Choosing Color:

There are many factors to choosing color for your show, and as you look through your swatchbook, you will realize that there are many, many options to choose from. This section will cover the various concepts of choosing the best colors for your show.

Notice that I did not say the "right" color. Lighting design being an art form, we, as artists, are free to choose whatever color we feel will work for the effect or look that we are trying to create. Explore color and absorb the different elements of what it does for a scene, a dance piece, or a song.

The psychology of color is a wide ranging subject that many folks have written about. A quick Google search of the subject will bring up a large list of articles on the topic. One that I have found informative is Color Psychology: How Colors Impact Moods, Feelings, and Behaviors, by Kendra Van Wagner.

Some obvious emotions connected with color are:

  • Red = "anger," "danger," "evil."
  • Green = "jealousy," "illness," "good luck."
  • Blue = "tranquility," "coolness."

You, as a lighting design student, should sit down with a color swatchbook, put each color in front of a light fixture, and think about what each color means to you emotionally. You will call upon this process in the future when designing.

Seeing color is something that the designer will always practice. You may see a painting, scene, or museum exhibit and note that it has an emotional feeling. Analyze what is causing these emotions. Is it the colors, light angle, dimness or brightness? File that thought and use it down the road.

Many years ago, I saw a movie called Cat People. The movie itself was terrible and forgettable but the opening credits were done with green lettering on an orange sand background. As a designer, I remembered how vivid the lettering was and thought that it might be something that I could use down the road in a lighting design. Several years later, I was designing lights for a dance piece loosely based on the book, Dune. I remembered the effect from the movie and worked with the green/orange concept and creating the design based on that metamer (in this context, "mixing of two colors"). As an artist, you must use the variety of colors available to you to add to your visual tool kit.

Script Analysis:

The lighting designer for a play can search for color clues in the script. The playwright often paints a clear picture of what he or she thinks the show should look like when the lights come up or the curtain opens. After going over the script, meet with the director and discuss his or her vision of the show. Ask the scenic designer and costume designer for swatches of the colors that they intend to use. These will be very helpful when you do your color testing. If you are lighting a dance or a music concert, discuss with the choreographer or director about anything they might want to see or feel during the presentation. The important thing to remember is to communicate as clearly as possible during these discussions.

Once the mental vision has started to develop, take the costume and scene paint swatches and do your homework by color testing with the color filters.

Color Prejudices:

We all have favorite colors that we love to use and colors that we avoid. Whether a particular color is too pale, or too deep, too much green, or too "murky", we all have to realize that these prejudices do exist, and use them to create our visuals of a scene. As you look at a color and think that it is "murky" or "soothing", mull over where you would use it in a scene. Every designer should do this with every color, to improve his or her color memory.

Color Testing:

A great tool to use for color testing is a small incandescent accent light made by Hampton Bay and available (in the US) at Home Depot for around $18. The fixture has an inline dimmer on the power cord, and the color temperature of the MR16 lamp is equal to that of most incandescent theatre lighting fixtures on the market today. These lights are very small and portable and work well when you do not have a chance to work with full size fixtures. Using the average-sized color filter swatchbook, you can find your colors without the need of a full-sized lighting fixture.

Color Communication:

This is a very difficult part of designing. If you take 3 designers and ask them to pick out a blue, each will probably choose a different shade (and will argue for hours on why theirs is the right blue- be passionate about color!). In my discussions with the great lighting designers of this era, I am struck by the way they describe color. Very rarely do they call for a "named color" out of the swatchbook. They will say things like a "jagged" red or a "harsh" green. These help my mind form a picture of what they are trying to achieve. Color communication is very important to the designer, director, and the student. Develop that vocabulary.

Color Filter Systems:

Which system should you use? There are several filter systems out there with many colors to choose from. Most designers will develop their palette from all of the systems available to them. Over the years, young designers will find nuances in colors that they desire, and add those colors to their "toolboxes". All of the major color systems give out color swatchbooks. These swatchbooks are invaluable in choosing your colors. The separator pages in the swatchbooks usually have the color name and a spectral energy distribution curve ("SED curve") graph on them along with other helpful information. The graph will give the viewer a good idea of what colors are used to create the filter that they are seeing. Believe it or not some greens have more red dyes in them than some of the reds (look at the charts). I would never recommend a designer use only the color graphs to choose their colors for a show, but it is a good starting point when a light is not available for color testing.

Color Interaction:

Never assume how a fabric or paint color will interact with a lighting color. The colors in paint and fabric may be made up of various individual pigments and dyes, and these all will react differently to colored light. I have spent hours trying to visually separate close shades of costume colors on dancers in the same dance piece onstage. Had I done color testing prior to cue setting, this might have been avoided.

Sometimes there are 2 or 3 different colors that may be needed to bring out costume colors or skin tones. In such cases you can cut the color filters and create a patchwork filter made up of several different shades or color saturations. Clear tape can be used to assemble the colors as it does not retain any energy or heat from the light. By color testing with the actual color samples, the designer will find several options to use in their designs. Sometimes the testing will bring out an interesting effect that can be used as well.

Skin tones can be difficult as well. ALL skin tones are different. They have differing amounts of blues, greens, and reds in them. A day at the beach without sunscreen can drastically change the color of Caucasian skin on stage. Although the designer probably won't alter the design for that, it is an example of how far skin tone colors can range. Keep this in mind when designing for a wide range of skin tones. Again, if proper lighting of the skin tones is important, spend the time doing color testing with the performers.

Finally. . . .

You are the artist responsible for choosing the colors for your show. Always remember that collaboration is a large part of the process, but you must do your homework to create the palette. Always keep your eyes open to new sources of colors for your designs! Form an opinion on where you might use a particular color in a swatchbook (it was created for some reason at one time). Look for color combinations around you that create visual interest or emotions and analyze how to recreate them with the lighting tools available. This palette development should be a lifelong pursuit and will never change even with the new color mixing technologies that develop throughout the years.

Remember... the final judge of color is the eyes and the brain...and that will never change!