Sunday, March 09, 2008

Lighten Up

It's raining. It's late at night. I'm totally inspired and I've got to do art right now! What type of lighting do I need?

Have you ever pondered this question? I'm sure you have. There are some conflicting and even very misleading (dare I say convoluted) ideas out there about this subject. I am a professional in the lighting industry and I thought it's about time I shed some light on the subject.

First off, I'm going to make a daring statement. Here's what I've got to say: Stay away from so-called "craft lights." It's a marketing ploy to get you to buy cheapo light fixtures and pay a lot of money for nothing. A good example of this is a company sold in many fabric and craft stores, who shall remain "nameless..." I guess I "OTTa" explain this!

First of all, let me make something clear. Some "special" light is great for reading. That's one thing, but art is another. Why? First of all, becuase when you read you want very high contrast between the [white] page and the [black] print. Makes it easier to see and stay focused. But when we are engaged in art, we do not want that type of contrast. We need to see how the colors blend together.

The next issue is much more complicated. Let's understand how we see colors.


Color temperature describes how "warm" (reddish) or "cool" (bluish) a tint of white appears. Color temperature is a reference number that "quantifies" the appearance of light. The terms "warm" and "cool" refer to subjective experiences, such as a warm flame or a cool winter sky.

The COLOR TEMPERATURE of a light source is measured on the scientific Kelvin scale.
Imagine a piece of metal heated to a high temperature: it glows. At a high enough temperature, it will give off light (or incandesce) as when heating iron at a forge or when sterilizing a needle by holding it over a flame. As the metal is heated, the higher the temperature, the bluer the light.
Think of the cooking gas flame in your kitchen oven. The inside is blue and the outside is orange/red. Which is actually hotter (higher degree temperature)? Blue. But when we think of a warm pleasing fire, we think of orange/red colors.

Blue is a color that makes us feel think of cold. Ice is bluish, for example.

"Cool light" is considered blue- a high color temperature. Warm light is more reddish, yet the color temperature is low. I know this sounds confusing, because it's the opposite of Fahrenheit. . You'll see what I mean.

In lighting, we measure the cool/warm spectrum in Degrees Kelvin (K), and we can "see" between 2500 K to 7500 K. That is the "visible light spectrum." We can measure light sources (including light bulbs) on this scale.
As mentioned above, "Cool" light is a high degrees Kelvin (7500K) and "warm" color would be about 2500K.
Don't let the "daylight" fool you. True, daylight comes in at 6500K. But that is not a desirable color for an indoor application because there is simply too much blue in 6500K. There are reasons why it's wonderful outside- it has to do with reflectance, spectral power distribution, color rendering index (not to get off on tangent- this is not the place for it) - which is very different when the light source is indoors as it is outdoors. (Thus the need for a good lighting designer)....

To summarize, let me ask you a question.
If you buy a "full spectrum" Fluorescent bulb, what does that really mean?
Does it mean you are getting more bang for your buck? The whole kit and caboodle? Sunlight in a bottle? NO.
It means you are buying a bulb that is 7500 degrees Kelvin. It's merely a very high color temperature. And you got it- cool, blue, eerie and high contrast.

Great for reading, but try putting that lamp next to a lamp with a halogen bulb, or even a regular light bulb. (which is about 3500 K)

And if you do art next to such a bulb, how do you think your art will look after you take it into the sun the next day?
Ever been to the Twilight Zone?
It won't look the way it did working under blue light.
I once tried it, and my doll's face turned out as ugly as sin because I used too much ochre. I was adding more and more yellow because I couldn't see any!

Oh and one other thing- that "full spectrum" also includes UV rays. So to all you SAD (seasonal affective disorder) sufferers- beware. Use the bulb but don't sit right in front of it. I'm a Seattleite- we get a lot of SAD cases out here. My own doctor uses a huge full spectrum lamp for a half hour a day in her office. I like coffee instead (just kidding!)

On the flip side, I hear this a lot.
No need. Fluorescent used to not be available in lower color temperatures. A standard regular non-energy efficient bulb is about 3500K. You can get fluorescent bulbs with that color temperature nowadays.

When lighting a home office or artist studio, you will want to create a comfortable environment that is free of harsh contrasts and distracting glare. You will need task lighting for art, reading and writing, etc.; and general lighting for the surrounding area. You may also want to include accent lighting for art on the wall. Two large ceiling fixtures, containing energy-efficient fluorescent tubes (3500K so they are a comfortable color temperature) will provide plenty of well-diffused general lighting, while eliminating shadows on the desk or work area. Place the fixtures overhead and to the right so the light comes over the shoulder. Lighting placed in front of the desk will cause troublesome shadows. Track lighting will illuminate the artwork. A desk lamp will provide task light. Position the lamp so it does not reflect on the computer screen. The best type of lamp for this is a reading lamp with an opaque covering above, not a shade (as you would use on an end table). The best type of bulb to use is Halogen or Xenon, because they have the best color rendering index of all man-made light sources. Halogen has a reputation of being very hot. If you are worried about this, use Xenon because it does not get as hot.
Well, there you have it. My little lighting sermon. Hope it was at least enlightening! Go back to art- go go go! And let me know how it goes...

If you would like to ask me anything about lighting, or need to source something out, maybe need a good price on lighting fixtures- you may email me. I do have a lot of resources at my disposal and well- it's my job!


  1. Wow!!!!!
    I am so "enlightened" now....
    I really enjoyed reading this and thanks a bunch. I read someplace that as we get older we need 75% more light. Now I will look for the correct bulbs... I don't use those ones they sell in the fabric stores .... you know the ones?? ;0}
    I just didn't like them.
    Now I'm off to make a list!!

  2. Thank you so much for the this info! It is so informative - I am always trying out how to get better light!

  3. Wow! Great post, I learned a lot!

  4. Great article. What do you think about LED lighting? It is extremely energy efficient but is it good for crafting/reading?

  5. Hi Rivkah
    I really like your article on lighting! So much I didn't know. May I have your permission to reprint it in our newletter?
    Thread Connections
    Fiber artists of San Antonio

    Sue Cooke

  6. Excellent and much sought after information! Thanks for sharing!


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