People are beginning to use light like paint, as another design element in a room," says Washington lighting designer Peter Barna. "You can use light to paint a wall, to illuminate a coffee table, to add accents," says the man who has designed dozens of 'lampless' rooms with recessed lighting in new Washington houses.

We've come a long way both technologically and esthetically from the living room or bedroom illuminated by a single ceiling fixture and scattered floor lamps. Big changes in the way we use light in our houses began when people added the softer solution of table and floor lamps to that glaring overhead fixture. The result was a lot of cozily lit spaces with tremendous contrasts in light levels within a room (what lighting designers call dark spots). To handle the problem of too little light, track lighting was introduced, offering ceiling illumination with the promise of an art gallery feeling. Now firmly established, track lights have found their way into every room in the house -- kitchens, bedrooms, dens, living rooms. There's even a kind of track light pendant fixture for a dining room chandelier!

But while track lighting may be easier and less expensive to install than recessed or surface-mounted lights, it is not always appropriate. Somehow wingchairs and Chippendale sofas don't seem a good blend with track lighting.

"The problem with track lighting is that is has been overused and used where it shouldn't be used," says Barna. "If you think about it, most homes don't need the flexibility of track lights. How often does the average person move his furniture or art work in his living room?"

Advances in recessed lighting have drawn many architects and designers to the concept of the lampless room. Proper placement of lights plus the ability to adjust light levels with a dimmer make this kind of lighting most appealing. New 'can' (named for its appearance) or high-hat lights, which operate with recessed incandescent light bulbs and built-in reflectors, spill a tremendous amount of light onto a room without subjecting the eye to the glare of a floodlight. If these 'cone' lights are properly installed, they will illuminate a room without the dark spots that cause eyestrain.

For those who want to light a particular object, there are wonderful gadgets on the market, in particular a framing projector. This lovely though expensive gizmo (around $280) can make almost any painting look as if it were the work of a 19-century luminist. Available as a surface mounted fixture or a recessed light, the light comes with a lens that will focus on a particular object. Templates for round, square or rectangular shapes are fitted into the fixture so that the edges of light are sharp and there is no spill of light onto nearby objects. For example, you can light a rectangular painting but not the frame surrounding it.

A notch up in complexity from a simple framing projector is the optical projector by Wendelighting, designed to shed light on objects of irregular shape with the same clarity as the less complex framing projector. The $480 recessed fixture (available only through architects or designers) comes equipped with a photosensitive metal plate. You install the light, aim it exactly on the object you want to light. The metal plate records the image. You then remove the plate and cut it along the outline of the image of the object. When the plate is reinserted, light pours out only on the object.

The increasing use of recessed lighting, along with the influence of high tech or industrial styling in lights has brought a new humor to individual light fixtures. There is a wonderful sense of whimsy about many of the lamps on the market. The lamp has become a piece of sculpture, designed for limited use as an illuminator. Bare bulbs become acceptable in Rube Goldberg-like contraptions that are cantilevered from the wall or suspended by a system of counterweights. An Italian designer has come up with a wonderful set of fiberglass illuminating boulders -- sculpture with a sense of humor. These Koch and Lowy "Moon Rocks" range in price from $69 to $209.

For those who are not in a position to contemplate purchase of lights for their sculptural aspects, energy conservation has also come to lighting design. Fluorescent lights, which consume less energy, generate less heat and wear out less frequently, are getting a second look. Lightolier, for example, has designed a series of handsome metal tubes that embrace a single fluorescent tube ($200-$500). The fixture can be used as architect Marilyn Stern did, in suspending it across the full width of her bathroom, or as a chandelier. Another firm has designed a faux skylight, a coffered fitting with a frosted window to obscure a fluorescent ceiling light. With the new, softer varieties of fluorescent lights now on the market, the 'skylight' is impressively effective.

Jerry Friedman, a designer with Lighting Experiences, a Washington-Baltimore firm, feels that we have only just begun to tap the surface of possibilities with fluorescent and low voltage lighting. The next wave of lighting design for the home, predicts Friedman, is likely to be computerized light and sound systems. CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, Designer Keith Babcock has created a virtually lampless room in his rental apartment by using can lights ($99) for accents. Two 'up' lights sit on end tables. Across the room, two fixtures hidden behind columns spray light on the ceiling. To avoid curtains, Babcock stretched fabric over wooden frames and made a kind of interior shutter.; Picture 3, Lithtolier's Tubelyte is used to float a fluorescent tube the full span of Marilyn and Sam Stern's master bath.; Picture 4, A studio light by Morsa ($385) is sculptural and practical. Designed with a counterweight, the pattern of red cables duplicates the wires used by architects and graphic designers to regulate their T-squares. Architect Marilyn Stern, who spent a great deal of time on the lighting in her home, designed her studio around the light. In addition to its whimsy, the light turns on and off by a magnet switch -- one need only tap the bottom of the fluorescent tube with a nail or a metal pen, and the light goes on and off.; Photographs by Bill Snead.