent or portable.

Wall-mounted art lights go above artwork, and come in plug-in or hard-wired options, said Murphy. (With plug-ins, a cord will hang down the wall. Hard-wired picture lights have no visible cords, but must install directly into a junction box.)

Frame-mounted lights attach to picture frames directly and come in plug-in or hard-wired options. Battery-powered picture lights have no cords and don't need an outlet. Some let you turn them on and off by remote control. All these work well for renters or the undecided, because you don't need to put holes in the wall.

If you and your art are likely to stay put, go with track lighting; adjustable lamps attach to tracks on the ceiling where you can aim them onto artwork. If you live in a two-story house, you will likely incur some drywall damage if you install tracks downstairs.

Directional can lights. Recessed can lights that have a directional hood, sometimes called an eyeball or a gimbal, also offer an inconspicuous accent light option.

Factor in flexibility. Whatever fixtures you buy, be sure they are adjustable and dimmable.

Determine bulb type. Incandescent lights emit a warm light ideal for artwork in tones of reds, browns and yellows. Halogens put out a bright white light and are the choice of many collectors. I chose LED bulbs because they have a clean light, come in a variety of color temperatures, are energy-efficient and will last longer than I will. They also do not emit UV rays that can fade artwork, and they have a low heat output.

Adjust for aim and spread. Aim ceiling-mounted accent lights at a 30-degree angle, Murphy said. When spotting art or washing a wall, mount the track 2 to 3 feet from the wall on 8- to 9-foot ceilings and 3 to 4 feet from the wall on 9- to 11-foot ceilings. The beam spread will get wider the farther the light is from the subject. Too close and you get a laser beam effect. Aim to fully illuminate the subject and no more, otherwise you lose the dramatic effect. And, after all, don't we all want a little drama? Join me next week for six top trade secrets of great lighting.

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