THINK ABOUT ONE of your favorite shows. Fast forward to a pivotal moment in the production — you can probably picture how the lighting enhanced the drama of that scene.

My previous article explored how color works in light and specifically how colored light is mixed. Subtractive color mixing is used to convert a full spectrum (white) source into many of the colors we see on stage, and the primary colors of lights — red, green, and blue — are combined through additive color mixing to create almost limitless possibilities. Now, we will dive into how these principles are used on stage to help tell a story and unify a production.

Re-creating color sources and temperature

When lighting a scene onstage, we’re often trying to re-create an actual location — or at least give the feeling of that location. To help accomplish this from a lighting design point of view, we need to consider the source of lighting in this real location: Is it a classroom lit by overhead fluorescent lights? A grungy apartment with a bare light bulb? A mysterious man under a street lamp? A wide open field under an overcast sky?

These examples inform our choices for many aspects of lighting design (angle, intensity, etc.), but they also affect the color we want to use to represent this source. While arguably all these sources are “white,” most people can recognize the difference in the light from a fluorescent bulb vs. the light produced from a standard incandescent bulb. What you’re noticing is a difference in color temperature. While there’s a formal definition of color temperature involving electromagnetic radiation and something called a black body, for our discussion, we can use a simpler analysis.

People typically refer to a “cool white” or a “warm white” when evaluating light bulbs or describing the color of a room — that’s an evaluation of color temperature. Cooler whites are bluer, while warmer whites veer toward yellow or orange.

In this explanation, color temperature is relative — an incandescent bulb may look cool when compared to a burning candle, but as soon as you compare it to the light coming in from a clear day, it will instantly feel warm and yellow. Color temperature is measured in Kelvin (K); the higher its Kelvin value, the cooler a color appears (just as a hotter fire burns blue). For example, a burning candle has a color temperature of around 1,800 K, an incandescent theatre light around 3,200 K, and a clear blue sky 10,000 K or more.  

Understanding how different sources produce different “whites” allows you to use tints of blue and orange to re-create environments. A sterile hospital room lit primarily by fluorescent lights will have a very cool temperature, and pastel blues will help accomplish this look. A scene taking place in a medieval hall will have a warm candlelit feel and use deeper ambers and yellows as the primary sources.

In addition, an understanding of unique color properties of certain sources can benefit your design even further (depending on their chemical makeup, some streetlights have a strong orange hue while some veer towards green). You can find these unique characteristics through photographic research, as well as actively analyzing the light you see each and every day.

Using color palettes

While possible, it’s rare to light an entire production with a single color. A collection of colors — collectively, the color palette — is used to best illuminate the performers, costumes, and scenery, as well as reinforce the storytelling. A major reason for using multiple colors is to “model” or reveal form (both of performers and other design elements). Using the same color from multiple angles removes a lot of the shadows from faces, bodies, and three-dimensional scenery, but using different colors can reinforce this depth in a manner that works well both up close and at a distance.

A main technique in creating these believable shadows is using a complementary color palette. In this technique, two complementary (or nearly complementary) colors are used from opposing angles. Because they are complementary, areas that both lights hit will mix to white, but areas in shadow from one light or the other will only be lit with a single color. This will reinforce the highlights (warmer light) and the shadows (cooler light) of the object. This creates a more vibrant white that will enhance the form of performers and more closely resemble natural lighting through its emphasis of highlights and shadows.

This scene from Xavier University Theatre’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is an example of a complementary color palette: saturated green footlights and saturated magenta backlight with pale green and pale magenta frontlight texture. Lighting Design by Joe Beumer. Photo by Mikki Schaffner.

You can use a similar method with non-complementary colors to create similar results that do not mix to a true white, yet still provide more vivid color and reinforce highlights and shadows. In a monochromatic color palette, variations of the same hue, such as a pale blue and a saturated blue, are used to create variation. (Saturation is a measure of the intensity of a color — what would be called a dark blue in painting is what we would call a saturated blue vs. a light blue, which we would refer to as a blue tint.) The two colors will mix to a medium blue. Areas hit by only the pale blue will register as highlights, and areas hit only by the saturated color will read as shadows. This allows the overall scene to have a cool, blue feeling, but still gives more definition to three-dimensional forms.

Adjacent colors on the color wheel can also be used in an analogous color palette. While potentially less realistic, this provides a greater range of options depending on the colors chosen and their saturation levels. Utilizing more saturated colors in this scheme is popular in backlighting and sidelighting — where lighting a performer’s face is not often the primary goal. You can extend this analogous scheme a little further to using two of the primary colors — allowing a mixture of all the colors in between. Utilizing both a saturated red and a saturated blue allows for a great variety of pinks, purples, and deep blues.

This method is often used in a technique called double hanging, where two lights are focused on the same area for the same purpose but in two distinct colors — allowing for multiple color combinations. It’s possible to triple- or quadruple-hang systems like this (only limited by your inventory and dimming capabilities) to provide even more options.

Storytelling through color

Colors have strong associations with feelings and emotions — many people will associate red with anger, green with sickness, blue with sadness, etc. Red is also associated with love, green with jealousy, and blue with optimism. In addition, different cultures relate to colors in unique ways.

As a designer, it’s your responsibility to engage with themes and mood within a production and relate them to your design. Not all love scenes should be lit with red, nor all bloody murders, but it’s important to relate our choices to specific moments in the play and/or characters’ psychological states.

As a character realizes he will be alone for the rest of his life, do you want to choose a warm pink or a cold blue for the primary light? You have to dig deeper to understand if this loneliness is seen as a blessing by the character, in which case the pink may be the best choice to reflect his optimism, or whether his newfound loneliness a form of isolation he dreads. In that case, blue may be your best choice. You can occasionally be a little more obvious with your choices, especially in productions that are less realistic and/or more overtly theatrical — a silly tango in a comedic musical can be lovely bathed in a saturated red wash, as could the murder scene in a stylized ballet.

In addition to delving into the themes of a production, lighting designers are also responsible for helping with some practical elements of storytelling: changes in location, time, weather, etc. These cause you to ask not only what the source of the light is, but also how it’s changed.

As the sun sets on an exterior scene, color can shift to reflect the change of time going into the warm golds of sunset and fading into the cool blues or lavenders of twilight and then evening. A storm is coming, and the “white“ of your production — previously a cool blue — begins to take a green shift.

We can take this last example even further and tie it back into psychology. If a tumultuous plot point is approaching, you can use a similar shift as it may give a foreboding sense to the audience without being too overt. The text of the play can also help drive choices — if a character references “the burning intensity of the fiery sun” or “the harsh glow of a fading neon sign,” you can attempt to recreate these images using color, then build the rest of the scene around it.

Emphasizing the work of others

An object reveals its color only when it’s in light containing the corresponding wavelengths — that is, a red piece of candy will look black or gray when under pure blue or green light (see my article “Color and Light”). Costumes and scenery work in the exact same way: Lighting a green dress with lighting that leans strongly pink will cause the dress to look much more gray than it does under neutral lighting.

Similarly, orange/red brick will look very dull and potentially grey under cool blue lighting. While this can be beneficial if the wall is supposed to fade into the background for a portion of a scene, it’s not ideal if the red brick of the wall is important to the scene.

Collaborating with your fellow designers to understand their color palettes is incredibly important to prevent these types of issues. You might be seen as a poor collaborator if you consistently expect others to make changes to fix errors you have caused, and lighting designers often are choosing colors after sets have been painted and costumes have been built.

A helpful solution: Use saturated color washes to help emphasize some of these colors when your systems for lighting the performers are having issues with costumes or scenery. These lights — often referred to as toners — allow you to pull out the colors of costumes and/or scenery without harming your overall look on stage. A common example is for an interior set with a bold wallpaper — it’s not unusual to hang a system of lights just focused on the walls to really pull out the color the scenic designer has chosen — whether a saturated red to emphasize deep red velvet curtains or green and amber to pull out the pattern in a green and gold wallpaper. The same approach can be taken for costumes, specifically in larger ensemble numbers where a single color has been chosen for multiple costumes — deep pink lights for a collection of sequined vests or green for the citizens of Oz.

While many other factors can influence your color choices in a production, as well as multiple other color schemes and optical phenomena to discover, identifying the source of light for a scene, helping to illustrate themes, and collaborating to bring out the best in your fellow designers’ work is a great place to get started.

  • Like What You Just Read? Share It!

  • Other Related Articles You May Enjoy

    Color and Light

    Color and Light

    Understanding building blocks of lighting design

    Nov 20, 2020

    Lighting a Virtual World

    Lighting a Virtual World

    Overcoming the design challenges of virtual productions

    Nov 06, 2020

    Storytelling through lighting

    Storytelling through lighting

    A student technician on designing with light

    Aug 01, 2018