Contrast Equals Interest

Contrast Equals Interest: Something that has the lightest light and the darkest dark right next to each other will draw the eye to it.  I learned this from Sal Tagliarino while I was working on my masters at Tisch School of the Arts.  Sal taught a drawing class that was based upon seeing the difference between having a “flash card image” of what something looks like in our mind and what something actually looks like in reality.  Once one can see the difference between the two, one will be much more successful in creating it whether it is onstage or on a piece of sketch paper. I do believe Sal has retired now.  While I wish him the best, it is a sad loss to education that he is not in a classroom on a daily basis.

Let me share a story about this “contrast equals interest” that will bring it to a true theatrical reality.

I was lighting “Fiddler on the Roof”, a scene where Tevye and Motel, the Tailor, were singing right next to each other.  They were both in equal light, but we could not concentrate on Tevye, only Motel.  No matter how much light we put on Tevye, Motel always appeared to draw the eye.  The director came to me asking to put more light on Tevye and I showed her that no matter how much light I put on him, it just did not seem to matter.  I then (very politely) mentioned that Tevye’s clothing was in subdued earth tones, and that Motel was wearing a very bright white shirt with very black pants.  The high contrast of the costume made it nearly impossible to concentrate on anyone else onstage.  The solution was to tone down Motel’s shirt.  Once his contrast level was brought down, we were able to concentrate on both Tevye and Motel.

Similarly, if you desire to make something brighter, but adding more light just does not help you, then you need to take light away from other things around it.  Adjust the contrast ratio to work for you.  I will always be grateful to Sal for the knowledge of contrast ratios.  Ninety percent of what I do is control them.  It is a simple concept, but maybe the most important.

A good designer will know when it is a ratio that one can control, or when it is in another department’s responsibility.  A rehired designer is the one who can communicate it in a non-confrontational way.

A great way to train your eye to be able to judge contrast ratios is to doodle some gray scales with a pencil.


Draw nine boxes are right next to each other.  In the first three start with the dark tones.  No. 1 is the darkest, No. 2 a little bit lighter and then No. 3 should be the lightest of the dark tones.  Then skip a few steps, and then do the middle range.  Skip a few steps and do the light range.  Keep doing this until you get nice beautiful even steps that move gradually from dark to white.  This exercise will serve you well.

A practical note for everyone doing a show in a black box theatre with exposed lighting instruments:

  • For the most part, the ceiling above the stage is black.  If the bright, white light of the lens of a fixture is visible against the black of the ceiling, you are making it very difficult for the audience to concentrate on what is going on onstage.  Their eye will be drawn to the highest contrast point, which is the whitest light against the blackest black.  Use half hats and barndoors to fix this.  Also spend some time using Cinefoil to cover up light leaks.  Do everything you can to make sure that the audience is watching the show and not your lighting grid.

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