Are fluorescent or LED bulbs better for art studios?

Are fluorescent or LED bulbs better for art studios?

You may have recently noticed at your local hardware store that the lighting aisle is nowadays mostly stocked with LED lights. Fluorescent lamps are still sold, but they’re no longer prominently displayed, and the transition to LED lighting is quite noticeable.

While the phase-out of fluorescent lamps for household use may well be underway, are today’s LED lights sufficient in quality for use in art studios where lighting requirements are far more specific? In this article, we discuss the current state of available lighting technologies for art studios and provide recommendations for anyone planning an art studio lighting installation.

Lighting requirements specific to art studios

Art studios have specific lighting requirements that can be difficult to meet. Without the correct lighting conditions, however, you may find yourself choosing incorrect paint colors or even missing color differences entirely.

In our article comparing fluorescent and LED lamps, we will focus on the following three main areas of lighting as they pertain to art studios:

  • Consistency over time
  • Color temperature
  • Color rendering index (CRI) 

Back to basics: what is a fluorescent lamp?

Fluorescent lamps have been around for decades, and are probably most commonly seen installed in ceiling fixtures in 2-ft or 4-ft lengths. They are, however, also available as screw-in light bulbs in a format called the compact fluorescent lamp (CFL). Regardless of the shape or size, the fundamental operating principle and resulting color quality of fluorescent lamps is generally the same.

Compared to incandescent lamps, fluorescent lamps are far more efficient, and are generally considered to be the first generation of energy-efficient lighting.

Fluorescent lamps achieve a higher level of efficiency by running electrical current through a glass tube filled with a mixture of gases. The downside, however, is that the electrical properties of the lamp change as the lamp warms up, which oftentimes results in light output inconsistency during operation. There are also concerns about glass breakage as well as toxic vapor release and proper disposal after lamp failures.

Color Quality of Fluorescent Lamps - Insufficient for Art Studios?

As far as color is concerned, fluorescent lights can emit white light in a variety of shades, including daylight-white, which is the correct color temperature for an art studio and is actually a significant advantage over incandescent lighting.

(Originally, fluorescent lamps were only available in daylight-white color with low CRI, which the general public did not like, giving rise to the negative perception of the word fluorescent lighting as a stark and depressing type of lighting).

Unfortunately, color rendering (CRI) values are generally quite poor, especially for art studio applications where color accuracy and appearance are of paramount importance. Most fluorescent lamps will have CRI values in the 80s, with R9 values below 50.

Additionally, as mentioned prior, fluorescent lamps are thermally unstable. Specifically, what this means is that the light output and color can vary depending on how hot the lamp is, and you may need to wait up to an hour for the lamp to full warm up to full brightness and stable color. For an art studio, inconsistent color and brightness are problematic, as you will want and need the same light color and appearance whenever the lights are switched on.

Several innovative manufacturers in the cinematography and TV lighting industry, such as Kino-Flo and ARRI, have been able to overcome color rendering and stability issues with innovations in fluorescent phosphors and on-board current control. Color rendering performance is near-perfect at 95 CRI or higher, and color temperatures are correctly calibrated to daylight white. Unfortunately, at a cost of several hundred dollars per fluorescent tube, outfitting an entire art studio would be cost-prohibitive, and most of their products also require specialized power systems to operate.

To summarize, fluorescent lamps have the correct color temperature, but their unstable light output and insufficient color rendering performance means that they are generally unsuitable for art studio applications.

What about LED lamps?

LED lamps are the newest type of lighting, and they offer even better efficiency and performance compared to fluorescent lamps. They have continued to use similar form factors as traditional lighting products, and it may actually be very difficult distinguish between an LED lamp and a fluorescent lamp based on just its outer appearance. For example, LED tube lights are designed to directly replace fluorescent tube lights in a direct replacement configuration using the existing fluorescent fixture.

Technologically, however, LED lamps operate quite differently from fluorescent lamps. First of all, they utilize semiconductor chips without the need for toxic gases, which enhances the safety profile and is more convenience if disposal becomes necessary. Second, LED lamps are far more stable and produce consistent color as soon as they are switched on, which is a very important benefit for art studios.

Like fluorescent lamps, LED lamps are available in daylight-calibrated color temperatures, which is the correct color temperature for art studios. Unfortunately, you probably won't find any LED lamps suitable for art studio use at your local hardware store due to insufficient color rendering performance. That's because standard LED lamps have CRI values that are generally insufficient for art studio use, typically in the 80s with R9 values in the 0 - 50 range.

If standard LED lamps have the correct color temperature and stable light output, but insufficient color rendering, are there any specialty LED products that also feature high CRI?

How to find LED lamps with daylight color and high CRI

The reason it can be so difficult to find LED products suitable for art studios is that both daylight color and high CRI must be achieved simultaneously. Most manufacturers pursue development and sales of lighting products with the highest potential sales volume, which inevitably tend to be for mass-market, non-color-critical installations. Additionally, high CRI products are costlier to manufacture and inherently have lower efficiency, so there is little incentive for most manufacturers to provide a high-CRI product option.

Some very high-end residential and hospitality lighting products do feature high CRI, but the color temperature for these locations is generally 2700K or 3000K to mimic incandescent and halogen lighting, which is unsuitable for art studio lighting.

While commercial lighting products have daylight color temperatures that match the requirement for art studios, office and commercial spaces generally do not require high CRI, and energy efficiency is a higher priority.

Although the vast majority of LED lamps are generally unsuitable for art studios, the good news is that some specialty manufacturers such as Waveform Lighting have developed specialty LED lighting products that feature both daylight color temperatures and high CRI.

The NorthLux line of LED lamps is the lighting industry's only brand dedicated specifically for the art professional who needs consistent daylight-quality, high CRI lighting for their studio spaces. With a wide range of lighting types that range from simple screw-in lamps to dedicated lamp fixtures, our products will help improve your art studio lighting regardless of scale and complexity. Click here to learn more!

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