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How to Choose Picture Lights for Your Home

Solid brass frame-mounted picture light

To accentuate treasured artwork, photos, books, and collections, consider adding picture lighting to your home. These unique directional lights are an easy way to illuminate objects from above, creating a truly customized, high-end look.

So, what are picture lights? Most are linear in design, many with a pivoting head to adjust the angle and amount of light. For artwork or photos, they are mounted directly to the frame or the wall above. When mounted to bookcases, they may be referred to as "library lights", though the purpose is the same. Though not traditional, they make terrific accents all around the house, from open shelving and bedside reading to powder rooms. Anywhere a bright and directed light is needed, picture lights are a good choice.

With so many styles, sizes, and mounting types, how do you know which is right for you? This handy guide will outline all the options and help you find the best solution for your specific lighting needs.

Hardwired vs. Plug-in

With two wiring options, it is easy to find a picture lighting solution for virtually any application. If you want a permanently mounted fixture that adds to your room's overall character and has the convenience of operating from a wall switch, then hardwired is the way to go. If you want the flexibility to move your art or add lighting without hiring an electrician, plug-in lights are a good option.

Gaines hardwired picture light Gaines hardwired picture light

HARDWIRED

This type of picture light is ideal for large or important artwork that will be permanently displayed. They also work well as a directional down-light mounted on a built-in bookcase, or even as low-profile bedside lighting. Like any wall sconce, hard-wired picture lights are connected to a junction box in the wall. Typically, they are operated by a wall switch, though some also come with a built-in on/off switch.

Woodbury plug-in picture light Woodbury plug-in picture light

PLUG-IN

This type of picture light is ideal for the DIYer. Some styles mount to the wall (and are convertible, meaning they may also be hard-wired), while others mount directly to the back of the picture frame. Both styles feature a cord with an in-line on/off switch and plug directly into a standard wall outlet. The cord is generally paint-able to blend in with the wall if desired, or you may purchase cord covers for a more tailored look.

Architectural vs. Understated

The style and scale of the artwork, the material and overall look of the frame, as well as the design of the room, are all factors in choosing picture lights for your home. In general, styles fall into two categories - those which visually recede and those which make a strong visual statement. Designed as a sleek cylinder with pencil-thin supports, slim-line lights are very understated, and allow the artwork to stand on its own. On the other hand, architectural lights are quite substantial, with a prominent backplate, articulated arms and shade. Offered in a range of traditional and modern looks, they add a notable element to the display. There is no right or wrong choice - find the style that best suits you.

Slim-profile picture lights are designed to visually recede and are typically mounted directly to the picture frame. Slim-profile picture lights are designed to visually recede and are typically mounted directly to the picture frame
Large scale picture lights tend to be wall mounted and add visual interest to a room. Large scale picture lights tend to be wall mounted and add visual interest to a room

Wall Mount vs. Frame Mount

Whether you mount your picture light to the wall or directly to the frame depends on severalfactors: access to an electrical connection, the material and scale of your frame, the amount of visual presence you are looking for in a light fixture. Read below to determine which type is right for your home.

Holly wall-mounted picture light in Navy

WALL MOUNTED

Wall-mounted picture lights are often hardwired into the wall with no visible cords, creating a clean look. Installed this way, they are operated by a light switch and best for artwork that is permanently positioned. As noted previously, they also work well as a directional down-light mounted on a built-in bookcase or even as low-profile bedside lighting. If you do not have a junction box in your wall, many of wall-mounted lights are easily converted to plug-in.

Merrick wall-mounted picture light Merrick wall-mounted picture light
Oxford direct wire picture light Oxford direct wire picture light
Gaines wall-mount picture light Gaines wall-mount picture light
Richardson reflector picture light

FRAME MOUNTED

These light-weight fixtures are attached directly to the back of the picture frame. They plug into a wall outlet and feature a paintable cord with an in-line switch. For a more formal look, you may wish to conceal the cord with a special cover (also paintable & sold separately). Frame mounted picture lights give you the flexibility to reposition your artwork anywhere, without having to reinstall the picture light.

Slim-line picture light in satin brass Slim-line picture light in satin brass
Satin nickel frame mounted picture light Satin nickel frame mounted picture light
Satin brass frame-mount picture light Satin brass frame-mount picture light

Tips for Optimizing Your Picture Lighting

  • Before ordering measure the width of your art, including the frame. As a general guideline, the picture light should be at least half of the width of the frame you are illuminating. For example, if your frame is 20 inches wide, choose a picture light with a width of 10 inches. For pictures over 30", choose a light 2/3 or more the width of the frame.
  • If you are working with a taller piece of art, opt for a picture light that extends further out from the wall to ensure the light will spread over the entire piece.
  • When installing your picture lighting, ensure the beam of light is focused on the center of your artwork at eye level. Adjust the light so that the beam extends to both the top and bottom equally.
  • Avoid glare or long shadows by adjusting the angle of your light. A good rule of thumb is to tilt your picture light at a 30-degree angle from the surface.
  • Consider using low-wattage LED light bulbs instead of standard incandescent bulbs. They do not emit harmful UV rays, which cause artwork to fade over time. Shop for LEDs based on the light output (lumens) and not the number of watts used. Look for a color temperature of 2,700K or a color rendering index (CRI) of 95 for natural-looking light that accentuates the color in your artwork.
  • For hardwired lights install dimmers whenever possible. Dim the lights at night for a more soothing and subtle effect.
Brass picture light mounted over built-in bookcase

Using Picture Lights Throughout Your Home

In addition to showcasing your favorite artwork, picture lights are ideal for spotlighting books and collections displayed in built-in cabinets. The lights are typically mounted near the top, with one light per bay or section. This application requires extra forethought, as the lights are directly wired to the cabinet and operated with a wall switch. They are most often used to illuminate a library but are equally appealing in a kitchen above open shelving or glass-front cabinets, in a mudroom to illuminate cubbies, or over a mirror in an entryway or bath. As with all hardwired lighting, consider adding a dimmer switch to create a pleasant ambiance when relaxing or entertaining.

Merrick picture lights over a vanity Merrick picture lights over a vanity
Holly picture lights above open shelving Holly picture lights above open shelving

If you would like help selecting the best picture lighting option for your unique situation, our Hardware Specialists are here for you. Just call 888-223-2545 (M-F, 9:00am to 8:30pm EST).

Complete the Look with Vintage Picture Hardware

Picture lights are just one element in showcasing your treasured artworks. Browse our site for a variety of decorative picture hanging hooks, wood picture rail, cord & chain, and Victorian picture hanging kits. You will find everything you need to display your artwork in period style.

Shop Picture Hanging Hooks Shop Picture Hanging Hooks
Shop Picture Hanging Cord and Chain Shop Picture Hanging Cord and Chain
Shop Picture Hanging Kits Shop Picture Hanging Kits
Shop Picture Rail Molding Shop Picture Rail Molding