How to Light Outdoor Artwork

Iris Torus sculpture encircled by flexible LED strip lighting

What are the best ways to create an impact with an outdoor sculpture at night?

There are two ways of looking at this. How to light the sculpture itself; or how to light a sculpture within an overall lighting scheme.

Lighting a sculpture

The key to good lighting for a sculpture is to recognise that each outdoor sculpture is different and play to its individual strengths and weaknesses. Getting the light right can be tricky:

  • It can be hard to strike a balance between too much and too little light.
  • The shape of some sculptures can cause awkward lights and shadows. That is why our armillary spheres do not have integral lighting. The circles of the sphere cast too many shadows for an internal light to work easily without reference to its particular location. (It is still possible to effectively light an armillary sphere however, by uplighting from the base of its plinth or nearby.)
  • Material makes a difference. Used in many of our artworks, mirror polished stainless steel creates stunning reflections of its surroundings. But the shiny metal can also reflect back lighting too perfectly, creating a glare. Lighting needs to be carefully positioned to avoid this. The iconic Torus sculpture, for example, can be illuminated with an LED light at the bottom of the hole in its middle. To light the whole sculpture, a soft wash of light would need to be positioned away from the sculpture and carefully angled to avoid an overpowering dazzle.
  • In some cases, there is no obvious place to put a light with an artwork. Vertical sundials which lie flat on a wall are one example; Bite sculpture – typically set on a thin rod - is another. Sculptures like these need to be lit from a distance.

Individual Sculptures

David Harber's own pieces illustrate the sort of thinking that needs to be applied to a sculpture. Many of them come with their own lighting, selected to make the most of each artwork at night.

We have found that for many artworks, the best solution is an LED uplighter from the base, tailored to the features of each individual piece.

For example, the Eclipse has surfaces covered with gold leaf, while Hydra sculptures can have stainless steel surfaces. The light of an angled uplighter placed low down softly illuminates the form of the sculpture while the gold and steel surfaces glitter prettily. Similar lighting for the Quiver leaf sculpture delicately illuminates the appealing natural browny-orange colour of the mild steel stems and is carefully angled to not cause reflected glare on the mirror-polished stainless steel leaves.

A newer option is LED strip lighting which can provide a long line of light for objects that are not straight. We use this to gently light around the base of Water Mantle water feature; and most dramatically to shine light from all around the edge of large circular Iris Mantle, flowing inwards over its fragmented mirrored surface.

For garden spheres, we use internal lighting. Mantle and Geminus are often lined with gold leaf so when lit, they radiate a golden glow from inside through the chinks of their verdigris bronze patterned surface. The effect is pretty and delicate.

Dark Planet features powerful internal lighting to create a strong, fiery glow that complements the smooth black puddle stones or heather grey slate chips that make up the sculpture.

Uplit Hydra, uplit Eclipse, bright internal light in Dark Planet, gentle internal light inside Mantle.

Uplight Hydra tree sculpture
Gold leaf surfaces of the Eclipse sculpture glitter when lit at night
Powerful internal lighting turns Dark Planet garden sphere into a fireball
Mantle garden sphere has a golden glow with gentle internal lighting

Water features

Similar principles can be applied when lighting water features, as long as they are sealed units like David Harber's: each water feature needs to be considered individually in order to highlight the best features. In many cases, the water itself is the best feature, its movement is pretty and compelling, and refracted light creates patterns which reflect interestingly on the surrounding area.

Our Mimeo Cascade water feature for example, is lit from the centre of its bowl illuminating the water cascading down; whereas Chalice water feature has two uplighters shining from the base in order to create an even spread of light over the water constantly flowing down all around the hemisphere.

Lighting for the Chalice water feature

Sculptures in lighting schemes

Ideally, an illuminated sculpture or water feature is considered as part of an overall lighting scheme. Avoiding glare and awkward shadows are once again important.

It is possible for an artwork to be the single lit focus of a space, glinting out of the darkness. But you will need to be careful that the effect is interesting and mysterious rather than looking like an odd thing floating in the darkness.

Assuming you would like a sculpture to be part of a full lighting scheme, which is usually the case, there are many options, including:

  • Light the sculpture quite brightly and gently flood the space around (with flood lights or downlights) to add depth to a scene
  • If a sculpture is at the end of a path, gentle lighting along the path can lead up to a well lit sculpture – illuminated by uplighters or multiple soft spotlights - for a striking show
  • A similar approach can be taken even if the sculpture isn't at the end of a path, leading the eye with soft floodlights or downlighting to a well lit sculpture.
  • A more unusual option is to light an artwork from behind, either pointing directly at it and creating a silhouette of the shape outlined by an aura of light; or silhouetting the shape more gently with a light behind the sculpture that is pointing elsewhere.
  • A sculpture or water feature can be only partially illuminated to add mystery to an installation. The effect will need to be tested to ensure the artwork does not look lopsided or simply odd.

Garden sculptures take on a whole other character when illuminated at night

David Harber

The technical side

Most of the lighting used by David Harber needs only a low powered 12 volt power source, modulated down from higher household voltage by a transformer. As electrical installations go, these are relatively safe. Fittings vary depending on your location – US household lighting is much lower than the UK’s, for example. David Harber supplies suitable fittings depending on your location.

The Dark Planet uses a more powerful light that requires a higher voltage so the cable needs to be buried more deeply than is normal with our sculptures and protected with an armoured mesh.

Other suppliers will have different specifications. But in all cases, outdoor lighting should be installed by a qualified electrician.


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