Color Theory Basics – Gray

No discussion of Color or Color Theory on this blog would be complete without an exploration of the color Gray. If I was being truly rigorous and precise it would have been part of the discussion on Saturation and Chroma as Gray is, by definition, non-chromatic light. For personal and pragmatic reasons I chose to place Gray in it’s own section. The subtlety of this range is such that it requires mastery of the other basics before it can really be approached.

I find it amazing to me how many people, when I mention that Gray is my favorite color, tell me it either does not exist or cannot be created with light. In a certain sense this is true. Gray, like White, is a perceptual effect caused by the mixture of all wavelengths of light. However, it is exactly this perceptual effect that I find so rich, varied, and interesting. Curiously these same people who tell me the color does not exist, or can not be created, then go off to start up their computers with apple logos on them and watch as their RGB screens produce a Gray on Gray opening window as it loads the operating system. The inability of many to properly mix Gray, does not deny its existence. Rather, it points out how difficult the color is to achieve.

For a more poetic exploration of Gray read my essay Ten Thousand Shades of Gray. For the purposes of this essay we will be looking at a more systematic approach to utilizing Gray-scale lighting to achieve dramatic effects. Reading my previous essay on Color Mixing, if you do not have much practical experience in that regard, is necessary for understanding the ideas contained in here.

First lets look at Gray from an RGB mix. This is how your computer screen makes Gray. It is how the sticky note upon which I am writing this essay is perceived as Gray by me. Mixing Gray from RGB gives you tremendous control. Just as there are many different Hues of chromatic colors, there are just as many Hues in Gray. You can have a Blue-Gray or a Green-Gray, a Warm-Gray or a Cool-Gray. The subtle distinction and changes in how you mix your Gray, in this case I am imagining a Cyc, make costumes and people pop from that background or recede into it.

All of this control however is deeply time consuming. Just like any precise color mixing (CMY matching Gel colors for example) you have to be patient and clearly look at what you see before you. Mixing a good Gray gets down to adjusting lighting levels by one percent at a time until you reach the final mix. You can not rush this process or the work ends up sloppy and you walk away saying things like “Gray can not be mixed with theatrical lights.”

Not only is the work inherently time consuming but the focus must be precise. It is virtually impossible to do work in a Gray scale on a Cyc without a boucedrop. The light must be even enough that the edges of the color mixing are totally imperceptible. While this is true for all color mixed Cycs, an improperly focused RGB drop in Gray tones, is deadly. Take your time to plan through your drop lighting. Take your time to focus. Take your time to mix the colors. When you have taken the time to properly think through all of this the results will be truly satisfying.

Strict RGB (G250, L090, R80 for example) is one way to achieve these effects. But there are other ranges of colors that can be used. CTBs from about 1/2 CTB to double CTB work quite well. Similar colors like L161 can also be used to good effect. A warm CTB like R3202 can mix well with a color like L161 to create a nice range of cool and warm Gray. Add in a little CLR or Lavender and you can easily mix a wide range of Gray. While your options will be much more limited, you gain the benefit of saving a lot of time mixing the colors as they naturally fall into a Gray palette from the beginning.

Lavenders, mentioned above, can be useful. So too can pale Cyan, especially if you want to cast a more Dominant quality to the light. Cyan can be a wonderful option when used in a palette of dominant blues. However it runs the risk of appearing too chromatic against more recessive colors. Specifically recessive Blues. One must be very attentive to the color choices made when working in Grey or else you simply end up with an unsaturated palette. While that too can be engaging, if it is not the intent, then it is not right.

Let us now return to the Woman-in-a-Red-Dress. While we decided last week to have the entire stage go Red on her entrance, the director thought the move was too blunt. She would prefer to have the woman set against the environment in a striking way. Here is a perfect opportunity for Gray. We light the scene in cool Gray tones throughout. Then, when the Woman-in-a-Red-Dress enters we do a slight shift on the Cyc to increase the Green a point or two. We use our L202 Backlight and R3202 Frontlight for the scene. The effect is one where the complementary colors of Green(er) Cyc and Cool(er) Backlight separate the dress from the rest of the environment. The warm(er) Frontlight helps to pull the dress out even more. This will give us precisely the effect our director wants. A brilliantly illuminated figure which appears to stand outside the rest of the action and an otherwise unified space.

This essay up to now has assumed you were using incandescent lights with color filters to create your Gray environment. However, there is an entire world of lighting beyond those bulbs with incandescing filaments. Many discharge sources work very well to create Gray worlds. Metal Halides and HMIs are a prime example. HMI is daylight and Metal Halide is in that family but pushed towards Green. Fluorescent tubes can be an exciting way to explore Gray. Mercury Vapor lights come close but run the risk of being too Green. They can be amazing in the right balance, but you should use them wisely.

The world of Gray is an amazing, and often underutilized, tool in the lighting designer’s tool kit. While it takes a large degree of discipline, dedication, and rigor, the payoff can be astounding. I encourage you to explore this world and the full richness it provides just as you would more chromatic color ideas.

I hope you found this useful. Please take any new ideas and start experimenting. In my last post for this series I will be exploring The Effect of Lamp Type on Color. Stay tuned.

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.

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