Ambient, task and accent lighting ideas for your outdoor room

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Take these well-known interior lighting design tricks outside to make your patio a wonderfully warm and inviting nighttime retreat.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
From I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud - William Wordsworth

Sitting out and watching the stars dance across the night sky is one of the simplest summer pleasures. But if stargazing is the only reason you’re using your patio at night then maybe you need to shed a little more light on the issue. Using interior design techniques, you can add the right lighting to create in inviting mood for your outdoor room.

Some typical evening activities, like reading, visiting with family or friends, or watching TV, can be done outside just as easily as inside. Sitting in the dark is only good for stargazing, though. You’ll need the right type of light in just the right spaces to make your outdoor room as comfortable as your living room. The three types of lighting you have in your home are

  • ambient (a general light to illuminate the room)
  • task (specific, targeted beams to allow for easier work), and
  • accent (to draw the eye to a certain element or to be a design element in itself).

Ambient light tends to come from above. Long gone are the bare-bulbs by the back door. Cafe lights, outdoor pendants and chandeliers are just a few of today’s trends in outdoor lighting. Moonlight lighting is the outdoor landscape trick that uses a cool, overhead beam to highlight and cast shadows from architectural or natural elements. A downward stream of light through a tree’s branches, for example, makes shadows that simulate moonlight.

Task lighting is for outdoor kitchens or reading nooks. A direct light that is bright enough for the activity, perhaps with its own switch, is a great light to add to any patio. The lack of task lighting may be a reason why you are staying inside when you could be out in the night air. Mosquitos can be contained with a citronella candle or an ambient light to distract them.

Accent lighting can serve a dual purpose. An upward light highlighting a fountain turns a drab backyard into a magical scene. Accent lights are great at attracting the eye to different architectural or natural elements, and lamps lining a path’s edge or illuminating steps help make navigating a walkway easier.

The best time to design lighting is before the patio is installed when wires can be run under the pavers. Many homes have patios already installed and lighting will have to be added around the existing structure. A landscape architect can still help. They can suggest what may work and tell you whether or not your pavers can be lifted to allow for wiring and then reinstalled.

Take a look outside on a moonless evening. Which type of light is lacking on the patio? Adding the right illumination may be just the thing to entice you out into the night air.