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Some misty thoughts on color theory

Other than position and intensity, possibly the most striking quality of any sort of light that can be emitted in a concert context is its color. One of the questions that designers get asked, at least during those rare occasions that someone is actually wondering, is “How do you decide what color a song should be?” There are many different facets involved in the design of any particular scene – matching the energy of the lights to the energy level on stage, gobo selection, the angle we light the performers, et cetera. Today, however, color theory (or lack thereof) takes center stage. tl;dr: There are no rules: the design just has to feel right.

Girl In Blue (Nashville Color Run 2013)

Girl In Blue, by the author.

Throughout the years, many people have ascribed various psychological and symbolic meanings to colors, out of shifting cultural whims and their own biases. These whims and biases were and are not always wrong per se, but on occasion might seem a bit dated or contrived. On a shelf in my office is a book by Max Keller, beautifully titled “Light Fantastic“. (Mine is missing its jacket, and the hardcover is bright yellow with “LIGHT” emblazoned in silver type on the front, which I like better. But I digress. It’s a great book, go buy it.) Here is what Max has to say about what meanings we supposedly see in various colors:

White: peaceful, good, perfect, innocent, positive, simple, purity.

Purple: sovereignty, dignity, spirituality, calories.

Green: dampness, feminine, hope, contentment.

As a designer for (generally) concerts and other large-scale non-theatrical productions, these associations are likely to be less of a concert for the audiences I design for – but there is some truth to some of these perceptions, broadly speaking. Many times, red is a “high energy” color – but this isn’t always the case. Many people associate blue with calmness, seriousness, and serenity. However, in the right circumstance, blue can be used to project a feeling of raw energy.

All this to say the choice of color for a song or production or scene depends on the mood I want to evoke but is interdependent on the other qualities the light may have – even or textured, thin or large, moving or static, and so forth. Tweaking all other variables, we could probably make bright yellow work for a moody, quiet song about the ocean. There are some basic guidelines, however – as Butch Allen, who designed Creed’s “Full Circle” tour put it, “[…] when people are screaming about blood and hellfire, pink is a bad choice.” And I have a few persistent design ideas that I go to when going about making a look for a production or song.


Bleed Red, by Ronnie Dunn

I find myself reaching for green often for high energy “crunchy” guitar songs that are heavy on the overdriven tube amplifier sound, it’s a great color that works well with yellow and / or cool white in songs like that. Reddish warm white with green looks very odd – in fact, red with green really only works for Christmas designs, unless the colors are subtle. Shift the red a little toward the blue end, and you have a green / magenta combination that looks very modern and energetic. Many designers reach for blue on the quiet ballads, and it’s hard to disagree with this choice, but its hardly the only one out there. A deep crimson red can also work well for ballads, depending on the thematic content of the song.

Ultimately, lighting a scene is unlikely to be informed by any but the most basic precepts of traditional color theory as practiced in a theater or graphic design. All performances – and types of performances – are different and require different thought processes, and the variables are too many to try an shoehorn a particular color paradigm onto – though knowing the basics is an invaluable tool to have in one’s proverbial toolkit. I find myself using processes and ideas from other worlds quite often, and I hope and believe my designs are the better for it.

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