The Fundamentals Of Light Layering In Lighting Design

Light layering uses a combination of Ambient, Accent, and Task lighting to create a visually and functionally balanced room or outdoor area. When properly executed, light layering adds beauty, flexibility, and safety to every space. The right lighting plan creates atmosphere, highlights focal points, and enhances mood in both indoor and outdoor areas.


The Three Basic Types of Light

Ambient Lighting - Think of Ambient lighting as your canvas. Ambient lighting, also known as General lighting, provides overall illumination in a room or outdoor space. It helps you see and safely move about throughout an area. Sunlight provides Ambient lighting during the daylight hours. Most of us already do some level of layering with Ambient sunlight by using curtains, blinds, and shades.


Ceiling mounted lights, table lamps, and fluorescent lights are some of the more common fixtures used for General lighting. Recessed lights have also become popular in recent years. Using dimmers to control a room's Ambient light offers exceptional flexibility, as well. Outdoors, floodlights attached to motion-activated sensors are an excellent example of Ambient lighting.


Task Lighting - Task lighting helps you complete routine tasks in your home or office. Reading lamps are a perfect example of task lighting. When considering your task lighting, consider the demands of the space you're working with. For instance, if you work at home on the computer, you might prefer low overall light, and use a clip-on lamp to help you see the keyboard and desk.


Whereas, in the basement workshop, only bright and focused floodlights might do. The right task lighting on a bathroom mirror will not only help with putting on makeup, but it can also make you look better. Good task lighting minimizes both glare and shadows.


Accent Lighting - Accent lighting brings broad areas, or specific items, to life. The soft lights that Museums use to illuminate sculptures, paintings, and exhibits are perfect examples of Accent lights. Landscapers frequently use Accent lighting to define pathways, draw attention to plants and shrubs, or create atmosphere.


Other examples of Accent lighting include under-cabinet lights in the kitchen, underwater lighting in the pool, or backlighting behind the television. Accent lighting should always be soft and subtle.


How to Create a Layered Lighting Scheme

Use multiple sources of light for maximum effect. Combine ambient lighting with task lighting, for instance, to create shadow-free work areas. Use accent lighting to spark interest and decorative lighting that works with your interior's personality. Start with a good foundation of Ambient lighting.


Ambient lighting provides enough illumination for you to safely navigate a room or outdoor area. Whether you use table lamps in the living room, a ceiling fan in the bedroom, or drop lights in the basement, general lighting should always be tied to the wall switch at a room's entrance.


Also, put your Ambient lights on dimmers, when possible. Dimmers allow for flexibility as daylight wanes. Plus, too much general light in a room drowns out any Accent lighting. It will render most task lights ineffective, as well. For flexibility, use several types and banks of lights throughout the room. Here are some suggestions:


Layering light lets you stamp your personality on and bring any room or outdoor space to life. It also allows you to place emphasis on the different areas of your home used for different purposes. By mixing and matching light sources, you can easily transition a workspace into a showcase with just the flip of a switch.


  • The Living Room - Table and Floor lamps provide exceptional flexibility. Plus, lamps can be used for all three types of light. If the room already has recessed lights, split the circuit into several banks and add dimmers, if possible. Small lamps pointed upwards work great for showing off plants and architectural features. And, of course, floor lamps come in handy next to the recliner.


  • The Dining Room - Most people use a fourth type of lighting, called Decorative, for their Ambient light in the dining room. Along with functionality, Decorative lighting places much of its importance on the style of the fixture and how well it blends into the room's decor (think chandelier or hanging light). Take into account the number, the power, and colour temperature of the bulbs you use in this type of fixture. Be sure not to overpower any of the room's accent lights like those in the china closet, or that highlight artwork or fireplaces, for instance.


  • The Kitchen - The Kitchen offers a perfect opportunity to show off your light layering and interior design skills. Bright overhead lights usually make the most sense for all-purpose use. Under-cabinet puck lights work great to show off new countertops and backsplashes. Avoid halogen bulbs in favor of LEDs for this type of lighting. Halogen bulbs get quite hot and use lots of electricity, too. LEDs stay cool and save big compared to halogen bulbs. You will be able to safely and economically leave LED lights on all evening without concern. In-cabinet Accent lights add a nice touch to clear-faced upper cabinets. Pendant lights over an island double as Task and Decorative lights.


  • Outdoors - A wide variety of traditional, low-voltage, and solar-powered decorative lighting makes it easy to add charm and functionality to any outdoor space, without breaking the bank. Combine low-voltage or solar path lights with floodlights attached to motion detectors for safety at entryways. Lighting shrubs, statues, and flowerbeds from below adds instant allure to any yard. Define your property's perimeter with in-ground solar spikes. Add post-cap lights to show off your fencing. LEDs embedded in the deck or stair risers double as both Task and Accent lights.

Light layering uses Ambient, Accent, and Task lighting in concert. Each layer should work with and complement the others. When done correctly, light layering adds beauty, flexibility, and safety to every space.