Color Theory Basics – Hue
Our discussion of color theory begins with a look at Hue. Hue is the most basic element of a color and what most people think of when they think “color.” Hue refers to the specific wavelengths of light which hit your retina and cause you to experience sensations like “red” or “yellow” or “green.” Because this is such a foundational element of color theory this post will be a bit long and involved. But it’s worth it!
While the colors of pigments and the colors of light are all the same, their relationships differ between mediums. Primary and Secondary Colors differ when discussing pigment or light. The relationship of these colors, as well as what you can mix to make which colors, vary depending on what medium you are using. The first rule of color: Everything is Relative.
We have all been introduced to a color wheel at some point in our lives. The color wheel is a visual representation of colors and their various relationships to one another. To make a color wheel we draw a circle and then divide it into six even sized wedges. We fill every other wedge with the three Primary Colors; Red, Yellow, and Blue. With the remaining three alternate wedges we put in our Secondary Colors; Orange, Purple, and Green.
Primary colors are those which can not be mixed together through the use of other colors. Secondary Colors are a combination of equal parts of two Primary Colors. Thus Red+Yellow=Orange, Yellow+Blue=Green, and Blue+Red=Purple. The formula of combining colors follows to create Tertiary Colors and so on. The mixing of all these colors will affect both the Hue and the Chroma. Chroma is where the hue lands in a range of Gray to pure Hue.
Special Note: Modern printing techniques using Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow (and Black) seem to indicate that this traditional view of color pigment relationships is incorrect. Cyan and Yellow ink, for example, combine to make Green.
With all that said, here is the traditional color wheel we all learned in elementary school art class:
When we mix all three primary colors together in equal parts we get Black. In theory. In reality you tend to get a dark brown and can actually create some wonderful variations in brown by slightly altering the proportions of the different colors used.
The behavior of light is very different. The primary colors are Red, Green, and Blue. While the secondary colors are Cyan, Magenta, and Amber (Yellow). With light Red+Green=Amber, Green+Blue=Cyan, and Blue+Red=Magenta. Not only that but an even mixture of all three primary colors produces White light. In theory. In reality one tends to create shades of Gray.
The lighting Color Wheel looks like this:
It is interesting to note that if we replace the traditional pigment color wheel with the revised one based on CMYK printing we discover that the Primary and Secondary Colors of light and pigment are not just different, but are totally inverted. We can use this to our advantage by turning brightly colored surfaces black with differently colored light as I will discuss below.
The effect of Hue variation on the color of Costumes and Scenery can be tremendous. By knowing the relationship between the Primary and Secondary colors you can create striking effects. What I call “Sympathetic Hues” are colors in light which contain elements of, but are distinct from, the Hue of a Costume or Scenic piece.
Let’s take the classic Woman-in-a-Red-Dress. When she enters at the top of the staircase we really want her to shine. As such we would use colors on the dress which are sympathetic to, or enhance, the dress color. In this case we could use a red like the dress. If we wanted two colors from opposite sides we could use a combination of colors like Magenta and Amber. Here we see the Hue of the light is making the intent of our collaborator (the Costume designer) stronger by reinforcing her bold color statement.
The drawbacks of this are that we could ruin the designer’s intent. This typically happens with heavily saturated light and delicate or intricate costumes or scenery. The color becomes so dominant that we lose the pattern, which may have been for a particular design purpose. One of our primary jobs is to make our collaborator’s work look the best it can (and how they intend it to look!). A deep understanding of color will allow us to do that.
Another drawback to such a broad statement would be the light on the performer. I don’t know many people in real life who have saturated red skin (or blue or green). So while the color might be the right idea for the dress, it might not be the right idea for the performer. The Woman-in-the-Yellow-Dress should not look jaundiced, for example.
A color whose position is opposite another color on the wheel in known as a “Complementary Color.” Complementary colors can create striking and dynamic effects when placed next to one another (or in lighting, when coming from opposing angles). This strength does a curious thing when a pigment is lit with its compliment. A Cyan floor, bathed in Red light, will appear Black to the human eye. We can use this to great effect by obscuring a scenic element until just the right moment of revelation. The risk, of course, is in destroying our collaborator’s intent by deadening the colors of their impeccably designed scenery.
Here we can see the relationship between compliments:
In addition to Primary, Secondary, or Complementary Colors we can also group Hue into one of three categories; Warm, Cool, and Neutral. Warm Hues include Red and Orange. Cool Hues include Blue and Cyan. Neutral Hues include Green and Magenta.
Warm, Cool, and Neutral are not absolute, but relative. In our example above, the red dress is treated as Neutral while a Cool Red (Red with a little blue, but not so much as to be Magenta) light might come from one side and a Warm Red (Red veering towards Amber, but still clearly Red) from the other. In this way we have the effect of complimentary colors (Blue and Yellow) creating a striking effect, while using only Hues which are sympathetic to the color choice of our collaborator.
One final word on Complementary colors and light is worth noting at this point. If you have a single source of light, say the sun at midday, which casts a shadow, the color of the shadow is the complementary color of the light. While this can be hard to see with something so subtle as sunlight, try it some time under a Sodium Vapor (Orange) street light. The shadow should have a faint tinge of Blue or Cyan.
This color effect can be used to the designer’s advantage in myriad ways. One could simply exaggerate the shadow color on stage through a hard directional light in one’s chosen Hue and a soft diffuse light in the shadow color. Alternately this idea could be employed by choosing opposing colors of Head Hi booms.
One of the most famous uses of this color effect is in the lighting method outlined by Stanley McCandless in his A Method of Lighting the Stage in which he suggests using Diagonal Frontlight in complementary colors from opposite directions. His “warm” and “cool” area lights could easily be made more specific using this knowledge of the shadow color of a light.
Hue is a foundational element to our understanding of color but it is by no means all there is. In later posts I will be exploring Saturation and Chroma, Missing Color Syndrome, Dominant and Recessive Colors, Color Correction, Gray, The Effect of Lamp Type, and Additive vs. Subtractive Color Mixing.
I hope you found this post useful. Please take any new ideas and start experimenting. There is a lot more to cover on Hue alone and I may do so in later supplements to this series.
Was this useful to you? Please let me know what you thought in comments. Or leave any questions you may have and I (or other commenters) would be happy to answer.