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  • Scott Erickson

The Art of Lighting Art

There is an art to landscape lighting that differentiates the dedicated lighting designers from the random-mosquito-company-that-happens-to-also-do-outdoor-lighting. Before any ground is broken, lighting designers have to take into consideration the object that is being lit, the vantage points to that object, the ground materials of the space surrounding the object, etc. This can be a simple, straight forward task when trying to wash a bare brick wall with even flood lighting, but it can get complex very quickly when dealing with sculptural features or works of art.

Oftentimes before we even analyze the object being lit, we begin by studying the surrounding spaces. We take note of the amount of hardscape around the base of the object to decide if we can light it from below or if we have to search for downlighting solutions. At the property pictured above we had some soft mulch below the urn to place a couple uplights, but adjacent brick pathway limited how far back we could place the lights. Due to this and the geometry of the urn we could not get any light to hit the upper lid. Normally, this would result in an unfinished appearance that hides the unlit portion into the dark background. However, we were fortunate enough to have a retaining wall right behind the urn that we could use as a backdrop for the piece of art, and best part: we didn’t need to use any extra lights! We just slightly readjusted the two uplights on the urn so that the light also caught the retaining wall, in order to create a silhouette effect with the urn’s lid (while also dramatically project dual-shadows of the urn onto the wall).

Nevertheless, not every single piece of art is going to have a convenient wall behind it to utilize as a backdrop; take the project shown above for example. The rusted oil drum, which doubled as a water feature, was set a couple yards away from any trees/vegetation within a circular pathway, there were no walls/architecture anywhere near it, and there was a steep falloff right behind the vegetation. The surrounding pathway prevented us from lighting the drum from below, but by setting two uplights back behind the pathway on extensions it actually helped us evenly light the entire object. The extensions also helped spread the light across the pathway more evenly, thus negating the need for multiple pathlights (which would most likely distract from the art piece). At this point, we could have elected to leave this scene as is without any background lighting since no part of the art piece is lost in the background. However, this would be the equivalent of taping the Mona Lisa to a wall without any sort of frame; the art is there and perfectly visible, but the presentation feels incomplete. So to solve this we spread out some mini-flood lights on the various low-lying cacti, and then a couple of uplights on the mid-sized tree. Lighting these various backdrop elements will aid the human eyes’ movement through the scene instead of getting stuck solely on the artwork, yet it’s subtle enough that they don’t distract from the oil drum.

The bottom line is that lighting pieces of art or sculpture is tough. There’s a plethora of factors you have to consider when lighting art like the surrounding environment, the function/lack of function of the object, the scale/shape of it, the meaning behind the artwork, and much more. Due to these varying factors it’s near impossible to layout straightforward, “How-To” rules for lighting artwork. Instead, the best recommendation we can give is to approach the lighting design as the frame for the artwork; the lighting design should put the art on display and add depth to the whole composition, but it should never unnecessarily distract from the art piece itself. If you have new artwork, sculptures, or unique landscape features that you’re not sure how to light, don’t hesitate to call us at 952-474-4536 for a free design consultation! You will see the difference with Erickson Outdoor Lighting.

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