Color theory is an important topic for lighting designers. It’s helpful to have an understanding of the physiology and theory of color in order to apply it practically when designing a show. In this article, we will discuss color theory as it applies to lighting design—and the best practices for designing a show.

Lighting Designer Craig Rutherford

What Is Color?
Color is a phenomenon that our brain experiences when our eyes are stimulated by certain wavelengths of light. The perception of color happens when we stimulate one or more of the three color-sensitive cells in our eyes, which come in three varieties that respond to red, green and blue wavelengths.

Lighting designers control these wavelengths to create a full spectrum of color. When we talk about controlling color, we are talking about how lighting consoles control color. Two of the most common ways consoles do this are additive and subtractive color mixing.

Additive Mixing
Additive mixing works by adding various wavelengths of light together to produce additional colors. When we talk about additive mixing, we generally refer to three “primary” colors of additive light: red, green, and blue (RGB).

We can add red and green together to make yellow, green and blue together to make cyan, and red and blue together to make magenta. Often, we add a white or amber emitter in addition to RGB to expand our ability to color mix. Most LED-based wash lights use additive RGBW mixing (The W stands for white) to produce their colors. But for the purposes of color theory, you can think of additive mixing as consisting of red, and green, and blue.

Subtractive Color Mixing

Subtractive Mixing
Subtractive mixing starts with a white light source and uses colored filters to remove wavelengths from the spectrum. Intelligent lighting that uses subtractive mixing starts with a white light source from an arc lamp, an array of white LEDs, or an incandescent filament and removes wavelengths from that white source, resulting in a color.

Generally, the colors chosen to create the white light are cyan, magenta, and yellow (CMY). Each of these filters removes wavelengths from the white light source. For example, cyan removes all wavelengths except for blue and green from the spectrum. If we then place a yellow filter over the cyan, we will be left with only the green since yellow is a combination of red and green. Gels are also an example of subtractive color mixing but are used less often since the rise of intelligent fixtures.

Another way of controlling color has nothing to do with how the light produces color, and instead asks the user to think about color in terms of hue, saturation, and luminosity—abbreviated as HSL, or HSI, or HSV—but these terms are all closely related.

Hue, Saturation, Value (or Luminosity) Credit: Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Hue describes the point on an imaginary color wheel. Think of hue as the dominant wavelength. Saturation describes how much of the pure color we want, from pure saturated color all the way to white. Luminosity (brightness) describes how bright or dark a hue is. A luminosity of zero is complete darkness and a luminosity of 100% is full brightness or full color. Note that “brightness” in this sense is not the same as the dimmer of the light.

Things to consider when color mixing
Many consoles use additive or subtractive mixing to allow control of color – you’ll have a control channel for each of the three primary colors, depending on what kind of light you’re using. Some lights allow you to change their control modes between RGB and CMY or other control modes.

Overall, it’s important to understand how your console deals with these color attributes. Various control schemes can look different in terms of stage output depending on how they’re programmed, and the fade times involved. Whether you choose to conceptualize and program the colors as RGB, CMY, or HSL values doesn’t matter. What’s important is knowing how the console is talking to your fixtures and how to produce the color you want.

Lighting a Song
Now that we understand the basics of color mixing, we can discuss using color to light a show. The primary functions of color for audiences include:

  • Seeing the performer or performance
  • Communicating an emotional or narrative element from the artist
  • Creating an aesthetically pleasing visual experience

Cultural Color Meanings and Themes
It’s important to understand that we often approach color through the lens of our own cultural background. Within North American culture, there are many colors that have broad or even very specific meanings understood within a particular context. For example, when many people see a red octagon they immediately think “stop”, because that’s a common road sign in the US.

Red is stimulating, exciting, and often represents strong emotions.

So, how can we begin to communicate themes, intent, and emotion? Well, we can examine colors that tend to be associated with specific themes, feelings, and concepts, and we can call these “color associations”. Let’s examine some of these:

  • Red: love, danger, anger, passion, blood
  • Orange: warmth, fire, time of harvest, energetic, playfulness
  • Yellow: wealth, happiness, optimism, sunshine, joy, caution, sickness
  • Green: money, luck, jealousy, greed, nature, flora, spring, poison
  • Cyan: calm, balance, cleanliness
  • Blue: sadness, calmness, medicine, trust
  • Purple: royalty, luxury, nobility, magic
  • Magenta: spirituality, femininity, children
  • White: purity, peace, medicine, elegance, but these are also dependent on color temperature

It’s important to consider your audience, and the culture they might be immersed in when designing color. It’s also important to note that these are associations only. Colors themselves have no intrinsic meaning, they always derive meaning from context. That said, color palettes don’t always need to have any particular meaning with regard to the content of a song. Color can be aesthetically pleasing in itself without needing to imply any particular emotional or conceptual meaning.

Color Palettes
Now that we have an understanding of color and themes, we can use this knowledge to create color palettes. A great tool you can use to develop a palette is the color wheel. There are a variety of color wheels, but they all follow the same general principle, starting with one end of the visible light spectrum and traveling up or down the wavelengths in a circle.

Hatt’s Color Wheel

An artist’s color wheel provides a great way to come up with useable color schemes for music, using a few different methods:

  • Monochromatic – The scheme implies using just one hue, maybe even the same saturation and luminosity for the entire song. This can be visually striking when done correctly, bathing the entire scene with a single color, with more or less contrast, depending on the mood that you want to set.
  • Adjacent/Analogous colors – The scheme uses colors next to each other on the wheel. Adjacent colors often look good next to each other. Cyans and greens look good together, yellows, reds and oranges look good together, purples and blues look good together.
  • Complementary Colors – These are colors that are directly across from each other on a color wheel. Popular examples include blue and orange, yellow and purple, and red and cyan. Complementary colors can look very good together, providing a strong contrast to each other. On the other hand, complementary colors on the same subject tend to desaturate each other, leading to a version of white. This is something to be aware of when using saturated complementary colors to light a subject.
  • Triads – These consist of a particular color with two other colors from the other side of the color wheel, offset to either side of the complementary color. Yellow with purple and deep blue, red and with cyan and lime, purple with gold and chartreuse are all examples of triads.
  • Tetrads – A tetrad is two sets of analogous colors together with their complements. An example would be blue and purple paired with orange and yellow.

Other interesting palettes that are used frequently by lighting designers include white with any other color or deep purple with red. However, any palette that fits the song or the moment works.

Contrast and Color Dominance
Contrast and color dominance are two things to consider when creating color palettes. Contrast is the difference in luminance value between two objects or lights. We can use contrast to emphasize parts of a scene, while letting other parts recede into the background.

Yellow Color Dominance

Color dominance is the phenomenon wherein certain colors can appear to recede into the background, and certain colors dominate, or seem to come toward the viewer. Color dominance can allow you to play with the spatial relationships of a scene in unexpected ways. There are a few general rules when it comes to color dominance:

  • Secondary colors tend to dominate adjacent primary colors
  • Colors with less saturation tend to dominate more saturated colors
  • Warm colors tend to dominate cool colors
  • Magenta is often quite dominant
  • Lavender is often quite recessive
  • Pale yellow-greens are usually the most dominant colors in a palette

White Light
White light is an important tool for any lighting designer, however there is no one single shade of color that can be called white. Every schoolchild knows that white is “all the colors at once”, but what exactly does this mean?

There is no set consensus on how to define white light. The International Commission on Illumination does define some “standard illuminants”, and the one you’re likely to run across most often is called “D65”, which is “intended to represent average daylight and has a correlated color temperature of approximately 6500 K”. This is as close to a scientific definition of “white” as we’re likely to get.

If you’ve been in the lighting world for a little while, you’ve probably heard of “color temperature”, but what does this mean in relation to white? Color temperature is used to describe how “warm” or “cold” lights look. When we talk about color temperature, we’re talking about what color of light we’d get if we heated up a special imaginary material called a “black body” to a given temperature, kind of like heating up a piece of iron in a fire.

We tend to talk about reddish light as being warmer, and blue-ish light as being cooler, but it’s important to remember that we don’t mean actual temperature when we say that. In color temperature, the hotter something is, the blue-er it is, but artistically, we tend to think about red colors being warmer, and blue colors being cooler. So be aware of that reversal.

Perception of White
Even more important than our definition of the color white is the perception of white to an audience member. Under the proper conditions, a color that one would ordinarily read as saturated can be “assigned” by our brains to be white. Our brains generally assign the least saturated color to be “white”.

Related to this idea is the concept of ‘color fatigue’, wherein seeing the same color for a long time tends to desaturate it to our eyes. It’s a fun thing to play within lighting, particularly if you shift a scene that has been lit in one color to its complement very quickly. The effect can make the colors seem to “vibrate”.

You can use subtle tints in your “white” to give your scene a more interesting color scheme and paint hues on performers. Note that not all performers will be okay with colors of key light other than white, so you might expect some occasional pushback.

Designing with Color
Now that we’ve discussed color palettes and temperature, we can delve into designing with color. There are many important questions to ask ourselves before we begin programming, including:

  • What do we want the audience to feel during this song?
  • What is the content of the song? What feeling, or concept is the artist trying to convey with their music, and how are they going about that?
  • What do we want people to feel, not only in an overarching sense of the entire piece of the music, but also at specific moments during the piece?
  • Do the colors in our song fit into a larger conceptual framework within the show itself, and if so, how?

Perhaps the artist has ideas about a story they want to tell across the entire concert. The show can follow this cinematic experience, telling a story that combines the use of video, music, light and color to drive the narrative. That said, it’s important to make sure the lighting doesn’t overpower the artist and distract from the performance.

Concept of Subdivision
One of the initial things to do when programming is to break down the song into parts that we want to emphasize. Different parts of the song should look different, and breaking the song into, for example, verses, choruses, bridges, and endings can give you a starting place for deciding when color changes or other programming changes need to happen.

Be aware of special moments in the song and remember to hold back when appropriate so the crescendos of the music and lighting have space around them to breathe. Most songs should have a unique color palette that helps to identify and separate them from the rest of the show. You must also consider whether your color choices fit into the overall color scheme of the show.

Color Mixing Systems
The last thing you need to consider when designing your show is that all color mixing systems have limitations in regard to speed, smoothness of the color in the beam, trades-offs in saturation, shades, and how zoom and focus affect all of these elements. It falls on the lighting designer and the programmer to understand the limitations of their tools and adjust their programming and expectations accordingly.

Different manufacturers have lights with different colors, zooms and focus so you’ll see different hues as the basis for their color mix systems. One thing all designers and programmers must do when they get on site is to go through all the colors used in the show and update them so they all match each other.

It’s not always possible given the limitations of the physical space inside of a light to find the “perfect” place for the color mixing glass for all zoom or focus values. With many, if not all spot or profile lights, it’s possible to put the focus and zoom system into a situation where the color-mixing unevenness in the beam is exaggerated. This is something to be aware of when programming. The solution is to either adjust your color or your optical train to accommodate the issue, or perhaps use a fixed color.

I hope you enjoyed this article, but I also invite you to view my full Martin Learning Session Webinar video replay: ‘Color Theory for Concert Lighting Design’.

We invite you to view all our upcoming Martin Learning Sessions and our recorded Martin Learning Sessions Playlist. Our complete audio, video and lighting Learning Sessions Calendar and our library of all recorded learning sessions is available as well.






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