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Understanding the Layers of Light

The key to good lighting design is understanding the layers of light. Lighting has multiple purposes, which can be described as ambient, focal and decorative. Multiple direct and indirect light sources are needed to properly light up a space evenly and effectively.

Ambient Lighting

Task Lighting

Decorative Lighting

Before you set out to find the perfect fixture, think about what you are trying to achieve with your lighting. Are you hoping to draw attention to a fabulous piece of artwork? Will your new kitchen be used for cooking, entertaining and socializing? Are you looking to brighten your home office? The answer will help you determine what type of light source(s) will help you illuminate your space.


Here is a breakdown of the three layers of light and what fixtures can be used to create them:

Ambient Lighting

"A light-filled space gives me joy and energy. For others a more cave-like space will have the same effect. It's all about finding your comfort zone with ambient lighting." - Judith Taylor for Houzz

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Jayden Pendants by Tech Lighting

Also referred to as “general lighting”, ambient lighting provides overall illumination to the space. Ambient lighting produces a comfortable level of brightness without glare or shadows. Sources of ambient lighting include chandeliers, pendants, ceiling lights, recessed or track lights. Your lighting plan should start with ambient lighting, as it sets the foundation for other layers of light. Every room needs ambient lighting as it is what allows you to see.

Focal and Task Lighting

"Targeted to a particular area of a room, task lighting is intended to illuminate specific function." - Jill Connors for HGTV

bc Finn Mid Understanding the Layers of Light
Lynn Bath Vanity Light by Tech Lighting

Focal light concentrates brightness onto a specific area. This includes task lighting, which is a type of focal lighting that helps you perform specific tasks like reading, applying makeup, cooking, working and doing homework. Task lighting is especially important in bathrooms, where tasks like grooming and shaving require plenty of light. The point of focal lighting is to draw attention to something. Think about mannequins in a retail space or artwork in a gallery.Focal and task lighting should not produce glare or shadows. Track lights produce beams of light, producing great focal or task lighting. 

Accent and Decorative Lighting

"Just because lighting is functional doesn’t mean it should be boring. In fact, the right fixture can be so much more than just a source of light — it can be a source of joy and an artistic focal point." - Kit Waskom Pollard for Baltimore at Home

lv AudraGrande Kitchen Understanding the Layers of Light
Audra Grande Pendants by Tech Lighting

A favorite here at, we refer to decorative accent lighting as the “sparkle” in a room. The purpose of decorative lighting is to evoke positive emotions. The “sparkle” can be as simple as the shine that is produced from light reflecting off of a polished decorative element, or as elaborate as a crystal chandelier. This type of lighting is an expression of art. It allows you to make a statement, express your personal style and have a little fun with your lighting.