Picture Lighting with Recessed Lights (+ Calculator)

Picture & Artwork

Picture lighting is done best with recessed lighting, which is ideal for highlighting pictures, artwork, or anything else that hangs on the wall.

Unlike surface-mounted fixtures like track lights or picture frame lights, recessed lighting blends with the ceiling so it doesn’t distract from the picture or object on display.

What follows are a few concepts that will ensure your or art or picture lighting turns out great.

Keep the Focus on the Picture

Remember, the goal is to draw attention to the object on the wall, not the light fixture itself. In other words, you want the recessed lights to be as unobtrusive as possible. They should be small, the trim rings should be the same color as the ceiling, and they should shield the light source to minimize ceiling brightness . For these reasons, I recommend 4-inch low voltage lighting for most applications.

There are two main benefits of using low voltage recessed lights; their compact size and the assortment of adjustable trims that are available.

Trim Options for Art and Picture Lighting

  • Angle cut adjustable recessed light trimAngle-cut Adjustable – A personal favorite of mine, this trim gives you up to 45-degrees of adjustment without protruding from the ceiling. Look closely at the design and you’ll see how the angled aperture prevents the light from being cut-off by the trim. Great design.
  • Slot ApertureSlot Aperture – Another excellent choice for concealing the light source. The flat trim completely hides the lamp. You can also paint the trim the same color as the ceiling to conceal it even further.
  • Gimbal TrimGimbal – Gimbal trims extend from the ceiling and pivot about 35-degrees. They have a nice appearance but do not conceal the lamp as well as the angle-cut or slot trims.
  • Adjustable TrimRetractable – Retractable trims (aka scoops or elbows) start flush with the ceiling and extend below the ceiling to nearly 70-degrees. They are like a track light without the track. The downside is that the trim is very visible as it extends below the ceiling. If your ceiling is sloped, this type of trim often necessary to achieve enough angle to aim at the picture.
  • Framing projector recessed light trimFraming Projector – Framing projector trims use custom cut shutters and/or optics to shape the light to exactly fit the size and shape of the picture. They are relatively expensive and take a lot more time to install than standard adjustable trims. However, when done correctly, the effect is amazing.
    Example of framing projectors on artwork
    Here’s an example of framing projectors that blend seamlessly with the ceiling. Look how the artwork appears self-illuminated. Photo credit phantomlighting.com

The Right Lamp Makes all the Difference

Sure, you could point a light at the wall and call it a day. But if you pay attention to the lamp you use, you can really maximize the final result.

Low voltage 4-inch lights use the MR16 lamp. This is a reflector lamp that emits a tight and focused beam of light. What’s great about these lamps is that they are readily available in a wide range of beam angles, ranging from a 10-degree narrow spot to a 60-degree wide flood.

The beam angle of the lamp is important because it determines the size of the cone of light that hits the picture or art piece. When possible, try to keep the beam similar in size to the frame or smaller. This creates a nice effect by making it appear as if the light is coming from within the picture, rather than shining on it. You can experiment with a 10-deg, 35-deg, and 60-deg lamp to see what looks best. You may find that aiming a 10-deg spot light at a certain portion of a picture looks better than washing the entire thing with a 60-deg flood light.

Correlated color temperature (CCT) is the specification of the color of the light from a lamp, measured in Kelvins (K). The lower the number, the warmer the light appears. Sticking to the 3000 Kelvin range is a good rule of thumb for picture lighting. It will ensure the colors appear bright and vivid.

Color accuracy is measured numerically by the color rendering index (CRI), with a highest possible value of 100. Using lamps that have a CRI above 90 will ensure that colors appear as they were intended. Obviously this is important when highlighting something like pictures or artwork. Having blues look green is not going to cut it.

Number of Fixtures

Recessed lighting wall of pictures
The number of recessed fixtures needed is determined by the size, shape, and number of pictures on the wall. For most small to medium size pieces, one recessed light is perfect. If it is a rectangular shape or large piece of artwork, it may require two or more fixtures. For a wall of pictures like the image above, you’ll need multiple fixtures to flood the wall.

Placement is Critical

Fixture placement affects glare, frame shadows, and the ability of trim to aim at the picture.

Picture of recessed lighting aiming angle for placementThe placement of the recessed light in relation to the picture on the wall is what determines the aiming angle. 30-degrees is ideal to minimize glare and reflectance, measured at the ceiling from vertical. It’s okay if you’re not at exactly 30 degrees, but you should be close.

Besides minimizing glare and reflectance, the correct placement is important so you that you can be sure that the trim you’re using has enough range of motion to aim the lamp at the center of the picture. Most adjustable trims have around 35-degrees of adjustment, but check the specifications to be sure.
Use the calculator at the top of this page to ensure the correct placement of your recessed light(s).

Dimming is Necessary

The object that your accent lighting is aimed at should be 2-3 times brighter than the ambient light in the room. However, depending on the time of day the ambient light in the room can change. Having a dimmer switch installed will allow you to adjust the brightness of the picture lights so that your pictures never look too bright or washed out.


Recessed lighting is perfect for accenting pictures and artwork. If you apply the concepts mentioned here I’m certain that your pictures will come to life and create interesting focal points in your home.

Picture and accent lighting
Photo credit Michael Abrams Limited