The Art of Lighting Art

Landscape by Howard Post, Keating Gallery, Aspen, Colorado

“There are lots of reasons not to buy a painting, and very few reasons to buy one. That’s why I have to have good light,” says Gordon Keating.

Keating, who owns the Keating fine art in Aspen, Colorado, didn’t change the lighting in his gallery for reasons of efficiency or the environment.

The representative from CORE, the County Office of Resource Efficiency, certainly had environmental goals in mind when he stopped by Keating ‘s gallery with a bag full of green literature and a bit of a bribe in the form of a lighting grant. But Keating says that he’s “not a greenie.”

He does care a lot about how the gallery’s lighting is done though.

LED Light That Creates Clear, Beautiful Color

“I was skeptical,” Keating says. “But I did the research. I wanted to duplicate the color and clarity of the 120 volt PAR 20 halogen bulbs I had been using. The paintings respond well to that type of light because it has a warm color, and it’s clean. ”

Oil painting by Wilson Hurley, hung in poor light. Notice how the trees at the right side of the painting appear nearly black.

Same painting, well lighted. The trees now have much more green, the white is brighter and the sky is far more subtle. My digital shot definitely picked up the difference, but it was far more marked in person.

Keating replaced nearly all of the existing halogen bulbs in his overhead track fixtures with Toshiba E-Core LED bulbs.

No Change in Fixtures

The new LEDs have the same mounting base as the old halogen flood lights, so Gordon was able to keep his existing fixtures. (By the way, the bulbs have the same screw-in base that American consumers are accustomed to seeing on old-fashioned Edison bulbs.)

What Keating found was that LED technology has come a long way in terms of quality, bulb longevity and aesthetic choices.

Keating fills his track fixtures with 8-degree and 25-degree flood lights so that he can angle individual lights onto the paintings. To the left, you can see a demonstration. Gordon moved a painting for me so that I could see how different it looked under good and bad lighting conditions.

The Keating Gallery specializes in traditional art, mostly oil paintings and three-dimensional pieces, all with a Western accent. (The photography on the Gallery’s website puts my shots to shame, so go take a look at the true beauty of these works.)

On the day I visited, I admired three beautiful old Navajo bridles and several fine pieces of Acoma pottery, in addition to the paintings. (I’m a painter myself, and I earned a minor in art history at the University of Colorado in Boulder, concentrating on American Indian art, and I felt that these handsome pieces of silver and pottery really deserved a place of honor in this blog.)

“The detail in some paintings requires both a wash of light and a spot,” says Keating. “There can’t be any hot spots. It has to be excellent.”

Vintage Navajo horse bridle, Keating Gallery, Aspen, Colorado

“You also want light that’s more white because you want the colors that the artist painted to show,” he explains. “I have experimented with the color of the light, and have found that the 2700 Kelvin does this.”

How the Color of Light is Measured

As I explained in an April 2010 post about exciting new options in energy-efficient lighting: the color of light is expressed in Kelvin units. For example, the warm white Edison bulbs we typically have used in homes have a color temperature of up to 2800K. They shine with a pinkish light. A halogen bulb, on the other hand, measures  between 2800K to 3500K and it creates a clear, white light. A cool white incandescent bulb usually has a color rating of 3600K to 4900K.

Keating, who opines that he has become “kind of geek about lighting,” says that he has done a lot of experimenting with the color of different sorts of bulbs. “Some M-16’s burn red, or blue or green,” he complained. “That just ruins the look of the painting.” Because LED manufacturers are trying hard to sell their product, they are providing very good consumer information, and he has been able to find the perfect choice.

Controlling the Ambient Light

Keating’s gallery is located in a 1960’s building. While the structure is cinder block, its interior and facings have been rustically finished to fit in with Aspen’s architecture. Many of Aspen’s false-fronted buildings date from Colorado’s silver rush, and they have Western and Victorian features. Although it is reproduction rather than original, the building that houses the gallery features a ceiling rough-hewn and exposed beams and pressed tin tiles.

Pressed tin ceiling and rough beams of the gallery ceiling.

The reflectiveness of the tin ceiling is misleading. The surface is actually fairly dark, and Keating uses it to his advantage. It helps to keep the ambient light subdued.

When Keating moved into the gallery, he replaced some cheap looking chandeliers with some 1920’s era chandeliers. Wavy glass covers the light bulbs that provide the ambient light. Traditional Edison bulbs are used in those fixtures, and Keating wants the resulting light to be low-key. “It helps the gallery to seem bigger,” he explains. “And the gallery should seem kind of romantic.”

Lighting designers think of creating light in three layers: ambient light, accent lighting and task lighting. A art gallery differs from a home in that it needs far more accent lighting than ambient lighting. (An office, by contrast, would require a preponderance of task lighting.) Gordon needs only a small amount of task lighting on his desk, and only enough ambient lighting to make the gallery seem comfortable. Otherwise, the light should direct all eyes to the paintings — just as he has arranged it.

Fixing the LED Dimmer Problem

On the left, the PAR 20 sized Edison bulb the gallery used to use. On the right, the replacement LED the gallery now uses.

Through trial and error, Keating discovered a way to dim his new LEDs. Although the kinks are slowly being worked out, many low-energy bulbs, both CFLs and LEDs, suffer technical problems when it comes to dimming. The lights will flicker and cut out when you try to dim them. But Gordon found that by leaving one halogen bulb on each track strip, he was able to successfully dim the entire fixture.

He’s also pleased that the new LEDs produce far less heat. “I used to have to put on a glove before I could touch the lights,” he explained. “I  have to mess with them a lot to get the light on the paintings right.”

Because of the heat reduction, he’s looking forward to the summer.  In years past, he has had to use an air conditioner to remove the heat that the lights added to his space. “The gallery is at 8,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains,” he mused. “Air conditioning shouldn’t really be necessary.”

One final benefit he’s found; he has more elbow room. Although the new LEDs are somewhat pricey initially, they come with a five-year warranty.  Keating finds that because he’s having to replace bulbs far less often, he no longer has to devote expensive gallery space to storing light bulbs.

That’s a bright idea. It’s much better to use the space for art.

Two fine pieces of Acoma pottery at the Keating Gallery in Aspen.
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