Ambient Lighting


Much like an artist begins with a background coat of paint, creates color coatings over it, and then finishes with accents, a gifted decorator builds the lighting of a room in layers. Natural and ambient lighting act as the “undercoat”. Ambient lighting is the general or base level light, covering most of the room. It’s not as simple as placing a ceiling chandelier, though. Ambient sources are sometimes the collective effect of accent and task lighting.

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

You would think decorating would be anything but methodical, but there’s a science behind the way lighting and fixtures are placed. Accent and task lighting should be between four and five times dimmer than ambient light to achieve enough contrast. The simplest of techniques would have you placing a bright source in the center of the room or in the form of a series of evenly placed spotlights. Nothing in décor is ever that simple, though.


Palette is critical even if your lighting has no tint. LED and fluorescent bulbs are generally cool in hue, while halogen produces a warm shade. Today’s LEDs are now available in a more natural white shade as well as in multiple colors that can be changed according to your mood. That means you can build energy efficiency into your room without limiting your palette. Cool light improves visibility and is thus ideal for studies and kitchens. Bedrooms and living areas fare best with warm neutral shades.


When you mix different shades of paint, you create new colors. Lighting is no different. Yellow layered over blue lighting will achieve a green hue, while ivory placed over red will lighten the shade to a pink. Neutral lighting palettes are  equally challenging to create because, without bright accents and enough contrast, your room will be a sea of boring beige. Bear in mind that green, red, and blue light create white.

These days, ambient light is even used to influence emotion. Blue, for example, is a calming shade, while red stimulates focus and concentration.


Ambient lighting needn’t be uniform at all times of the day. Some rooms require flexible light levels. Dining rooms and living areas are best lit with the help of dimmer switches. Entertainment areas and gardens need to have flexible palettes to suit a range of occasions, so choose colored LEDs that can be changed without effort.

Light Level and Shadows

The most important role of ambient light is to set the overall light level in the room. Don’t limit yourself to one level. Even ambient lighting can be carefully placed to light some areas more brightly than others. If you want to build a few different ambient light levels into your room, you also have the option of using task and accent lighting to contribute to your general lighting sources.

The Aspen Foyer by architect, Charles Cuniffe, is a perfect example of how accents and layered ambient lights can establish a varied, yet controlled, lighting level. Tiny nested spotlights and accent lights placed along the entire length of the wall and floor flood the foyer in a highly segmented, yet controlled, level. It’s backlighting that makes that complexity possible. Cuniffe achieved a similar effect by using backlit stairs leading away from a brightly, simply lit entrance. Here, the way shadows fall has played the primary role in the placement of light. There is no need to use ambient light in a centralized area, particularly if you have arched walls and V-shaped ceilings that would cast interesting shadows if the room were lit asymmetrically.


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Filed under Ambient Lighting, Interior Lighting, Light, Lighting

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