Generally speaking, what you are looking for in a painting light is something that gives off a nice, clean tone of light. What I mean by "clean" is something that is not too far in the warm, yellow end of the light spectrum, or too far into the cold blue end of the colour spectrum. Either extreme will affect your colour perception, and can trick your eye into thinking that the paints you are using are something they are not.
The old fashioned incandescent lights were very warm in tone, which made sense because they were created by heating up a tiny filament that created more heat than light. Later on, there were various fluorescent tubes sold that were very blue in colour... the light was created by sending an electrical current through a gas filled tube to excite the molecules into producing light. Neither method created a form of light that approximated natural sunlight very well (and even sunlight varied in colour temperature quite often).
Nowadays, we have a number of lights and light bulbs that are marketed as "Daylight", which basically mean that produce light in the 5000k to 6500k range (as opposed to "warm" lights, which are meant to reproduce the old fashioned incandescent lights, sit around the 2700k range, and old halogen lights are around 3000k). This is the sweet spot of lighting, as far as we painters are concerned. 5000k or 6500k allows our eyes to see colours on our palette and miniature for what they really are... not tinted or colour shifted by the colour of the light itself.
So, the very first consideration any painter should have when choosing a light, is to stick to something that produces a light between 5000k and 6500k. When in doubt, look for those numbers on the packaging, or on the product itself. Don't just look for the word, "daylight", as that is just a marketing term which could mean anything. "Daylight" for lights can be just as misleading and confusing as "organic", or "all natural" for foods.
Next, look at your painting station. How do you want the light to be set up?
For my personal setup, I like a light with a position-able (articulated) arm, so that I can move the light around and adjust the angle and height without having to tear it down and re-set it up elsewhere. The ones I have also clamp firmly to my desk, so that I don't worry about knocking them over. However, you may like something completely different, as your preferences and your desk setup may be completely different from mine. There are lights with a weighted base that you simply set down anywhere you have space on the desk, and there are lights that mount to the walls or ceiling. There are also floor lamps with long arms that put the light where you like (although I find they are often designed with reading at a couch or chair in mind, rather than painting).
Those are the two basic considerations that spring to mind. That being said, why don't we have a quick look at various lighting options, and I'll give you my thoughts and experiences with each?
The first light worth looking at just so happens to be one of the least expensive options. Which also happens to be one of the most versatile. And coincidentally, happens to be the one I use now.
It's the standard desk lamp.
A venerable design, widely available just about anywhere (office supplies stores, art stores, furniture stores, etc... I believe mine are from IKEA). The versatility comes from the fact that it can accept a number of different kinds of light bulbs, so long as they have a standard size twist-in base. You can put an incandescent bulb in there, halogen bulb, or LED bulb. You can also find bulbs in varying wattage, based on how bright a light you need. And you can position and adjust the angle as needed. The only real drawback to these is that they take up a fair bit of room, and need a sturdy surface to clamp on to.
And did I mention that these are dirt-cheap?
Of all the kinds of bulbs you can use, I would strongly advise avoiding the old fashioned incandescent bulbs. Not only are they incredibly energy inefficient and short lived (meaning that you have to replace them quite often), but they usually put out a very yellow light. In addition, they put out a lot of heat, which can get uncomfortable when the lamp is inches from your head.
I currently use the twisted florescent tube bulbs (which remind me of curly fries... mmmmm, curly fries...). While they still put out a little bit of heat, it's generally not noticeable unless you are painting for hours and hours. They have a good long life, and use substantially less energy than the incandescent versions. They do cost a little more to buy, but pay for themselves in the long run. And they put out a very pleasant 6500k light, which make the colours and details pop nicely.
Years ago, when these first came out, they did put out a faint humming sound, but I can't hear anything from the ones being sold nowadays.
The latest offerings in bulbs are daylight LED bulbs. These promise to be much better than even the florescent ones, in that they use even less energy, last even longer, and produce almost no heat whatsoever. Plus, they are much more impact resistant, so no worries of breaking them. They are a bit more expensive, but are coming down in price all the time (and still MUCH less expensive than some of the dedicated painting lights sold in art stores).
They are also made in a number of different colour temperatures, but the ones you are looking for are the 5000k ones. I haven't seen any 6500k versions yet, but the 5000k ones seem to work just fine. Great for painting, and great for photography (although you still need to diffuse the light somewhat if you are using them for photographing your minis).
For those who are always looking for the fanciest, most expensive solutions, here are a few to consider:
A variation of the basic clamping desk lamp would be this one. It's a magnifying desk lamp.
This has a magnifying lense in the centre, which is the "donut hole" to the florescent tube that wraps around it. I used to own one of these, and bought it thinking that the magnifying lense would be useful for painting finer details on my miniatures. However, unlike the binocular magnification of an optivisor or reading glasses, this robs you of any depth perception. I found that I had a hard time determining where my hand and brush were, relative to the miniature I was painting. I suppose it would be good for the occasional up-close look for particular details, but not for painting with.
I ended up using it just like a regular adjustable desk lamp for a time, as the light was bright, and had a good colour temperature. However, when it came time to replace the "bulb", I found that they were very pricey. It was much cheaper for me to ditch the magnifying desk lamp and just get a regular desk lamp with a daylight bulb.
My advice would be to not bother with one of those.
Here's a look at one of the most hyped lamps in the history of miniature painting:
For quite some time in the late nineties, and early 2000s, everyone was talking about the "Ott light". Decent florescent lamps were hard to come by back then, and the most plentiful bulb to use with your basic desk lamp was the old yellow light incandescent. At the time, Ott lights were a godsend. They worked off a florescent tube, but produced a very nice, white light. They also didn't hum loudly, like the old florescents, and created almost no noticeable heat at all.
Sold by the hype, I went out and bought one. It was painfully expensive, but I figured that it would be worth it.
In terms of light quality, the light was everything that people had said it was. It was clean, and it made details pop. It was easy on the eyes too. The only problem I had with it was that it wasn't very bright... with the ambient room light on, I could barely tell that the lamp was on or off. Add in the high price tag (even the replacement light tubes were expensive!), and I eventually gave up on this light.
Newer, more recent versions may be much better... I don't know. All I know is the one that I got back in '01 was barely brighter than a candle. Very disappointing for the price.
I've seen a few variations on the above design, but never used one myself. Some use long florescent tubes, and some newer ones use LED strips. Either way, these look promising. The benefit of using one of these over the standard desk lamp would be that they throw light evenly over a wider area, with less of a central "hot spot" of light. I mitigate this with the use of two separate lamps, but if I were to only use one light, it might be this one. However, given the choice between florescent or LED, I would opt for the LED... longer life, less heat, no buzzing noise, shatterproof, and more energy efficient. Either version is likely to be pricey, however.
Speaking of even light, this is a pic that's gotten a lot of attention recently. It's of Mathieu Fontaine's painting desk (check out all those Golden Demon awards on the window sill!), and the "light arches" that he uses.
Custom made for him out of LED light strips, these cast a very even light across nearly the whole surface of his desk. Provided the light strips you get are the right colour temperature range, these would do the job very nicely.
The funny thing is that 4 years before he got this setup, I was sitting in his Vancouver Masterclass, and when the topic of preferred lighting came up, I suggested creating a setup using one of the new LED light hoods that were just coming out for fish aquariums. Mathieu scoffed at the idea, and then proudly showed off this setup years later... essentially a stripped down version of the idea I first proposed in his painting class!
Now have a look at this pic, taken during Alfonso Giraldes' Masterclass in Vancouver last year:
Using two lamps borrowed from the students, Alfonso quickly set up a spot to work on a demo bust for us. It appears one lamp is a long florescent tube lamp, and the other is a small portable Ott lamp (likely one of the newer LED versions). Between the two, he was able to produce a fairly even, white light across his workstation, which worked out very well.
So, perhaps the question isn't, "What lamp works best for miniature painting?", but perhaps "What LAMPS should I use for miniature painting?" As we can see, two lamps are better than one.
Speaking of portable...
For longtime followers of Sable and Spray, you might recognize this pic from my "Portable Painting Setup : Perfect for Lunch Breaks" post. This is a very modest setup... something I can break out, do a bit of modest bit of painting (say perhaps, just a blue cloak), and then pack back up, all within the space of an hour. No point in lugging along a huge desk lamp (or two)... a simple LED headlamp is sufficient for the task. Combine that with a reasonably well lit room, either from overhead lights (hopefully not yellowish incandescents), or from a nearby window, and it's enough lighting to get by.
One other note I should make before finishing up this article... be mindful of what kind of lighting your miniatures will be viewed in. If you paint up your minis under a clean white 5000k + light, but then try taking pictures of your minis under yellow incandescents or 2700k bulbs, you may be shocked how differently your colours turn out. The models simply won't look the same. The same goes for the lighting that painting judges may view your minis under. However, in that case we are generally pretty fortunate that most reputable painting competitions try their best to use clean white light... very similar to the light you should try using while painting. That's not because they are the best lights to paint under, but because they also are the best lights to display miniatures well.
Now, some of you may be using something else entirely than what I've presented in this article, and it may be working for you. If so, then use what you like. However, if you were thinking of trying something else out, then you might find some of what I've written above quite useful. Perhaps you'll find yourself enjoying painting much more, with less eye strain, and better able to discern details and colours. I certainly hope so.
*Edit 2018: I was recently sent two lights to review. Please check out the article here: