Making Your Worship Experience More Colorful
By: David Martin Jacques

For Church Production Magazine
November 7, 2004

Copyright 2004 by David Jacques


Nearly all theatrical lighting designers agree that the most powerful and effective quality of light is color. The power of color can help create intense emotional responses in your congregation. It can also assist in supporting the mood of the worship service and at the same time instantaneously change the mood from one moment to another.

The power of color in light cannot be understated. Through an understanding of the physical qualities of light and color, and some practical experience in choosing and mixing color, you too can become a proficient master of color.

The fact is that the reason we see color at all is because certain wavelengths of light are reflected off an object, creating the appearance of that color. For instance, when we see a red dress, what we are really seeing are the red wavelengths of light reflecting off that dress. The other wavelengths of light are being absorbed into the material and are transferred into heat. This is one reason why you wear dark clothes in the winter and light clothes in the summer. Dark colors reflect less light and turn the absorbed light energy into heat. (Growing up in sunny Florida made me appreciate car seats with white upholstery!)

In addition, the way color is mixed in light is entirely different from the way you mix color in paint. Mixing pigment of color is called “subtractive color mixing”. When you mix colors in paint the resulting color is always darker. For instance, if you mix red paint and blue paint you achieve dark purple.

Mixing color in light is called “additive color mixing”. The resulting color is always lighter. If you mix red light and blue light you get lavender. The primary colors in paint are red, blue, and yellow. When mixed together you theoretically get black. On the other hand, the primary colors in light are red, blue, and green, and when mixed together you get white. You can’t get much more different than that!

Over the years there have been many psychological studies of how color in light affects people. There is no question that a person’s individual emotional state is greatly affected by the color in light. Think of the last time you were in an office environment lit with fluorescent lighting. The color of this light is usually a very light cool blue, which can make your mood somewhat on edge. You later visit a romantic restaurant where the lighting is created by soft amber candlelight. This makes you feel very warm and calm.

There can also be dramatic psychological affects when you transition from one color to another. Remember what it’s like when you go from a warm interior light out into the bright, cool daylight? There is a dramatic shift in color and quality of light, which could affect a shift in your psychological state.

So you may be asking: “Why do I need to know all this when all I want to do is choose the colors to make my worship service more effective?” Well, remember that you need to achieve several things when designing for a worship service. Primarily, you need to create visibility--in other words you need to be able to clearly see the pastor, choir, and other worship leaders on the pulpit.

Whether designing for theatre or for a worship service, I always design a system of clear light to achieve basic visibility. Remember, clear light will reflect all the colors of the fabrics that these people are wearing. If you light your green-robed choir with red light, very little light will reflect off their robes making the choir look very dull! If you light them with clear, or light blue-green hues, there are enough green wavelengths of light available to make those robes visible!

Think of using color as washes of light that layer over your clear light circuit. Not unlike a painter’s palette, you can have several colors at your disposal. You want to create a simple, but versatile palette of color washes for your lighting design. In the most basic worship lighting setup you may have separate lighting washes of blue, pink, amber, and green. In addition, by combining these separately controlled colors, you can mix the light in the air to achieve multiple other colors.

You have many choices when it comes to selecting the basic palette of colors for your lighting design. The major color gel manufacturers are Rosco, Great American, and Lee. These companies have hundreds of hues in their catalogues. If you are fortunate enough to own automated lighting fixtures or automated color changers, you can mix your own colors in real time through the combination of their internal dichroic filter panels of the secondary colors of light (cyan, magenta, and yellow).

A good method of choosing colors is by creating your own light lab. You can start by setting up three lights in a darkened room. Set up the lights so there are two lights on 45 degree angles in front and one light from the back. Focus the lights on a central object (like a mannequin or even a small sculpture). Choose some color samples from the manufacturer’s swatch books and try out several combinations of color. This will give you an idea on what your color choice will look like before you set up the lighting for your service.

So how do you use color to create mood in your service? I have always taught lighting design in direct relation to the understanding of music. You can think of color as a parallel to the textures in a musical composition. The quiet, soft passages of music can translate into soft blues, lavenders, and greens, whereas the loud, exciting moments of the music can translate into palettes of reds, yellows, and oranges.

You can add these colors for the different moods and moments in your service. For instance, if you are moving from the Pastor’s greeting into a high-spirited worship song, you can add amber or pink to the lighting. If you are then transitioning into a quiet introspective solo, you can change the color from amber to deep blue. You see this done all the time in concerts, where the soloist may be in a light lavender followspot, and the floor and background will be in solid blue.

You can also change the colors in the middle of songs to highlight the dynamic changes in the song itself. Most worship songs have a distinctive “arc “—meaning an overall composition of changing dynamics. Many of these songs start softly and build to a crescendo. You can support this visually by creating a starting lighting cue with your softer colors and then constructing cues with changing colors and adding intensity as the song and emotion builds. If you can feel the build in the music, you should support this build visually with the lighting. As movement in lighting is another powerful quality, you can also time out the cues to coincide with the time of the build in the music. This gives you an amazingly powerful combination for your lighting design. Remember, the greater the contrast between two lighting atmospheres, the greater the affect on the congregation.

In addition, there is an overall “arc” in the service itself. Most pastors and music ministers carefully program the service with a definite order of songs and addresses to achieve the maximum affect in delivering the message. From looking at this program you can preplan the lighting to support the dynamics of the overall service. Following this “roadmap” will almost assure a successful worship lighting design.

You also need to realize that such a powerful tool can unintentionally prove detrimental. Lighting should always support the moment and the message, and never detract from it. Changes in color and intensity can be very distracting, so use these qualities of light with caution. Whenever possible, I try to move away from the lighting console to watch the lighting cues from the audience’s perspective. That way I can imagine myself as part of the congregation and see if I am distracted by the lighting cues. If so, then I either lengthen the time of the cue to make it smoother, or change the cues themselves to make them more uniform.

A final bit of advice: Don’t be shy about using color. For your use of color may not only distinguish your lighting artistry, it can make your worship service a deeper and more fulfilling experience for your congregation.


DAVID MARTIN JACQUES is a professional lighting designer and lighting consultant for houses of worship throughout the United States. He is also Head of Stage Design at California State University Long Beach. He can be reached at: djacques@csulb.edu.