Studio Lighting for the Rest of Us

Studio Lighting for the Rest of Us

with 20 Comments

Visitors to my gallery and studio are sometimes curious about my fluorescent studio lighting. “You paint under fluorescent lights?”

Back when I had a studio with a north-facing window, I appreciated working in the cool north daylight (as artists have done for centuries). Plus, since I also do a lot of plein air painting, I was already used to painting outdoors in natural daylight.

However, the light from my relatively small studio window needed a bit of a boost, especially on cloudy days and morning or evening painting sessions.

I did some research and discovered that GE offers some good fluorescent options. By combining their warmer 40-Watt “Sunshine” tubes with their cooler 40-Watt “Daylight” tubes, I found that the resulting light seemed to mimic the north daylight coming through the window. (I combined six “Sunshine” tubes with two “Daylight” tubes in four two-tube fixtures.)

Don’t tell the Old Masters, but my current studio has no north window. However, the four two-tube fixtures still seem sufficient.

I find that painting under the cool fluorescent simulated daylight gives me good color results for later viewing in either cool or warm lighting situations. After all, it’s important for the colors in a finished painting to read well wherever the client ends up placing it.

What lighting works best in your studio?

20 Responses

  1. Bobbi Dunlop
    | Reply

    Great post, Dan!
    After 9 years of painting exclusively under natural north lights, 2 years ago I moved my studio home and needed to research lighting for my new studio. It’s was quite the learning curve. You are so right about the need to consider where your paintings will eventually hang – both in a gallery or in the collector’s home environment. I have found that while the artificial light is less than ideal, it is easier to control. The upside is that I now have longer working hours, particularly in the shorter daylight months. I’m currently reconsidering the use of the CFL lights being concerned about the health ramifications, not to mention the damage to the environment. Your article is timely, and as always, so informative … thanks!

  2. Steve
    | Reply

    Another option to consider is the Solux bulbs. They come in a variety of temps and of focus (degrees of flood: narrow, wide angle, etc). Can be put into a fairly conventional track lighting setup available at any of the big box stores. I know of many galleries that use this bulb exclusively.

  3. Kate Stone
    | Reply

    I find that Blue Max CFLs are hands down the best CFLs I’ve ever used. I also have a Solux system. It’s nice. I like all the little adapters that come with it to control the light. The salespeople insist that artists should be using the 3500K bulbs but I find that even the 5000K are a little warm. I do find that it flattens things out a bit, so even if I paint under it I still use my CFLs for photographing artwork.

  4. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Thanks for the comments! Good info about other lighting options.

  5. Michael Chesley Johnson
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    Good post, Dan! Studio lighting is almost as contentious a topic as what frame looks best. Everybody seems to have their own take on it. My studio faces south with a big south window, and I do like that warm light, but it is a bit too warm. So, I supplement it with cooler, bluer CFLs. North light comes in at something like 7500K, which I think is too cool to paint by. (The old masters, I believe, favored it not for the coolness but for the consistency of it.) I prefer something around 7000K or a tad warmer. When I have the money, I will spring for LED lamps, which come in a variety of temperatures.

  6. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Thanks, Michael. I’ve thought a little about replacing with LEDs too. Sounds like they use a lot less energy and have a wide range of temp. choices like you mentioned. A bit pricey though — perhaps the price will come down eventually….

  7. Nancy
    | Reply

    Thank you Dan for this great post. I have painted at night and woke up to totally different colors than I thought I had put in the painting. I had to redo all the colors very frustrating!!!!

  8. Verna Korkie
    | Reply

    Hi Dan,

    This lighting business all sounds so daunting and confusing. I haven’t yet arrived at a place in my artistic evolution where it matters (to me, that is). In the case of plein air painting, the artist paints, well, en plein air. So isn’t that south, north, etc etc in direction of light source, all rolled into one? I was taught by one instructor that when painting en plein air, to face the sun (although at your workshop in Cochrane, we painted in the park in the shade). So does that duplicate the light of a north facing window in a studio?

    Now step into my studio which is essentially a room made of glass. So I am thinking, isn’t this a duplicate of plein air? There can be no daytime artificial lighting employed in this space because it is trumped by the strong outdoor light, no matter whether sunny or cloudy. In winter in this room, it is as if I am actually sitting (or standing) right smack dab in the middle of a snow bank. So I’m wondering if this general disregard for lighting might be harming my work. I am not experienced enough to be able to tell.

    Your thoughts?

  9. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Good to hear from you, Verna — thanks for your comments. It sounds like you have a somewhat unique situation as artist studios go. You’re correct that when painting outdoors, all sorts of skylight is affecting your painting. So it is helpful to try to control the light as much as you can by facing the sun so that your painting and palette are in the shade if possible. (I teach that too, but in our Cochrane workshop, we had quite a bit of cloud cover in the morning. But, that afternoon I tried to have you all face the sun as we painted the model standing in the field as I recall.) But even when you face the sun there can still be reflected light affecting your painting (the sun reflecting off your clothing, nearby walls or other objects, etc.).

    I think that would be your concern in your studio as well. I think if I were you, I would try to split my painting day up into a morning session and an afternoon session. Then I would work on one painting in the morning and a different painting in the afternoon. That way, you can at least work in similar light each day on each painting. You could even experiment with turning your easel different directions depending on where the majority of the light is coming from.

    Hopefully that helps!

  10. Gail Light
    | Reply

    Hi Dan, Thanks for the information on studio lighting. I’m impressed with your ingenuity! I will certainly give this a try.
    I’ll have to stop by your gallery …. it looks like you have some interesting new work.

  11. Diane Larson
    | Reply

    Thank you for all the good lighting suggestions as I am in the process of setting up my new studio. Moving from North light in Florida to a southeast window in North Carolina I will be needing to address this soon.
    I also would like to ask about studio wall color as it affects color too. Is there a good neutral color that you use? Something not leaning warm or cool? I will be painting soon.

  12. David Sorg
    | Reply

    It’s interesting how quickly this is changing. In the 3 1/2 years since the original comments have been posted about CFL’s they have been largely superseded by LED’s. Fortunately the price on them has dropped drastically, though I haven’t seen any easy swap-outs yet for replacing the standard fluorescent tubes. I do what you do, Dan, finding a good mix of tubes spread through the 3 four-tube fixtures I have. I also have a standard ceiling mounted track with 6 cans with halogen bulbs aimed to give as even of a spread as I can across about a four foot width. I believe this most closely approximates the likely lighting the canvas will receive in either a gallery or a home since neither usually use the broader, flatter light of florescents.

  13. Gary
    | Reply

    Hi Dan,

    i use 4x45W LED Panels Temperatur 5500 Kelvin and view my paintings under spotlights with 6500 Kelvin.
    I find painting under cooler light makes me paint much warmer, which fits better to my still.

  14. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Hi Diane,

    I don’t have a specific recommendation for studio wall color. My studio has a fairly neutral gray wall as well as some cream walls. I know Scott Burdick and some other artists recommend Benjamin Moore #1490 which is a gray-green. Good luck with your new studio!

    • Diane Larson
      | Reply

      Thank you!
      I’ll look at those Options!!

  15. Dave Mayer
    | Reply

    Hi Dan, I have a similar setup with warm and cool tubes overhead. But I supplement that with those round “Combi” light fixtures on an adjustable arm with one WARM GE Reveal incandescent bulb and one COOL circular fluorescent tube. That and my west window has a gauze like shade to filter the light. I actually like this setup better than my previous studio with a large north window, where the light was always changing. GRRRR!

  16. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Thanks for your comment, David — hope you’re doing well! You’re right about LEDs becoming more popular and less expensive. I haven’t felt the need to change my setup, but I’m sure LEDs could provide a perfect studio lighting setup with the exact desired temperature of light. They can also save energy.

  17. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Good to hear from you, Dave. I remember being sort of frustrated by the changing light from my north window too. I do like the steadier light that artificial light provides. I think you’re smart to have different temperature lights available at hand to balance things out.

  18. Rob Anglin
    | Reply


    Excellent post. My comments will hopefully confirm and amplify your points, as well as those by others who have commented here.

    I am now a retired architect, and two areas of expertise (among many others) were energy efficient buildings and integration of natural daylight and artificial lighting. Without going too technical, I will comment that artificial lighting is best treated in veiled or indirect manners such as coves or at least fixtures which integrate a combination of “Indirect/Direct” distribution from the light source (lamps).

    Artificial lighting in residential settings have been traditionally accomplished with “warm-white” incandescent lamps (reminiscent of the hearth or fire at home or in caves of ancient times… such warm light is psychologically comforting to human-kind); while workplaces in the mid-century to nearly contemporary times were traditionally lit with fluorescent lamps (less heat-gain and more energy-efficient than incandescent lamps) and the phosphors used in such lamps evolved over the decades to allow for warmer colors than the original “cool” light distributions. Spectral distribution was “spotty” and not full-spectrum, even in the later versions of even the best “Daylight” fluorescent lamps. Most people in workplace settings welcomed the introduction of “Warm” fluorescent lamps… mostly because such lighting is more complementary to human skin-tones… it always “feels better” to “look good”.

    The key decision that I sought in workplace settings, was to specify and deploy high Color Rendering Index (CRI) lamps, and to lean towards warm-white sources, so occupants in my buildings would be more comfortable… taking effort to avoid eye-strain from glare of bare lamps by using “Indirect/Direct” fixtures when cove-lights were impractical.

    Since homes typically have warm-white light sources, it is wise to consider where your artwork will be seen, and acknowledge that it will typically be seen in warm-light settings. On the other-hand, when we paint outdoors on-location, very early or late daylight is warmer, and mid-day light is very (very) cool in temperature (technical specification of the temperature of light is in degrees Kelvin… but it is best to just think of it as “cool or warm”. So, as Dan and other have commented, how to illuminate a painting studio is really a matter of preference by the artist, and their philosophical stance… and whether they care how the artwork will look when it is in a home setting. Many artists do not even have the “problem” of needing to worry about how it will look anywhere other than while it is being painted, in storage or possibly a gallery… so worrying about how it might look for a collector or in a museum setting may not be such a big consideration.

    As to LED lamps… they are finally becoming more reasonably priced, and are far more energy efficient and a very sustainable (“Green”) choice. I would caution any who are “early adopters” of LED to consider the quality control implemented by the manufacturer (always consider the source) since cheapest price is rarely an indication of best quality or longest-useful-life of any product. Also the CRI rating for any lamp is all-important to us artists, and also for museums and collectors, yet many have never heard of CRI. Be sure to buy the highest CRI rated lamps you can find, independent of whether you seek “warm or cool” temperature lamps.

    Sorry if I was too technical for some and way-too-non-technical for those “who know better”… but I was trying to strike a balance in offering these comments.

    • Dan Schultz
      | Reply

      Thanks so much for that informative comment, Rob! While I do try to paint under cool light when outdoors (in shade) or indoors (fluorescent lights), I do like to check the color of my paintings in warmer light while working, and afterwards. Outdoors, I’ll take my painting off the easel to check it in the sunlight. Indoors, I take my painting into my gallery room which has warm spotlights and halogens. I hope to achieve color in my paintings that will look good if hung in daylight lighting near a window in a collector’s home or if hung under warmer incandescent lighting conditions.

      I think you’re right, Rob — in the end it’s a matter of preference to some extent.

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