Choosing and Using Colour

Swatch books – Lee Filters and Rosco Supergel

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(As this site is based in the UK, we’re using the British spelling ‘Colour’)

Primary Colours of Light

The primary colours of light are red, green and blue.
The secondary colours of light are cyan, magenta and yellow.

Additive Colour Mixing

Using two lanterns with different colours, focussing onto the same area


Subtractive Colour Mixing

Using two gels in the same lantern OR mixing secondary colours in a moving light.


Using Colour to Light Actors

Controversy – Daily Telegraph – August 2018

 Using Warm and Cold Gels

This is a commonly used method for ensuring the lighting state looks interesting and natural. Having a single colour washing the whole stage can look flat, and can use a lot of lanterns. By using a warm (rose / pink / straw / yellow) from one side, and a cold (blue / lavender) from the other side, mixing additively, the state looks good, and a wide variety of different moods can be created by varying the relative intensities of the warm and cold lanterns. Colours such as lavender can act as a neutral balance, and can look either warm or cold, depending on the other lighting on stage.

Colour Washes

Using a single colour to wash a whole stage can be a striking effect, however, the stage picture can lack dimension. Using two similar colours can help to add interest, and contrasting colours can tell a completely different story.


Choosing Colour

Why do we need colour at all?

  • Emotion
  • Atmosphere
  • Stylised
  • Enhance the design

Colour choice can make or break the designer’s scenic or costume choices.

Although the reasons for choosing a particular gel are many, there are some basic rules which you can follow:

  1. Use pale colours for acting-area lighting (front lighting).
  2. Use deep colours for side- or back-lighting, or for special effect.
  3. Yellows and oranges are “warm” colours for sunny days or happy times.
  4. Pale blues are “cold” colours for less happy times.
  5. Lavenders are “neutral” colours and can appear warm or cold depending on the other colours in use at the time.
  6. Lanterns with no colour gels (“O/W” for “Open White” or “N/C” for “No Colour”) can appear warm due to the high colour temperature of the light source.
  7. Green shouldn’t be used as front light (unless you’re lighting a witch or evil character in a pantomime)
  8. When lighting the same space from two angles, use slightly different (or even contrasting warm and cool) colours to add interest and make the lighting look more dimensional.
  9. Darker skin tones respond to colour differently. Lavenders & pinks work better on dark skin than straw / yellow.
  10. As with everything in lighting, there’s absolutely no reason why you should follow any of these rules.

A selection of useful gels from the Rosco Supergel range can be found in the table below:


Swatch Books

What do you need to think about when choosing between colours?


Buying Gels

There are many different sizes of lanterns used in the theatre industry. All of them have their own sized colour frame (or gel holder). This is a metal or fibre frame which holds the colour gel firmly in place at the front of the lantern.
There are references online which tell you the size of the colour frame for a particular size and type of lantern.

Storing and Organising Gels

You can use a filing cabinet drawer to store cut gels, with suspension files for each colour.
Gels should be labelled using either a white paint marker or a chinagraph pencil.


Colour Temperature & CRI

More information coming soon

Colour Changers

  • Semaphore
  • Colour Wheels
  • Colour Scrollers

Colour Media

Most theatrical applications use standard sheets of gel, made by companies such as Rosco, Lee, Gam etc.

However, some applications, particularly permanent installations, require a more heavy duty approach.

Gray Glass make a range of coloured glass called Devon Glass. This range was used on the London production of Beauty and the Beast at the Dominion Theatre.

A number of companies make dichroic glass filters, which have a very long life.

More information coming soon.