Spotlight on Lighting: How the Art Gets Lit

Lauren Wolfer, Associate Curator of Special Collections & Archives

When you walk into an art gallery, the first thing you look at is the art. After all, that’s why you’e there in the first place. Very rarely do people walk into an art gallery and say, “Wow, look at the lighting on that!” despite it making the art the star of the exhibit. Understanding the way a piece of art is lit can help the viewer better appreciate the artwork, so let’s shine some light (pun intended) on the technical side of things today.

When lighting art, the goal is to showcase it to the best of our ability or complete the artist’s vision. Because we are a museum, we must also make sure that the work is not getting damaged in the process. When visiting a museum, you may notice that older, historic works on paper are lit at a very low level. Remember as a kid going outside on a sunny day, setting objects on a piece of paper, and coming back a few hours later to find an outline burned onto the paper? Over time, the exact same thing can happen to an artist’s work on paper if it is displayed for too long at a high light level. Nothing can erase damage once it’s done, but using low light levels helps to maintain the work and keep it from any successive damage. If you ever look at a historic print without the matboard, you will normally see a “burned” outline from it being exposed for too long. After an exhibit comes down, the work has, what we call, a “resting” phase. This means it can’t be displayed or exhibited and must be kept in storage for a year. We keep track of every work on paper and how long they are on view. Remember our exhibition of lithographs last year? You haven’t seen those works again because the resting phase is crucial to prevent any further damage from happening to works on paper.

Margaret Burroughs' portrait prints hang next to a Picasso portrait print. The paper of the Picasso print has yellowed due to time, while the Burroughs' print paper remains a bright white thanks to the care of curators.
Note the darker paper of the Picasso print (center) and the bright white of the Burroughs’ prints (right and left). Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

An example of low lighting can be seen if you’ve ever stopped in to the Print & Drawing Study Center. We joke that Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints and Drawings, works in a cave because the room is so dim. Any museum that has a print viewing space will use dim lighting in it. To show this, let’s compare the Picasso to the Margaret Burroughs’ prints that were recently installed: see how vastly different the paper of the Picasso looks from that of Burroughs’? This is typical of older, historic prints. It’s amazing how far technology has come, including in creating different types of paper, and the wide variety of options artists have today. Earlier artists, like Picasso, had limited options of paper products available and the paper used to make these historic prints was very brittle (meaning the paper can rip and tear very easily) and usually have stained or burned surfaces. Low lighting helps to lessen and prevent these damages from occurring.

Elly Tullis' paintings, which are interpretations of the Virgin Mary, hang in a brightly lit gallery. Each painting receives its own overhead light, like an angelic halo, because paintings are not susceptible to damage from lights.
Portraits of Mary by Elly Tullis shine in the gallery. Note the lights above the paintings that create a fake halo, as well as on the faces of Mary. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Paintings, however, are a different story. The lighting on a painting won’t do damage to the surface, so it’s a matter how many lights are required due to the size of the work. Theotokos: Contemporary Visions of Mary by Elly Tullis is a great example because there are several different sizes of works. The smaller works only require one light while the large ones may need anywhere from 4-6 lights! When lighting paintings of portraits, we put a spotlight on the face to emphasize the figure since that is the primary focus.

Heather Days mural, a swirling maelstrom of colors: blues, oranges, reds, and pinks, is brightly lit.
Heather Day, American, b. 1989. Cinder Scaffold #2. Water-based paint, 2020. Installation by the Artist. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

On the rare occasion, we have a mural to light! Heather Day’s mural, Cinder Scaffold 2, was completed recently and is now on view. With a mural, we want guests to see the wall in its totality, so we have to light the wall in its entirety! Lighting the whole mural gives viewers the sense of immersion. To accomplish this, we use what we call “flood” lights. That means, as opposed to the high intensity spotlights used on glass, the light covers a lot of surface area and appears dimmer. By using multiple flood lights, the brightness can be adjusted to the perfect level the mural requires.

This assemblage sculpture is also brightly lit, as sculpture is not affected by the bright light of a gallery. It does requires, however, specific lighting to increase the drama of shadows or color.
Johnny Coleman, American, b. 1958. Well Spring at Newport (For Catherine and Levi Coffin). Assemblage: reclaimed slate, sandstone, milk paint, wood panels, oil lamp, wood, contact print, 2014-2015. Museum purchase, 2015-17.a-j. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Sculptures sometimes need specific lighting to increase the drama of shadows or color emitting from the work. In this Johnny Coleman piece, no longer on display, only three lights were used to accomplish the artist’s vision for the work. See how there are only three shadows from the hurricane lamp? The shadows themselves become a part of the artwork and add a powerful element and emphasis to the piece.

This image features multiple glass pieces in the art museums contemporary glass collection. Each piece is individually lit, to ensure that it sparkles and shines the way the artist wanted.
The glass hallway at FWMoA. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Glass sculptures can be the most complex to light. We buy intense bright spotlights JUST to light glass at an elevated level. Unlike works on paper, glass thrives and has a glowing presence when lit correctly. Often, the glass itself is not what is lit; it’s the wall behind it! When the glass is transparent enough, when you can see through it, what you’re actually looking at is the space behind it. Notice the light on the green Alex Bernstein sculpture; this piece is entirely backlit!

A close up of one of the contemporary glass pieces on display at the msueum, this green work by Alex Bernstein is translucent. Shaped like a half moon, or crescent, it is reminiscent of a kiwi or watermelon slice.
Alex Bernstein, American, b. 1972. Green Half Moon. Cast, cut glass with infused steel, 2018. Museum purchase, 2019.84. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Similar to a gallery, a museum wants to showcase the art as best we can, an important aspect of that being lighting. Unlike galleries though, we have guidelines and regulations we must follow to protect and maintain the art to ensure it remains in the best condition possible. Stop in and see if you can point out the differences in lighting around the museum! Please go to fwmoa.org for hours and admissions.

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