Your Creative Space: Illumination

Lately I’ve been talking about the importance of good design when it comes to your writer’s dungeon, artist studio, scrapbook room or whatever space you create in. Today I want to shine some light (pun intended because I’m just cheesy like that) on an aspect of design that often doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

Lighting is an element that many people don’t even think about – unless there’s a problem with it. It’s crucial, and yet in a flawless design, it often goes unnoticed (or at least under-appreciated). But think about it: without light, tasks are difficult at best, space and form are of lesser importance and aesthetics like colors and patterns don’t matter at all. Today I’m going to talk about using lighting to your advantage.

The Three Types of Lighting

First come the definitions. Ambient lighting gives overall background illumination to the room. When it’s direct, it’s focused downward; when it’s indirect, it’s focused upward, reflected off the ceiling. Indirect lighting provides a softer glow which can create a pleasant atmosphere. Direct lighting is often harsh and can cause glare, depending on the fixture.

Task lighting provides direct illumination for a specific task. This is the most important of the three for a space that is centered on getting work done. Mainly for decoration, accent lighting enriches an interior setting by providing points of interest. Examples of accent lighting are an eyeball fixture that highlights a painting, twinkle lights and strip lights on crown molding or on an architectural detail.

Ideally, you want all three types of lighting in your space. Realistically, though, if budget constraints require cutting something, accent should be the first thing to go. You really can’t do without ambient or task lighting in an effective work area.

When you analyze your tasks in the space, be sure to note what type of lighting is necessary for each. It is a good idea for task lighting to be on a separate switch than ambient lighting, preferably one located near your work area. If you use a computer part of the time, you’ll want to switch off task lighting before turning your focus to the backlit screen.

The Color of Light

Another important factor to consider when it comes to lighting is color temperature. Maybe you’re already nervous by the fact that I’m talking about lighting, such a technical part of interior design, and suddenly now that I’ve thrown out the word “temperature” you’re starting to sweat. Or maybe you’re a sentence away from clicking over to a more interesting post because this all sounds incredibly boring. But stick with me, because you are going to learn some valuable info. (I love lighting, but I know that most people may not feel the same way, so I’ll try not to geek out too much with the nitty-gritty details.)

Color temperature is very important. Have you ever gone to the store to buy paint, found the perfect color sample, and when you got the paint home and up on the wall, it looked completely different? Similarly, have you ever put together an outfit in your closet and when you wore it out, you realized the colors didn’t match? Most likely the culprit was the lighting. (This is why closet lighting is so important!)

Every light source has a color, ranging from the cool blues of fluorescent to the warm yellowy-oranges of typical incandescent lamps. Temperatures around 5,000 – 6,000 (and higher) are cool light and the range of 2,700 – 3300 (and lower) are considered warm light. While each type has its benefits and drawbacks, I prefer the middle-ground (around 4,000), a light source as close to pure white light as possible. In my opinion, halogen light is the best combination of pure light and affordable cost, especially for fields of art that require color accuracy. (Did you know at specialty stores like Light Bulb Supply in Oklahoma City you can by halogen medium base A-lamps? Those are regular bulbs like you’d use in a table lamp and most other fixtures.)

Another way to compare light sources is by their CRI (Color Rendering Index). The closer the CRI to 100, the better the light is for accurately portraying colors.

Take a deep breath – we’re past the worst of the technical stuff. Did your eyes glaze over there for a minute? Now on to the primary issues caused by lighting (or the lack thereof).

Lighting Problems

Too much and not enough are probably the most common problems. If you aren’t getting adequate light, you probably need additional fixtures. If you’re getting too much, try lowering the wattage in the bulbs you’re using or installing a dimmer.

One critical aspect that ties in to having the right amount of light is the color of your room’s primary surfaces – walls, floor and ceiling. Every paint color has a Light Reflectance Value (LRV), usually found on the back of the sample. The next time you go shopping for paint, keep this in mind. The higher the value (up to 100%), the more light is reflected back into the room. This is why I mentioned in my last post to keep your ceiling as close to pure white as possible, because ceilings are the main surfaces that reflect light. Compare a white paint’s LRV to that of a light tan one, just one or two shades darker. You’d be amazed at the difference in the percentage – it immediately drops ten or twenty percent (or more).

Walls are important for reflectance, too. Put a dark rust or eggplant shade of paint on your walls and instantly your light reflectance will drop to 25%…15%…9% and suddenly that two- or three-bulb ceiling fan light won’t cut it. You’re going to have to provide a beefier light fixture. I’m a fan of deep paint colors, don’t get me wrong, but when you select them, make sure you consider the effect it will have on lighting and make amends if necessary.

Another common problem is glare. Assess your situation (eyeballs are the best tools for this) and if there are any hot spots, whether it’s an exposed bulb or light reflecting off a shiny surface, get rid of them. Glare strains the eye which in turn makes it more difficult to work and can cause you to get tired faster. Maybe you love the look of twinkle lights, but every time you look away from them, you see residual floating colors. Eliminate glare to get the most out of your creative work room.

Contrast is another aspect to consider, especially if your work area includes a computer monitor or other backlit device (like an iPad). The best scenario provides low contrast between the monitor and the ambient lighting in the room. While overhead lighting should be dim and not overpower the level of the screen, a complete black background is not recommended. Too much contrast (dark room, bright screen) can also cause eye strain.

Hopefully I’ve empowered rather than overwhelmed you with the many facets of lighting and its great ability to influence your interior. If you have any questions about anything I’ve mentioned, let me know in the comments. And be sure to check back on Thursday when I talk about Creating in Comfort.

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