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Beyond Design Basics:
Dramatic Lighting Techniques

by Vanessa Gardner Nagel, APLD

After writing about design basics for a year, I decided to go beyond basics this year, and further develop the topics of lighting and color.  Lighting is seldom addressed in design basics.  It is logically touched on during a discussion of color, because you can’t see color with out light.  How can we use light in our homes?  How do we create dramatic effects with light? 

Have you ever noticed that your eyes tend to wander towards brighter areas, with one exception – we don’t look at glare.  We don’t like to look directly at a light source.  Our eyes prefer to see with reflected light, indirect light or the objects that the light illuminates.  Here are seven special effects using mostly indirect light that can greatly enhance the drama or excitement of your home or office:

‘Grazing’.  Before you have visions of shimmering herds of cattle, let me explain that grazing is a lighting technique used to call attention to something like a highly textured wall.  The light fixture (or luminaire) is mounted from or recessed into the ceiling, and is located very near the wall (less than 18 inches).  Because the light source is located at such an extreme angle to the object, the light creates small shadows on each crinkle of texture on the wall, amplifying the fact that the wall is textured.  Heavier textures can make a large space feel more cozy.

‘Wall-washing’.  Similar to grazing, and it has nothing to do with scrubbing the wall.  It has everything to do with brightening a wall.  Unlike grazing, the light source(s) are farther from the wall (approx. 30”).  Depending on the spacing between the light sources themselves, you can have scalloping across the top of the wall or light the entire wall without scalloping.  There are light fixtures made to light an entire wall fairly evenly –from the ceiling to the floor – with little to no drop in amount of light.  This is important only when there is a good reason to have the light extend to the floor – or nearly so.  One example might be when there is a desk at 30” from the floor and against the wall and the light must come from the ceiling.  Another example would be if there is a colorful accent wall or a mural, then uniformly lighting the entire wall enhances the color accent.

‘Pools of light’ is a third effect.  Pools of light are repetitive circles of light cast onto a hard surface, usually in a linear pattern.  This effect is generally used when there is a long object or space to light that would feel more people friendly if it was divided into small human-scaled portions.  One might see pools of light used down a corridor on the floor or wall or on the back of a long built-in upholstered bench.

‘Optical projection’.  Using an optical projector to project a shape of light on a solid surface is an effect known as optical projection.  This effect is occasionally used in a commercial setting to project a company logo.  However, a projection of leaves at an entry floor, perhaps with a colored filter, could be very dramatic.  What about a projection of a child’s profile near the door his/her room to identify their own space?  A more common use would be the precise lighting -to the borders- of a valued painting. You are only limited by your imagination. 

‘Back-lighting’.  Do you have a favorite sculpture?  Try putting the sculpture in silhouette using a technique called backlighting.  Backlighting is just that, the light is in back of the object.  Objects with a unique shape are prime candidates for this lighting technique.  Most effective using an uplight on the floor, backlighting is very dramatic.  It also tends to lose the detail on the front of the piece, so don’t’ do this to a piece with exquisite details on the front.  Also, make sure you see the result of your lighting efforts, not the source itself.

‘Thrown shadow’.  Similar to backlighting this technique puts an object between the light source and an object on which a shadow can be cast, such as a wall or ceiling.  The detail of bare tree branch shadows on a wall or large banana leaf shadows on a ceiling are very dramatic and create texture on a plain surface.  Throwing the shadow of a ceiling-suspended decorative object, like a mobile, can give you twice the fun of a single object.  Disguising the source of light may be a consideration.

‘Sparkle treatment’.  Breaking the rule of disguising the source of light is a technique known as sparkle treatment.  Christmas tree lights and candles are excellent examples of this.  Wall sconces or other light fixtures can also fit into this category with a translucent shade and a light source that is barely visible.  It is important to make sure that the light source(s) have enough light to create the effect, but not so much that they create glare.

So with a little lighting pizzazz, illuminate your life and your surroundings– even if it’s just a few candles.

Dramatic LightingAn example of silhouetting shows off the shape of a jar and its wiggly twigs.




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