Accent lighting

Accent lighting refers to illumination that is directed at specific objects or areas to highlight them. The reason this technique is beloved by so many is its ability to create a sense of depth and contrast while enhancing the functionality and beauty of a space. It differs from ambient and task lighting as it’s not typically bright enough to illuminate an entire space or job. Whether it’s accentuating a feature piece or evoking a cosy ambiance, accent lighting is key to achieving your design goals. Let’s explore how to get the most bang for your bulb with accent lighting in your home.

Office with Asan 45 wall light focusing on artwork. Timber cabinetry.
The Asan 45 wall light showcasing art, and recessed strip lights casting a soft glow in this home office designed by GDP Interiors. Photography by Kate Hansen.

Where to start

Consider accent lighting as the element of a lighting layout that can elevate a home from good to great. You’ll already have a base of ambient or general lighting, which illuminates overall spaces and rooms. These would be fixtures such as oyster lamps or pendants that are bright enough to reach the entire room. Next will come task lighting, which is directed towards areas in a room that need extra illumination for practical purposes, such as the kitchen bench or home office desk. Last is accent lighting, which is the finishing touch.

Great accent lighting begins with identifying the features in a home to showcase, the warmth of light, and the type of fixture to use. Some key questions to ask are:

• Are there any architectural elements that would be enhanced with light and shadow?
• Would artworks, decor items or display cabinets benefit from being spotlighted?
• What kind of ambience would you like to evoke?
• Is there room for a wall light or do you need to stick with ceiling lights or freestanding lamps?
• Are there ways to use light to draw the eye to features in the front or backyard?

Accent lighting with a downlight focusing on an artwork, a wall light spotlighting a decorative vessel, and a ceiling with recessed strip lighting.
Left: Signature Wall Washer downlight focusing on an artwork. Middle: Hubble wall light spotlighting a decorative vessel. Right: Architectural ceiling enhanced with recessed strip lighting, and downlights grazing textured walls.

Fixtures and placement

On the ceiling, track lighting and downlights are popular fixtures for accent lighting because of the vast range of light output. Choose a softer illumination than what would be used for ambient lighting. Sconces and concealed strip lights on walls are ideal if you want to keep the ceiling sparse. To highlight shelves, bookcases and display cabinets, backlighting with LED strip provides comfort and functionality. Don’t forget that wall lights can be installed low down near the floor, and will cast an accented glow across textured floors. As for freestanding sources, table or floor lamps can be a decorative addition.

Left: Living room with accent light provided by a floor lamp and downlights. Middle: Kitchen shelves lit from underneath by LED strip lights.  Right: Sarna exterior wall light grazes the textured wall.
Left: Living room with accent light provided by a floor lamp and downlights. Middle: Kitchen shelves lit from underneath by LED strip lightsRight: Sarna exterior wall light grazes the textured wall. 

Placement is everything. Consider the angle and direction of the light, as well as the height and distance from the object you want to showcase. Typically, the closer a light source is to an object, the brighter it will be and the darker its shadow will appear. This in turns creates a more contrasted and bold look.

Give yourself the luxury of versatility with fixtures that are dimmable or have pivoting heads. By adjusting brightness, warmth and direction, accent lighting can make your space feel more energetic, vibrant and homey. Contrast between light and shadow on an object brings drama, whereas soft lighting adds subtlety.

Placement techniques to try

Accent lighting showcases art, but it can be art in its own right when using the ‘highlight and shadow’ technique. Harnessing the interplay of light and shadow is a design element many interior designers use. It involves positioning a light source to emphasise the object or area you want to draw attention to, while also being aware of the contrasting shadow. A second light source can be placed nearby to overlap the highlighted section for more intensity. This dynamic of dark versus light is a simple yet effective method to add dimension and depth while accentuating the focal point of the room. You can also use this technique to highlight beautiful artwork, architectural features or decorative elements that may otherwise go unnoticed.

Left: The Dorian wall lamp brings contrast with the 'highlight and shadow' technique. Middle: A 'grazing' cast of light from the floor draws attention to the stone wall. Right: Discreet 'wall-washing' with the Cambio Wall Washer downlight.

Left: The Dorian wall lamp brings contrast with the 'highlight and shadow' technique. Middle: A 'grazing' cast of light from the floor draws attention to the stone wall. Right: Discreet 'wall-washing' with the Cambio Wall Washer downlight.

‘Grazing’ is a popular style of accent lighting where the light source is placed close to a surface at an angle, accentuating the minute details of the surface. It’s the perfect way to go if you have unique floors, ceilings, or textured architecture, like a rough stone or exposed brick wall. Grazing can create a range of effects, from subtle to dramatic, and you can adjust the intensity to best serve your space. Try grazing in rustic, coastal or industrial style spaces.

‘Wall-washing’ is perfect for casting a soft, even glow across wall surfaces. It involves directing light towards the wall at a wide angle, which causes the light to spread out evenly, covering a large surface area. This is best achieved with a specific downlight that has an angled, wall-washing lens. It brings a calming effect by minimising harsh shadows, and is a beloved technique for living rooms, dining rooms, and bedrooms thanks to its warm and inviting style.

For more inspiration or ideas on which fixtures will boost your accent lighting, reach out to an Amphis team member.