What Are the Rules to Using Color in Stage Lighting?

Jun 21, 2023

If you open your eyes, and you’re like most people, you see colour.

I know this is simplifying it a good bit, but let’s think about just colour for a minute.

If you’re not colourblind, you are constantly seeing and observing colour.  Colour is a fascinating attribute that we can use in stage lighting to help show the emotion being set forth by the presenter we are lighting.

In fact, I believe that colour is the very most impactful attribute of lighting that we have to work with.

Let’s dive into lighting colour theory – we’ll learn how we can use it, and then how to break free from the “rules”!

Colour Theory 101 for Stage Lighting

Have you ever noticed how opposing colours selectively absorb other colours?

For example, when you point a blue light at a red surface, it makes the surface look black!  Why doesn’t the surface look blue?

Or perhaps you’ve noticed a restaurant or trade show that lights the focal points such as tables or products in white, while most of the ambient light is coloured?

When you step into the church world, you see colour used in many different ways.  Pretty much every church has coloured walls or carpets.

Some churches use colour sparingly or not at all in their lighting scheme.  Others use mostly coloured light with little white light.  Some transform a room with colour as well as lighting the stage.

If you haven’t used much colour before in your lighting setup, here’s a quick guide to using colour in your stage lighting.

“The Rules” – Lighting Colour Theory Debunked and Demystified!

How to Get Colour out of Your Lights

Stage lights have grown and evolved over the years, and today we have 3 main ways to colour a light source.

Additive Colour Theory – RGB Lighting

The first method of colouring light is the additive theory and method which presents itself primarily in RGB LED lighting.  LED’s can also include an amber and/or white LED along side of the RGB to give you some more options and flexibility.

Additive colours work by fading up and down the coloured LED’s or lights in order to mix the desired colour.

The additive colour theory also works with conventional lights that are gelled, and you can mix colours when pointing 2 lights at the same object from about the same position.

As a result, additive colour mixing is the best way to get really deep colours, as the next method, subtractive colour mixing, loses a lot of output when mixing deep colours.

Subtractive Colour Theory – CMY Lighting

Many moving lights and conventional colour mixing engines feature a white lamp which emits light through a set of 3 colour wheels- Cyan, Magenta and Yellow.

Using the colors in CMY mixing when subtracting from white light gets better results than using Red, Green and Blue to subtract, and allows you to mix better deep colors.

Colored Gel

The other, although dying, mode of subtractive color mixing is colored gel.  The gel sits in front of a light source and filters out the color from the light, thus subtracting wavelengths of light from the source.

Matching RGB and CMY

You can match many colors with RGB and CMY sources, but the funky-ness comes when you note the efficiency of such mixing.

For example, let’s mix a deep red.  With RGB, you just bring up the red color, and it’s a great, bright, rich red.  With CMY, you subtract Magenta and Yellow at full, and you’ll get a deep red- but by that point, it won’t be very bright because you have subtracted so much light to get there!

For this reason, most CMY moving lights have a separate colour wheel with colours such as red, congo blue, light pink, orange, CTO, purple, and whatever other colours that particular manufacturer decided was hard to mix on their fixture.

Still, as a designer, there will still be times where you look at the deep colour mixable on your CMY source, sigh, and move on to just mix a colour that complements what you are doing with your RGB lights.  That’s just life, sometimes!

However, with the way that technology is progressing, LED’s are becoming more advanced and producing better colours than ever before, so this may not be such a problem in the future!

How to Mix Colours

Here, at the request of a fabulous reader, I want to present to you with how to mix certain colours in each colour space, and what kinds of colours go together, and the moods that they best fit!  Let’s dive in!

The Nuts and Bolts of Mixing Colours on Your Lighting Console

The most basic lighting consoles will simply use faders to mix your colours, and if you want all of your fixtures together, you have to either build a submaster or address them all together on these basic setups.

Moving light consoles typically have a few options for choosing and mixing colours on your fixtures.  The first is selecting them and mixing the colours using the encoder wheels.

You may also have an option of using a colour picker or HSL – Hue, Saturation and Lightness mixing.  Both the colour picker and HSL mixing are typically the best, and possibly the only way to mix a colour when you have both RGB and CMY lights selected at the same time.

For the exercise below, I want you to either use the encoder wheels or the faders on your console to manually mix the colours.

Stay away from the colour picker and HSL mixer for right now – they’re great tools, but can lead to disappointment when you select a colour and then what you get out of your lights is not all that close to what you selected!

It’s also really important to understand how to mix the colours, so that when it comes time to make a slight modification to a colour, you know exactly which wheel to grab.

*It’s also very important to note that, since every light fixture is different, you’ll have to custom mix each colour you like for your fixtures to get an exact match.

Some fixtures won’t be able to exact match with others for a number of reasons – CMY vs. RGB, different LED colours, etc.  There are no “percentages” that you can simply plug into every fixture and get the same colour!*

RGB Colour Mixes

  • Red at Full + Green at Full = Yellow
  • Red at Full  + Blue at Full = Magenta
  • Green at Full + Blue at Full = Cyan
  • Red at Full + Green at Full + Blue at Full = White

These 4 colours represent the very basics of colour mixing with RGB stage lights.  Here’s an exercise you can use to learn all of the colour possibilities and make your head spin with wonder:

  1. Sit down at your lighting console with just RGB lights selected.
  2. Slowly, over 10 seconds, mix each of the colours above and fade between them slowly.
  3. Now, you’ve seen 90% of all the colours that you can mix with your RGB lights.  If you have an Amber or White LED, work with adding that in and see how it affects the colours you’ve mixed.  At this point, your brain will probably be figuring out the other 10% of colour mixes possible!
  4. Try bringing in the 3rd colour slowly as you have these mixed and note the great pastels that result.  Also note the colours when one colour is at full, and the other is at 50% intensity.  Keep playing around and you’ll learn a ton!

 CMY Colour Mixes

Cyan at Full + Yellow at Full = Green

Cyan at Full + Magenta at Full = Blue

Yellow at Full + Magenta at Full = Red

Cyan at Full + Magenta at Full + Yellow at Full = Nearly Black

Try the same exercise as prescribed above for the RGB colours, and also cycle through the fixed colour wheel if your lights have one. If you have both RGB and CMY mixing lights in your rig, dial up the same colours on both lights, and see the difference.

You’ll notice that when you really bring up intensity on the CMY wheels, your colours will get very dark and ugly compared to the RGB fixtures when you bring them up in intensity.

You would think that you may be able to recreate the exact match of colours with your RGB colours and CMY colours, and sometimes you can.

However, specific shades of any colour can be difficult to match on the 2 different colour mixing types for a number of reasons including LED colour wavelength, and the “dead areas” where RGB and CMY can’t match.

You can see this in action by using your consoles colour picker, and poking around at colours, especially saturated ones.   Some colours will not match on the lights, even if they match on the screen!

This is because CMY colour wheels subtract from white light, instead of adding coloured light like RGB.

Physics gets in the way of the ideal in these circumstances!  Darn physics!  However, you can keep that in mind as you program and use the strongest colours from both your CMY and RGB fixtures in your looks.

Colour Combinations that Work, and the Moods They Work With

Let’s switch gears now and talk about colours and colour combinations that go really well together with specific moods.  First things first, let’s go over colours and their emotional connections.

Colour and Emotion

Every colour has some kind of emotion tied to it, and colour is just one way that we can express mood with stage lighting.

I’ve listed below the general moods and feelings that tend to go with these basic colours:

Red = Anger, Jealousy, Fear

Pink = Love, Light and Airy

Yellow = Poppy, Bright and Happy

Amber = Awakening, Rootsy and Raw

Green = Rootsy, Organic, Calming, Earthy

Aqua = Gentle, Simple, Water

Blue = Water, Night-time, Calm, Sullen

White = Open, Raw, Unfiltered

These colours generally express the emotions listed.  Of course, this is a very simplified way of sharing moods with you, as there are so many millions of tints that each have their own character and moods.

For example faster songs tend to go best in red, yellow, or other bright colours, and slower songs look great in blues, purples and greens.

I hope that this gets you started thinking about how colours make you feel, and how you can apply that to lighting. So, without further ado, let’s jump in, talk and look at our first type of colour scheme, monochromatic colour schemes.

Monochromatic Colour Schemes

As you may have guessed, monochromatic colour means that there is only 1 colour at a time in the scheme.  Now, when we put it into practicality, monochromatic colour means that we will use different shades, lightnesses and saturations of a single colour on stage.  Monochromatic colour schemes are very passionate and moving, and should generally be reserved for expressly passionate songs or scenes.  Here are some example photos of monochromatic colour schemes:


2-Color Complementary Schemes

Complementary colours are hues which are directly opposite of each other on the colour wheel.  These include red/green, blue/yellow, orange/purple and teal/amber.

These colours naturally look great together, and therefore are the colours that make up most holiday colours and corporate logos.  Complementary colour schemes are very balanced, and don’t really trigger specific emotions like monochromatic colour schemes do.

Here are some examples of great complementary colour schemes:

Multi-Colour Methods

It’s worth mentioning that there are a billion different ways to combine colours together- the possibilities are endless.

  • Triadic – Triadic colours are like complementary colours, but in a triangle across the colour wheel.  A good example of this is red, green and blue or cyan, magenta and yellow.
  • Analogous – Analogous colour schemes feature colours that are next to each other on the colour wheel.  Think about green, yellow, light green, or teal, blue and violet.
  • Warm / Cool – Warm and cool colour schemes feature colours that – you guessed it – have warm or cool colours exclusively.  Examples include red, orange and yellow or blue, teal and light blue.
  • Rainbow – Multicoloured madness.  Some moving lights have a really fun multi-coloured gobo inside of them!

Now, that we’ve gone over all that education, here is the really exciting news:

There Are No Hard and Fast Rules- Use Colour Where You Want!

The “lighting rulebook” would tell you that you need to always light people in white.  Truth be told, people look good in white.

And while I agree with that point for your pastor and probably your worship leader, it’s not a hard and fast rule for all of the time.

The truth is, you need to light people the way that expresses the message of the church’s leadership, and sometimes, it’s okay to get a little artistic.

Theory – Colour and Emotion

At this point, we’ve all heard that you light fast songs with red, and slow songs with blue.  But what if you light a slow song with red, or a fast song with blue?

The rules also state that you can’t use green for front light, as it makes people look sick.  But what if they are doing a cover of Flyleaf’s “I’m so sick”?   Not such a bad idea anymore!

If you are starting from the entry level of using colour in your lighting, you probably shouldn’t stray much from the “rules”(see above).   The rules and conventional wisdom are a great way to learn and study how lighting works in your context.

However, as you become a more experienced lighting designer you will find you sometimes want to stray away from these rules, it can look great when you do.

Colours are different for every song, and it’s all about the interpretation that you feel, as long as your leadership agrees with your interpretation.  Let’s not start any power struggles here!

Want to learn more about when to use colour in your show?  Read the full post here!

Wrapping it up – Adding Colour to Your Show

Hopefully, by reading this guide you’ve gained a few tips to add some colour into the lighting scheme at your church, in your band or other show.

Starting out with a splash of colour on a wall or as backlight can be a great place to start to begin to learn how colour works.

Experiment from there, as you desire and see what works best for you.  Don’t feel like you have to make everything in technicolour all at once, but it doesn’t hurt to try some new things!

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