Factors to take into account to correctly illuminate a sculpture

Exposición de esculturas de Julio González, en la exposición permanente del IVAM

For those of us who regularly visit modern art museums, it is common to come across sculptures made of noble materials that present treatments and textures that have the clear intention of lasting over time: wood, metal, stone.

It is also common to find these sculptures in temporary exhibitions, there are not too many collections of this type with enough entity for a modern art museum to dedicate a permanent room to them.

A pattern that is true in modern art museums is that their architecture usually lives up to their name and contents, it is not common to see a Gothic or Renaissance building dedicated to modern art, we are used to finding these cultural expressions in buildings of polished concrete, steel and glass; Bright buildings, with high ceilings and generous windows, in which the light is used to the maximum, and is only isolated when the work to be exhibited is unusually delicate in these spaces: drawings, decorative arts, and photographs, to name a few examples. . But for everything else, taking advantage of natural light is a very useful resource in these spaces.

Guggenheim de Bilbao. Museo de arte contemporáneo
Guggenheim de Bilbao. Museo de arte contemporáneo

With these premises, we have a robotic portrait of the environment of a metal sculpture in today’s museum: general rooms that have not been designed to house that specific work, bright, and with light walls.

How to illuminate?

The first and most urgent thing is to avoid uniform lighting. Providing the same light values to the object and its surroundings makes it difficult to contemplate and understand the work, since the entire scene is flattened and it is much more difficult for the observer to find areas or objects to focus on.

There are some works that even require understanding the artist’s intention, so that through light, it helps create a common thread, a visual journey through the object that makes it easier for the observer to decipher the work. Therefore, it is necessary to highlight the work with accent lighting that helps it stand out from its surroundings.

escultura de hierro y madera
Escultura y entorno iluminados uniformemente

Our eye works by reference points. Something is white or black depending on the environment that surrounds that object. When a projector prints an image on the wall, the black areas of the photo remain the white wall that bathes the projector. Black light does not exist, nothing can subtract light from the wall, therefore, we perceive these black areas by contrast with other areas with much higher illuminance.

¿Te crees que las casillas A y B tienen en realidad exactamente el mismo color?

With everything we have pointed out previously, we can establish that an accentuated contrast between a dark sculpture and a bright environment is not suitable for its correct visualization. We are going to do an experiment recreating similar lighting conditions to understand how the environment decisively affects the appearance of the work. For this test we used a Falco 3000K museum LED spotlight mounted 3m high, it is 10W and we use it only at 20% of its intensity.

Escultura con fondo oscuroEscultura con fondo claro

In this controlled environment, we establish the same illuminance values on the work. The crucial difference is the level of luminance reflected by the background as a function of its color. Note the large differences in appearance of the two images depending on the background. With the dark background, the image is much more comfortable, and we require much less effort to appreciate details. The nuances in the metal also benefit, since there are no great contrasts, it is easier to perceive subtle changes in tone in the materials.

On the other hand, sculpture with a white background requires more effort, the same effort that our eye has to make when it wants to decipher what is inside the silhouette of an object that is backlit. In this scenario, with harder shadows and in which at first glance we can only perceive a silhouette, the nuances are more hidden, and the time we must spend perceiving the details is significantly longer. Our eye tends to look for light and not shadow, we can sense that this exercise contravenes that instinct that we have to consciously suppress in order to appreciate the work, which is always uncomfortable.

The shadow projected in the following image reveals the amount of light reflected from the background of the work towards the observer, placing the sculpture in a state similar to backlighting, despite the fact that there is no light source against it.

Zona de la escultura que proyecta sombras por los reflejos del entorno
Zona de la escultura que proyecta sombras contra el observador por los reflejos del entorno


In order to properly observe a dark sculpture, we need accent lighting that allows it to stand out from its surroundings, but that is not enough, since it is also important that the surroundings do not reflect more light than the work itself reflects. It would also be advisable to have the services of a museographer, a lighting designer, or a company specialized in lighting artistic works.