A Look at Industry Tools for Working with Color

If it’s spring, then it must be time to look at color. The most basic principle of lighting design is that you want to use the controllable properties of light — intensity, direction, movement, and color  — as visual information to help convey emotion. Of those four properties, color is one of the easiest to change and is can be fairly low cost. A sheet of plastic color filter lists for around $7.50, and depending on the light, you can get six or eight cuts out of a sheet. If you don’t like a particular color you can easily change it out for another one. You can easily change the look of your scenery, backdrop or overall space or you can use colors to highlight an area to move audience focus. The right color choice will help support the message or moment that you are trying to convey by underscoring a mood or setting the tone of a moment.Stanziano_Baptist_West_Campus_8049_HR_sized

The key to using color is to know your options. First you need to define and articulate the emotion you are trying to reinforce with your color, and know that trial and error lead to great discoveries. As you experiment with different colors you may ask, “Why are there 18 different reds?” As you become more experienced, you will be surprised in the difference subtle variations in color can make in lighting.

Numerous tools, many of them quite inexpensive, are available to help you make an informed decision when working with color in your lighting.

Analog Tools

Despite a quantum leap in many lighting system technologies, when it comes to picking color, the standard proceedure remains using a color filter (gel) manufacturer’s color swatchbook. The primary color manufacturers are Apollo, GAM Products, Lee and Rosco and all offer swatchbooks. . [Rosco recently purchased GAM Products and has stated that Rosco will continue to market and promote GAM worldwide through its global distribution network.] These are small samples of every color in the different lines offered. You can get swatchbooks, most often at no cost, at the various trade shows, your theatrical dealership where you buy your color or you can put in a request with the manufacturers via their websites. Most of the manufacturers also make larger designer swatchbooks with samples large enough to put in front of a light. Prices for these designer swatchbooks vary so check with your supplier or manufacturer. Also, check with the manufacturer or your theatrical supplier to see if they have combination packs of color, sometimes available in 12×12-inch sheets. These are usually a small collection of popular colors and let you play around and try colors out.

Most of the color manufacturers sell plastic color filters in sheets and rolls. Consider getting a roll if you use a lot of a particular color since that may be more economical for you. Remember when you cut the color into the frame sizes for your lights, it is a good idea to label each one with the color number. I generally also add a letter to the front of the number to keep straight which company it came from, i.e., A4870 for Apollo, L201 for Lee, R80 for Rosco. It is best to do this in the corner of the cut filter with a white china marker or grease pencil. Don’t mark across the center of the filter.  No, the numbers won’t project a shadow, but the markings will block light, causing more heat in that area and shortening the filter’s life. Remember that even though color filters are considered expendable, you don’t have to throw away the color after one use if it is still good. More efficient fixtures, short usage and better filter technology have all gone a long way in extending the life of color filters. To prolong a color filter’s life, it is best to always have an even, flat focus with no hot spots; try a heat shield product to reflect heat away, or use an extender to move the color further away from the front of the light. I recommend a file drawer(s) to keep the cuts of color organized for use in your next production.

Digital Tools.  Going from the analog nature of a swatchbook to the digital realm, there are a lot of tools available to make working with color simple and fun.

iPhone/iPod touch Apps

The smart phone is the new multi-tool. When Apple introduced the iPhone (and the iPad and iPod touch) they opened up development of applications to outside, third-party developers. Dozens, possibly hundreds of apps are available for the entertainment and presentation technology. All the apps can be purchased at the iTunes App store. Most of the programs are under $5.00 but a few go up to $9.99, fairly reasonable costs considering the time that goes into developing the apps.

Digital Swatchbook

The Wybron Gel Swatch Library ($9.99) allows you to browse, search, and compare over 1,000 Apollo, GAM, Lee and Rosco colors. This app gives you several ways to find color, even look at similar shades with a side-by-side comparison window. You may still want to look through the swatchbook with a light but this app is a great tool for quick reference, crossing over and, in fact, does a fairly good job of color representation, especially when you are at a dark tech table. There’s now a version for iPad—Gel Swatch Library HD that sells for $9.99 on the Apple App Store.

Color Mixing

The CXI Color Calculator ($4.99) also from Wybron, works with the company’s CXI IT dual color string color changer to find the right mix of colors. You scroll through two overlapping color strings of cyan, magenta, and yellow to find the perfect color out of nearly 500 different shades. Then plug its numerical values—either decimals or percentages—into your console to create the color. This is a quick, handy solution, especially if you keep misplacing your fancy (analog) Wybron color index wheel.

Color Calculator

LD Michael Zinman, a prolific app developer, has created a number of lighting apps including GelCalc ($4.99), which allows you to calculate the number of sheets of color that you would need depending on the color frame sizes of the lights that you are using. A cool feature that I really like is that it figures out the best cutting direction to yield the most frames per/sheet. The other handy feature of GelCalc is that you can enter what you pay for a sheet of color and it calculates how much it’s going to cost to color your show. The app also includes a frame picker with over 60 common frame sizes or you can manually enter any frame size.

Color Measurements

SeaChanger, the company that produces the SeaChanger dichroic color changer for the ETC Source Four ellipsoidal, makes the colorBug, a handheld device with a light sensor for photometrics. It’s no larger than a typical mobile phone and comes with applications that allow you to easily determine output. colorBug’s exclusive software allows you to share data with your iPhone or iPod touch, where you can store and analyzing data with its software program. With its wireless capabilities, colorBug communicates directly to an iPhone or iPod touch without the need for a PC or cables. The software is downloadable for free on the iTunes site and the colorBug device has a list price of $480.


 The websites for all the color manufacturers, as well as the sites of many theatrical dealers, are a wealth of information about color. From suggested uses of color, to color theory, crossover comparisons between different manufacturers, and even how to use color correction if you are mixing different sources like tungsten and discharge lamps, the websites have a lot of great information.

 Working with color in your lighting should be fun and not in the least intimidating. Try some colors, experiment with different combinations. Explore the websites of the different color filter manufacturers and try some of these tools when you are working with color. Please feel free to let us know what you find and if there is a tool that you really like for working with color.

Michael S. Eddy writes about design and technology.  He can be reached at mseddy2900@hotmail.com.

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