It is my opinion that the basic function of stage lighting is to be the final glaze of the visual element of a theatrical production. It should stylistically support the piece as a whole by creating the environment in which the action happens. It must be consistent with the level of reality of the whole production. You must also be able to control what can and cannot be seen. Artistic choices are not set in stone but I find if I keep those three thoughts in mind while I make my choices they tend to work in a very satisfying, cohesive way.
I think of the picture on the stage as a whole. While other members of the artistic team are concentrating on their particular element that they are working on, I like to be the final glaze that pulls it all together. This is why I like to use the analogy of Painting with Light. There are so many technical and thoughtful similarities to the art of painting and lighting, I believe it is a natural progression. Just as every painter has a different hand and a different method, so will every lighting designer.
We paint with stage lighting by using the same thought process as a painter but instead of using paint brushes and paint we use theatrical lighting equipment to create the picture. A painter is concerned with light and shadow. Guess what? So are we!
Just as a painter considers their color palette, so must the lighting designer. Some palettes may be tight in nature and others widely varied. Just as a painting may have a very naturalistic look or an abstract look, so can light. To describe what a color palette is, think of it as a color family. Just like the paint chips in a paint store will show a color with varying degrees of saturation, you can choose colored light as well. A tight palette will have colors that very closely start from the same color (chroma). A widely varied palette will have a group of colors derived from different chromas. As you become more sophisticated in picking your palette, you will find that the “black sheep” of the family may be the one color that just cleans up the picture of makes something sparkle. Instead of using pigment we use gel or glass lenses to color our light.
Painters also have tools used to lay in color. Your lighting units are some of your paint brushes. With these brushes we deliver the shape, texture, amount and color of light. Some units are tight detail brushes and others are broad stroke brushes that light the whole background. Mix these tools to your advantage. If you have to paint a whole sky, you would need a really big brush. If you wanted to add a cloud, then you would use a smaller brush. If you wanted to add highlights and shadow lines to that cloud, you would even use even a smaller brush. A painter has many tools; so do you.
• Lighting is an art, and therefore, no perfect or singular way exists to do one thing. Experimentation and following your instinct (with the eye to the visual) will go a lot further than adhering to a set formula.
• Whether you are in a big theatre with 500 lights, or a small black box with ten clip lights, the principles are the same. The large theatre simply takes more equipment to accomplish the same idea.