Picture Lighting: The Basics

House of Troy Classic Traditional Picture Lights are available in LED or incandescent.
They come in 10 finishes in lengths from 5” to 42”. The head swivels and pivots. The arm telescopes from 5” to 7”.

Picture lights are ideal to highlight artwork or other special objects. It is functional and decorative.

Traditional Picture Lighting

Traditional picture lighting highlights a single picture. Used discerningly, they can provide intimate lighting to a room.

A traditional picture light is mounted on the frame or above the artwork on the wall. A picture light can be used for each piece of artwork.

They have a shape that casts light down toward the painting. You see the lighted painting, but you don’t see the bulb or the source of the light.

Some picture lights are decorative. Others are unobtrusive, barely noticeable.

WAC Lighting Hemmingway Picture Light
Head rotates 90° up or down and extends out 14 1/2″ from mounting surface
LED Light Source with polycarbonate diffuser
Available to hardwire with transformer in junction box or portable with cord and transformer plug

Much traditional picture lighting uses medium base tube shaped bulbs that screw in. These bulbs are now available in LED. Using an LED version can give you the same amount of light without heat or UV radiation.  The bulbs are available clear or frosted. Frosted bulbs diffuse the light, lighting the picture more evenly.

Many picture lights are now available with integrated LED. There is no bulb to replaceable. The fixture should last a long time. A 50,000 hour lifetime is pretty typical. That is equivalent to leaving the light on day and night for 5.7 years. But when it finally stops lighting, you have to replace the whole fixture.

Traditional Wide Picture Lights

Light Angle

A picture light doesn’t have to aim down to light the picture. In some applications a traditional picture light may be attached below a painting aiming up.


House of Troy Mantel Picture Light
Available in Antique Brass, Polished Brass or Mahogany Bronze
10 foot brown cord exits back of shade
Shade swivels to direct light.

Portable Picture Lights

Portable picture lights don’t have to hang on a wall. Just plug on in and aim it at your artwork. This is ideal if you are renting or if you like to change up your look frequently.

The mantel picture light above sits on a fireplace mantel or shelf and casts light up.

Traditional Wide Picture Lights

Catalina Spotlight 18775-012 can stand on the floor or on furniture

A plug-in spotlight can aim at artwork from an inconspicuous spot even across the room.

Table or Floor Spotlights

Situ Plug-in Vision Series: Slim Bar Style LED Art Light

Slimline Picture Lights

Slimline picture lights are less obvious. They have an elegant, more modern look. These picture lights are too slim to fit a medium base tube bulb. They used to use xenon festoon bulbs. Now they nearly all use LEDs.

Slimline and Modern Wide Picture Lights

Situ Lighting Micro Series Cordless and Rechargeable LED Art and Picture Light

Compact and Mini Picture Lights

These small lights are a very understated way to light a picture.

Some compact picture lights use MR11 or MR16 bulbs. You can choose these as Spots, Floods, and Wide Floods to light smaller or larger artwork.

Newer versions use LEDs. Some LED fixtures are available in different beam spread. Others have adjustable beam spread.

Dany Rocks Outsider Arts
Goose neck lights flex to light this art display

Some mini picture lights have a goose neck to flex and bend to the right angle to light the picture.

Situ Lighting Micro Series Cordless and Rechargeable LED Art and Picture Lights

You can use more than one mini picture light to illuminate a large picture.

Compact and Mini Picture Lights

Plug In, Hard Wire or Battery

Picture lights are available hardwired, to permanently install in a junction box. Plug-in versions have a cord and plug, with wires running behind the picture to an outlet.

You can also buy battery powered picture lights. LEDs use very little power, so they last longer than they used to. Better versions are rechargeable. Battery powered picture lights are ideal for an art show.

Battery Operated Picture Lights

Westinghouse 14-Inch Slimline Picture Light
75053 Antique Brass Picture Light

What is the best size for a traditional picture light?

The best picture light size depends on the picture orientation. If the picture is in a portrait orientation, taller than it is wide, choose a picture light that is about have the width of the picture, not including the frame.

If the picture has a landscape orientation, wider than it is high, a picture light that is a third to a half the size of the picture will work best.

WAC Lighting suggests;

Eight to 14 inches wide: Get a 4 1/2-inch fixture.
Twelve to 18 inches wide: Get a 5 1/2-inch fixture.
Sixteen to 24 inches wide: Get a 7- or 9-inch fixture.
Twenty-five to 37 inches wide: Get a 14 1/2- or 16-inch fixture.
More than 35 inches wide: Get a 30-inch light.

Eurofase Louvre Picture Lights use LED Festoon Bulbs come up to 27” long

For very large paintings use a single long picture light. Or try two lights that stand off the wall further. Aim them so that the beams cross, creating good illumination for the whole piece.

How high should a picture light be mounted?

If you are using a traditional picture light, it should be mounted the same distance above the picture as the standoff extension. For example, a 6 inch standoff should be 6 inches above your artwork. Many picture lights are adjustable. Some telescope, so you can pull them out or push them in until the light is just right.

Picture Lighting: Beyond the Basics >

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