The Dos and Don’ts of Lighting Design

Lesson 4 – The Dos and Don’ts of Lighting Design



Students will be able to choose appropriate lights, colors, and effects for their lighting designs, as demonstrated by a collaborative quiz.


National Standards:

TH:Cr1.1.I.b. Explore the impact of technology on design choices in a drama/theatre work.

TH:Re9.1.I.b. Consider the aesthetics of the production elements in a drama/theatre work.



Computer hookup and projection, examples of different lighting positions (either a video like “Practical Technical Theatre: Lighting Design” by Interactive Educational Video LLC, or photos that display the look), gel books, flashlight, set model  Lesson 4.Lighting Color Wheel


Hook: If available, take students to a theatre space with lights to show students about the lights. If not, stay in the classroom and have a discussion, bringing in as much practical work as possible. Ask: What about a light can we control?


Step 1: Discussion and Lecture

Intensity – We can raise and lower the intensity of the light depending on requirements of the scene. Lower intensity means less light is being produced by the lights (20% rather than 80%). If you don’t have a theatre in which to show the students lights, you may consider showing them two different wattages of lights to illustrate the difference between low and high intensity.


Shape – Pass out shape-based gobos to the class. Have them discuss how they would use that particular gobo in a lighting design. On ellipsoidal fixtures shutter cuts, irises, and specialty gobos all change the shape of the light. On a Fresnel or a PAR can, you can use barn doors to shape the light.


Texture – Now pass out texture gobos to the class, like leaf or construction breakups. Gobos can change the texture of the light, creating breakup on stage and making things more interesting to look at. Acts like spatter on a set.


Color – Different colors produce different effects.

Activity: Use a model set (must be colorful) to demonstrate how color affects scenery. Have students use gel books and flashlights to test different colors of gels on the model, noting how complementary and analogous colors affect the look. Let all the students have a chance to experiment, perhaps bringing other model sets to show different effects.

Note: if you do not have model sets, various fabrics of different colors will do.


When we see, light bounces off of objects and reflects into our eyes. The wavelength of the light is what determines color, with long wavelengths being red and short ones being violet.

Various colors change the way things look on stage – for example, if you shine blue light on a red object, it will look purple. Let’s look at the color wheel for light (draw or display):

As different colors of light mix, they create different effects.

When red and green mix, they make yellow, blue and red are magenta, and blue and green are cyan.

As these lights hit colors on stage, they mix and reflect differently in people’s eyes.

Add the color wheel for pigment:

Complementary colors turn to grey – if you have a green wall on the set and shine red on it, it will turn a weird grey brown. Not attractive. This can be used to your advantage, however. In a production of Rodger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella at BYU, the lighting designer and costume designer worked together to create an effect that would help Cinderella change from a sad, drab young girl into a vibrant beauty, all with a 20-30 second fade of the lights from a complementary color to an analogous color, bringing out the colors of her costume and makeup. The audience was none the wiser to how she transformed in front of them, on stage.

Green is not flattering on people, except for Elphaba in Wicked. Use ambers for white people, and lavenders for black people. These tones best compliment skin colors.

The shadow of a light is the complementary color. This means that an amber light will have a blue shadow, which is why it is so effective to use amber and blue as a pair on stage. It gives full light, while supporting what we usually see.


Ideally in this step the students figure things out on their own as they experiment with the gel books. Use the lecture notes as side-coaching if needed.


Placement – Depending on where you place lights, different effects are achieved.

Front light: straight on – flattens out the face

            Key-fill – two lights from 45° angles, creates the most natural shadows

Back light: pops the actor out from the background

Side light: emphasizes the lines of the actor/dancer’s body. Lengthens the lines.

Top light: Dramatic look. Makes actors look shorter. Eerie look.

Bottom light: Another dramatic look. Heightens actors. Eerie look.

You can have light come from any corner and it combines features of these lights.


The best way to teach about placement is to go into a theatre space and play with lights. If you have this kind of space available, go in and let the students experiment with the lights. Then tell them about the specific kinds of light designers refer to in theatre. If this is not available,

flashlights are also a great tool for teaching about light placement.


Step 2: Quizzing in the Dark

Rules: Divide students into two teams. Give each team a flashlight. When I ask a question, the first person to turn on their flashlight will give an answer. If they do not answer correctly, the other student will have a chance. If both answer incorrectly, they will have a chance to confer with their team for help. All students need to try to answer at least one question.


How can a designer use intensity to influence the audience?

How can I use shape in a lighting design?

How do I change the shape of an ellipsoidal?

How do I change the shape of a PAR can or Fresnel?

What is a situation in which a designer would want to change the shape of my light?

What is a situation where a designer would want to change the texture of a light?

What is the easiest light to change the texture of?

How can I use color in a lighting design?

Define complementary color.

What happens when you shine the complementary color of light on a set piece?

Define analogous color.

When should I use analogous color in a design?

What colors are best for skin tone?

What is the purpose of key-fill?

What does back light do?

What does side light do?

What does top light do?

What does bottom light do?


Note: It will be necessary to review these principles throughout the course of the unit. If you think your students are struggling in their designs, feel free to return to this lesson and try some of the activities again.