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Monday Musings: Color

Last week’s column, "What’s Trending: The LED Revolution with Justin Townsend," addressed the issue of color, and how times have changed from the days of gels, swatch books, Bastard Amber, and Skelton Exotic Sangria (a delicious color to be sure) to the millions of colors at a designer or programmer’s fingertips with today’s technology.

Of course, all of the tools, LED color mixing included, are to be used in moderation. And a certain amount of knowledge is still required, as color is an art and a science, with many shades in between. The subject of color always brings me back to the Broadway Lighting Master Classes (BLMC) and the famous color lecture by Beverly Emmons and Clifton Taylor. For many years, their color choices were embodied in scrollers, but finally gave way to LED fixtures with the help of ETC. Modernization.

It’s probably time to revive that talk, as the principles remain unchanged. I will never forget Emmon’s beautiful lighting for The Heiress on Broadway, with moonlight streaming in a window on the set of a period townhouse on Washington Square in Greenwich Village (NYC), and for which she was nominated for a Tony Award. At the BLMC lecture, she made the point that the moonlight did not have to be white to be believable; it could be lavender or the color of your choice, as long as it was the palest color on stage. I always felt the color added more emotion to the light, and it still flooded the stage as moonlight.

Getting back to basics, the physics of color and light are a useful thing to learn or revisit, such as this informative article on color mixing and color vision from the School of Physics in Sydney, Australia, which looks at additive and subtractive theories.

Closer to home, ETC published a white paper on Color Mixing With LEDs, and we now have Clifton Taylor’s new book, Color & Light: Navigating Color Mixing in the Midst of an LED Revolution, A Handbook for Lighting Designers, which was recently reviewed by lighting designer Brandon Stirling Baker for Live Design.

Earlier this year, Baker was featured in The New York Times in an article titled “A Master Of Dance Lighting Steps Out Of The Shadows,” in which the LD addresses the concept of color, noting that some choreographers are afraid of it, while others ask for white light, to which Baker replies, “What kind of white?”

If you'd like more of a primer on color, check out this video from The Brown Science Center that’s useful: 

From Emmons' moonlight to Baker’s shades of white, the eye perceives the wavelengths of reflected light, so whether created by Congo Blue or Surprise Pink, the right color mixing will make objects look the color we think they should be. Tomatoes should be red; bananas yellow. Unless of course the lighting designer wants us to see something else…

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