Color Theory Basics – Dominant and Recessive Colors

Close your eyes.

Imagine yourself hiking through the hills. You have been walking amidst some trees for a while and come to a clearing. It’s a few hours after noon and you notice the sun has begun its progression towards the Western horizon. In front of you are more trees crisply limned in the mid-afternoon sunlight. You look a further on towards the mountains in the distance and notice that these same trees and brush appear bathed in a pale lavender light.

You may now open your eyes.

The human eye, having evolved over millions of years with these lighting effects present, has learned to process certain colors as being in either the foreground or the background. The crisp 5700K sunlight is an indicator to our eyes that something is in the foreground. A soft and delicate lavender is an indicator to our eyes that something is far off in the distance. The former dominates our field of view, while the latter recedes into the background.

Beyond evolution, Dominant and Recessive Colors have another interesting property as well. Dominant Colors tend to hold their integrity as colors when in the presence of other colors. Recessive Colors willingly and readily mix in with other colors to either disappear entirely or form third colors.

Probably the clearest example of a dominant color would be Cyan. No matter what you do, it will always be Cyan. You can add Blue to make it more Blue, or Green to make it more Green, but it will always be Cyan, dominant and in the foreground. At the opposite extreme we have Lavender. No matter what other color you turn on, your Lavender will do its level best to mix with that color and recede into the background.

Knowing that some colors are inherently perceived as being in the foreground, while others are perceived as being in the background, gives us tremendous opportunity to sculpt our stage picture and focus the eye where we want it to go.

To reiterate, a Dominant Color will push a figure forwards while a Recessive Color will cause a figure to recede into the distance. The example of ABT’s lightplot, from our discussion on Missing Color Syndrome, applies here as well. The R70 in the Backlight is a Dominant Color which, being Backlight, helps to push our dancer towards us and sculpts the outline of their body. The R51 Frontlight allows us to see them, but the color quickly receeds into whatever else we might have turned on, perhaps some L201 Shins. In this way we can use Frontlight for facial illumination without sacrificing the sculptural qualities of our Backlight and Sidelight.

Backlight and Sidelight are Dominant Angles. They are very powerful and present in a way that a Recessive Angle like Frontlight is not. Using Dominant Colors in Dominant Angles and Recessive Colors in Recessive Angles, as we see in the ABT Repertory Plot, can create striking effects.

Let us now explore these ideas with our Woman-in-a-Red-Dress. Having lit her in Magenta (dominant) Backlight and Lavender (recessive) Frontlight we have created a look whereby our ingenue is front and center in our visual focus, her face is clearly lit and her body is sharply outlined against the scenery. We now have to light the other people in the scene who are watching her. Perhaps we use the same Frontlight system but turn on the Congo Blue (recessive) Backlight. They will all be clearly visible, but our eye will naturally be drawn to the Woman-in-a-Red-Dress. This is true even if she is way upstage of them!

The use of Dominant and Recessive Colors, in conjunction with Dominant and Recessive Angles, helps to create a sense of focus for the eye in much the same way that a camera can put foregound or background figures into focus. In short, we control our depth of field through these tools and thus compose our stage pictures to reflect the key objects we should be looking at in a given light cue.

With these distinctions in mind it could be easy to question why we would use Recessive colors at all. If we want to create powerful and dynamic stage pictures, then everything should be Dominant. Right? It is healthy to be wary of Recessive Colors. One could easily design a palette which looks great in the studio but, when put into practice, makes it impossible to see anyone clearly. The key here is to use colors judiciously and correctly.

At the same time, while it is good to embrace bold Dominant Color choices, do not get carried away. The eye gets tired. Further, you could find yourself having trouble losing focus on a secondary area of the stage. Be bold, but know when to temper your passions.

Remember the first rule of lighting; everything is relative.

One could construct a plot out of all Recessive Colors (I have done it many times). Because some colors are more recessive than others you could create many of the same effects through using colors that are less recessive in the Backlight and more recessive in the Frontlight. There are plenty of delicate ballets and whimsical musicals which call for just such a color palette.

Knowing the distinctions between Dominant and Recessive Colors is a critical tool in composing our looks for the stage. If you missed my essays on Hue or Saturation and Chroma I would encourage you to go back and read them through. In later posts I will be exploring Color Correction, Gray, The Effect of Lamp Type, and Additive vs. Subtractive color mixing.

I hope you found this useful. Please take any new ideas and start experimenting. We will continue to build on these concepts throughout this series. Stay tuned.

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