Let there be light


Dear Artist,

Janet Coulson of Cobourg, Ontario wrote, “I’m about to move into a condo where my studio will be in the basement with small, high windows. Do you know anything about lighting or could you direct me to someone who does? My studio now has a large window as well as sliding glass doors. I’m a little worried about the change.”


A reconstruction of Rembrandt’s studio, Amsterdam. Note the positioning of the easel and the rear window’s reflected light controlled with a high shade, with the lower windows blacked out.

Thanks, Janet. You want a space that provides steady ambient light with options for dramatic lighting of painting subjects and a secondary easel area for reviewing work. Here’s what you’ll need:

Light that doesn’t change too much over the course of the day.
Light that’s not too warm or too cool.
Light that delivers a full spectrum of colour.
Enough light.

There’s a rumour that in the Northern hemisphere North light is best for painting. But ambient daylight can be mimicked with diffusing techniques and good bulbs. My studio has two over-sized West-facing windows hung with translucent linen curtains. A white ceiling bounces this soft light, too. Higher, smaller windows can be managed in much the same way, by exploiting or controlling reflected light and shadows. If you’re lighting objects to paint, concentrate the light source, like Rambrandt did, by hanging a shade above the window and across the ceiling. For softness, make the shade a hood, and bounce the light down into your workspace like a photographer’s diffusing umbrella.

For bulbs, know the temperature, as it affects how you see colour. Measured in Kelvin, the higher the K, the cooler the light. North light in the Northern hemisphere is about 10000K — a little too blue for painting. A good old-fashioned incandescent bulb is about 3000K — too orange. Your sweet spot is about 5000K.


Helen Frankenthaler in her studio
Darien, Conn. in 2003

In rendering colour, a bulb is measured by the Colour Rendering Index, or CRI. Daylight has a rating of 100. An incandescent has a rating of 96 but remember, it’s a bit warm on its own. A compact fluorescent has a rating of about 80 — vampirish in a post-apocalyptic splendor — though manufacturers are tweaking aggressively to improve things. It sounds like science, but light is an art.

A bulb’s brightness is measured in lumens — the higher, the brighter (not to be mistaken for wattage, which measures energy requirement.) Keep in mind that light strength is diminished as the bulb gets farther away from the easel (this is called lux value) but, if you’re in a small space, a little trial and error can make it work. In addition to incandescents, LEDs and CFLs, halogens brighten handily but are spotty. I use them on tracks at night and hold my nose at the shadows because of their high CRI rating. This is quality light. Really, halogens do their best work lighting finished paintings. Use them at the secondary easel — for scrutinizing colour relationships and surface details like scumbling, the evenness of varnish and canvas tooth-quality. Halogens give finished paintings an otherworldly glow. Solux halogen is a producer of virtually perfect broad-spectrum light that mimics daylight and is used by the big art museums.

Lastly, full spectrum fluorescent tubes that have been sprayed with a tri-phosphor coating produce cool light with great colour indexing and with no glare or shadows. If you can skip the throwback to an institutional, blinking, buzzing, test-taking era and embrace its modern forms, you might just fall in love with the tube.


“Less is more.”
Luc Tuymans in his studio



PS: “The sky is the source of light in Nature and it governs everything.” (John Constable)

“Daylight is too easy. What I want is difficult: the atmosphere of lamps or moonlight.” (Edgar Degas)

Esoterica: I’ve worked in a variety of light modes: under a cloudless campground sky, under the forest canopy, under the weather, under the stairs, under the stars. I’ve worked under the clip-on task lamp at my father’s easel, in the cavernous cozy of his inter-lit space, with North-facing, floor-to-ceiling windows, hugged outside by encroaching cedars, the room burnished only by six bare, 60-watt, incandescent bulbs. Thousands of exceptional landscapes were painted there, and so I learned what’s most important about a light source. In 40 years, there was no need to change it. Remember, too, that what’s made in your studio has a future beyond your personal conditions. Wrap your eyes around your work with as much spectrum advantage as possible, knowing the painting can make its own magic in some as-yet unknown place. It could be under the sparkle of the Solux or a sunlit rotunda or something in between — perhaps perpendicular to someone’s North window, your halftones singing in the moonlight. “I have seized the light. I have arrested its flight.” (Louis Daguerre)

​For more lighting inspiration, visit Sara’s photo collection of historical and contemporary artist studios here.



    • good morning. I do like the new format and congratulations team on a job well done. I don’t however see a clear comment link.
      I also just moved and have a new studio with east facing windows so I will have to figure out ligting. Space is at a premium so not easy to figure out.
      Thanks for all the links.
      Hard to adapt to all the changes but we’ll get there.

  1. In the end, paintings are seen under incandescent lights in someone’s home. My windowless studio has lots of incandescent lighting. I paint there and I photograph the paintings there. The colors are never too blue (northern light) and never too red (southern light). Your sublevel studio space will be fine.

  2. Thanks for a great article, Sara! I’ve just shifted studio areas in a large shared room with only a skylight for natural light. We are having the lighting re-vamped to include the new tube fluorescents on the ceiling, which will be augmented by incandescent work lights. I’ve always found this a useful combination. For some reason my other studios have always been west facing (including my current home studio), with buttery, happy-making afternoon and evening light — a definite draw for my favourite working time. It might not be the most colour-correct light, but it is great for the mood!

  3. Hilary J Dunk on

    Hello, Very interesting and pertinent as I have just started using daylight energy saving bulbs as the main source in my small studio and also for light over the pallette & work area….I intend to experiment when it comes to lighting my still-life set ups and continue with incandescent as well as trialing daylight…..Interesting to read that other people have opted for mixes…

  4. Of necessity my studio is in my basement with only two small windows that provide no usable light. Because I mostly paint out doors and feel best in fairly bright light I have a total of eight 4ft fluorescent shop lights hanging from the ceiling around the room. Each fixture has a warm and cool bulb. I supplement this with a movable incandescent lamp esp for finishing paintings after looking at them in my living room. Because I paint so much outdoors I have learned to paint things a bit lighter than I think they are as the paintings look darker indoors. My studio is as bright as daylight so I do the same thing in the studio unless I am painting still lifes and then I use less fluorescent and more incandescent light. This works pretty well and I noticed that the brighter the room the more energy I have. If the lighting was subdued I think I’d doze off. But thanks for the article and I will be looking into some of the options listed here.

  5. I live in central Texas and my studio faces north with a large picture window measuring 6 feet wide by about 8 feet tall. I also have a ceiling fan with three 23 watt CFL , 1600 lumin bulbs. There are three other desk lamps with the same full spectrum bulbs. So the lighting seems about right for a 10 ft. x 12 ft room. A couple of tubular ceiling skylights would be really nice to have as well. Maybe with the next roofing job that will be the next opportunity for that installation. I would say the lighting is warm for the most part.

  6. Having moved from my home in NY where I had a marvelous studio to a new home in NC, I was determined to take the best features of that studio and bring it to my new home. I have found florescent bulbs have gotten better. I loved the GE Full Color Spectrum florescent bulbs from my first home. Unfortunately, GE did not continue that line when the new light fixtures came out. Never fear, there were ways to get around that. I found I could mimic natural light by using one warm bulb and one cool bulb in the same fixture. Colors and temperatures were easily seen and I have no problem with painting. I am able to paint in the evenings when there is no natural light coming in. I like to create my still life set ups and use a clamp-on light fixture I found in my local hardware store. It is industrial looking with a silver cone surrounding the light. If I need more directed lighting I have a table-top OTT light. I also have my studio walls in white so there is no reflected color interfering with my work.

  7. I solved my lighting issue with 2, 4 bulb flourescent lights, 5000K which gives me close to natural daylight. The studio is painted a neutral gray. When I photograph my artwork using a Canon Rebel with no flash the colors are absolutely accurate with no help from Photoshop. Janet, if you send me your email address I will send a photograph showing the lighting arrangement. That was a great article on lighting. Thanks for getting the conversation started.

  8. Susan Cornell on

    My fiber art studio has very little south light. After much research, I recently had LED 5000 (daylight) PAR 38 light bulbs installed on ceiling tracks, and could not be happier. All colors and values are so much more true. Also, the LED bulbs don’t heat up as do some others. I’m adding the same configuration in my painting area. Other types of lighting can be used to test the look of a project as if it were hanging in a home, but I’m thrilled with this quality of light for working.

  9. Thank you, loved reading your article. With our own little imperfections in life it comforted me, one can still go on…as long as the love of paint is there.

  10. Hi Sara –
    my name MEANS “light” ( star, torch, flame) – thank you for this favorite topic. The first private use of flourescent lighting frightened me – and the old style hues are still unhealthy – but you are quite right – the new “tubes ” are super – I still love natural light and halogen best, but the new cool white is clean and nice to work with and live with. Our “lights” are key! Thanks again e.

  11. There is an assumption that artists need to work in north sunlight. One of the UK great painters is Francis Bacon, Mr Bacon would go out to the pubs at night become drunk, come back to his studio with no windows and paint through the night with only one lonely light bulb .

  12. Oh… I’d love a new studio… but I am happy, right now, with my ‘exhaust-booth-self-contained-mess’ of a space. A small window to let me know what time and type of day. And lots of different colour fluorescent lighting – very similer set up to Pat Wafer who commented earlier. Okay, so my studio is not an atelier… nor does it have a view’.. but it works for now. Besides… if I didn’t have studio envy… I’d just have to re-direct my envy towards something else. I’ll keep my focus on the art work first.

  13. Melody Robichaud on

    Love your site here….thank you for all your expertise! I have a question: We are finishing up on major reconstruction form a tree fall, and the question of wiring for lighting in my artspace is at hand. I need to let the electrician know where I want lighting, what kind, etc. Would tube lighting be best for overhead and do they make full spectrum tube light bulbs? I need as much natural lighting as possible, and want to be able to work at night in the best lighting I can find for that situation. Do you have any suggestions? I would soooo appreciate it, Thank You so much!

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