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What does it mean to paint with light?

What exactly is lighting design? According to an ancient Chinese proverb, lighting design is the act of painting the very air we breathe with light… ok, that’s not actually an ancient Chinese proverb. My mentor Bill told me that 10 years ago in Madison, WI. I said it out loud to myself: “to paint the air with light.” Wow, what a visceral and intriguing concept. We’re all familiar with the concept of painting on canvas (and now, painting digitally) but painting with light?!

Back in 2012 Bill was working as a lighting technician for a production company in Madison and I was busy touring the country in my band, The Royal. We made a stop in Madison for that year’s annual “Freakfest” (a UW-Madison Halloween festival) and as fate would have it, Bill was the lighting tech for our stage. After the festival I asked Bill if he would be kind enough to meet with me and explain some of the concepts behind lighting design, and he agreed. A month or so later I traveled back to Madison to meet with Bill and begin my lighting design adventure…

We met in a small punk/rock venue with a few wash lights and a laptop that I brought with me. What Bill had to say laid the foundation for the scenes that I create so many years later. Lighting design may be the act of “painting air,” but it’s so much more than that. It’s also the process of painting the physical objects in the room. And for me, it’s mostly about interpreting music visually: what should the buttery smooth sound of a Moog synthesizer look like? What does the attack and low end gut punch of a kick drum look like? Mind you, these are not rhetorical questions. I quite literally asked Bill “how do you interpret music into lighting cues?” Bill replied “how does the music make you feel? Act it out!” He pulled up some blistering dubstep track and began flailing his arms wildly and gesticulating about. In Bill’s mind, his wild motions represented some pattern with lasers that he had envisioned in his mind. What a brilliant piece of advice. Bill’s lighting scenes represented the emotional appeal of the music rather than the most literal interpretation of the sound waves.

Lighting design implies some sort of creative choice is being made by whoever is programming the lights. The antithesis of lighting design is the “sound reactive algorithm.” What you and I would call “music,” a sound reactive algorithm would call “noise.” An algorithm isn’t capable of understanding the emotional appeal of Brenda Russel belting out the last chorus of “Piano In the Dark.” For this reason, the question I get asked most frequently (by far and away) is this: how come my lights don’t look like that?! In other words, home lighting enthusiasts want to know why their lighting (running on sound reactive mode) doesn’t appeal to them in the same way that my programmed lighting cues do. It’s an honest enough question. After all, when lighting design is done spectacularly right, it can look and feel so natural that the viewer assumes it must be a by-product of the music itself and is being generated automatically in some capacity. In fact, many times the effort and time I put into creating cues gets mistaken for some sort of prodigious sound reactive algorithm. It’s the highest compliment in my opinion. It means that whatever I told the lights to do looked intrinsically related to the music.

Lighting designers are not special. It doesn’t take a special degree or natural talent to get started creating compelling lighting cues and scenes. All it takes is an appreciation for visual art and music. There’s a good chance you’re an astonishing lighting designer… you just haven’t discovered it yet.

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