How To Wash a Wall With Light

It’s a staple in hotel, art gallery, and museum lighting design, and for good reason. Wall washing recessed lighting makes a statement, calling attention to architectural details, sculptures, fireplaces, wall hangings, and more. It’s an easy way to create a dramatic effect in virtually any room.

Tip: Wall washing also makes a room feel larger. Since you’re emphasizing the vertical surfaces, it tends to create a visual expansion effect!

Here’s how to reproduce the look using recessed lights:

1. Find a wall wash recessed lighting trim. It should have a partial opening so that light is only emitted through the opening (see this page) for examples. Do you have a sloped ceiling? Most people think washing a wall with light is impossible with a sloped ceiling, especially if the angle is pointing away form the target wall. It’s not! You just need a wall washing recessed lighting trim for sloped ceilings.

2. Determine your mounting & spacing guidelines. The “mounting distance” is the number of feet between the wall and your recessed light on the ceiling. The “spacing distance” is the number of feet between each recessed light.  The rule of thumb here is for your mounting distance to equal your spacing distance. To determine that, take 1/3 of your ceiling height and you have it!

  • Mounting and spacing distance should be 2-3 feet for ceilings up to nine feet high.
  • Mounting and spacing distance should be 3-4 feet for ceilings between nine and eleven feet high.
3. Position the trim on your target wall. The opening should be closest to the wall you want to wash with light. Some wall washing trims have adjustable openings so you can control the light output even more closely.

*Note: Wall washing is different from wall grazing, which creates more shadows to emphasize texture. Whereas a wall wash tends to “smooth out” a wall and minimize its texture due to the even illumination, a wall graze creates dramatic high and low levels of light on irregular surfaces (such as brick or stucco). If you’re going for a wall grazing effect, you need to place the light fixtures much closer to the wall – the typical guideline is somewhere between six and twelve inches.

As always, let us know if you have questions!

Emily Widle

Emily Widle

Emily graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with a degree in journalism. She enjoys scouring the news to report on the latest in the lighting industry as well as bringing valuable remodeling tips and exemplar home projects to light.

  • Julia Allan

    Great pictures!
    Thank you! I found some more on this website:

    • Chris Johnson


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  • JJ Petrouski

    I would like to use a wall wash to highlight a 36″ x36″ painting hanging on my kitchen wall behind banquette seating. I only have access to ceiling lighting so I was looking at the recessed wall washers I want to make sure the people sitting on the banquette seating would not have the light on them. Is this type of lightning appropriate for my goal? It is a fairly small kitchen. I appreciate any help/suggestions. Thank you

    • Jacob from Pegasus Lighting

      Yes, it’s appropriate. You can install wall washer recessed lights that will direct the light onto the painting and not blind the people sitting below with glare.