You have probably seen it many times in a hotel lobby or in a restaurant: a wall that is made into a focal point with a special way of illumination. You could do this at home, too.
Wall washing is a lighting technique that is used to draw attention to a specific architectural detail like a unique fireplace, a mural or a wall hanging.
Wall washing with light will smooth out the textures of a wall and can make the room appear larger. The soft reflected light provides ambient to the surrounding area.
Another lighting technique, wall grazing, on the other hand will let textures stand out. This is ideal for a brick or natural stone fireplace or other very textured surfaces where you want to create a play of light and shadows to see the contours. This wine bar uses wall grazing to have the elegant wine rack become a focal point.
You can use track lighting, individual surface mounted monopoints, or recessed fixtures. There are special recessed lighting trims for wall washing and grazing. These trims cut off part of the light. The opening of the recessed can looks like a semi-circle or a long oval. You adjust the trims so that their flat edges are parallel to the wall. If you use conventional round trims you can end up with “scallops” of light on the wall instead of an evenly lit surface.
The trick about great lighting is that it doesn’t get noticed - unless you want it to. So, if your goal is to highlight a beautiful mural you don't want the focus to be on the sharp contrasts between the cones of light and the spaces in-between. In another location you might deliberately choose to create a dramatic display of light cones for added effect.
In order to illuminate the wall evenly, the lights should be positioned closer to the wall than usual. A rule of thumb is to space the track or the wall washers 1/3 of the ceiling height from the wall and separate the fixtures by the same distance.
Light a textured fireplace for atmosphere
Do keep one thing in mind: Wall grazing will show all texture in your wall, so if you are illuminating a smooth wall all imperfections will really show up. Also, never ever illuminate something you actually don't want to see. Sounds so trivial, but you'd be surprised. Is it really a good idea to highlight the wall heater in the photo below?
When we go on consultations for jobs like this we carry portable lights with us so we can play around with positioning of fixtures and trying out different beam spreads to create the look we are after. I'm all for seeing things for myself on location.