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Chiaroscuro and the Power of Paradox

Chris Lose • February 2021LD at Large • February 5, 2021

Illustration by John Sauer –

In classical painting (and other visual arts), Chiaroscuro is the use of strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition. It is also a technical term used by artists for the use of contrasts of light to achieve a sense of volume in modeling three-dimensional objects and figures. The last few years, and 2020 in particular, have been a time of stark contrasts. Looking in from the outside, you would think that human beings are more divided than ever. If you look closer, you will see that these contrasts are a beautiful tapestry of light and dark. We cannot have beauty without ugliness. Light cannot radiate without darkness. Shadows cannot be cast without obstructing the light. Some things that appear to be at odds with one another are actually symbiotic relationships that create growth and stimulate the senses. I want to take a moment to celebrate the compatibilities of seemingly polar opposites.

‡‡         The Power of Opposites

Our industry is founded on the ability to make people feel things. It’s our job to wow them away from their worries, fears and apathy. In order to shake the audience free from their monotony, we have to generate a world of unbelievable wonderment. We have to contrast their lives of normalcy with gobsmacking grandeur and disbelief. This kind of amusement is akin to a good hallucination. We provide such a theatrical high that the feeling remains in their bodies for several days, weeks or a lifetime. We take the lonely world outside and flip it on its head to create a paradoxical environment of joy and connection. People come to concerts to disassociate from their normal lives, but also to bring a slice of that wonder back into their lives. We help them escape, and we don’t.

‡‡         The Power of Shadows

As lighting artists, we should always use chiaroscuro to our advantage. We need to respect that the power of darkness is just as powerful as the brilliance of luminosity. We know that the most important part of our job is equal parts light and shadow. We can easily forget that highlighting a soloist who wants to be lit is just as important as shading a drummer who does not. It’s too easy to lose the focal point if everyone is given the same intensity. A well-balanced front light is great for a chorus but disappointing for a string-shredding orgy of power chords. We need to tip the scales from one end of the spectrum to the other as often as possible. Our creations are based just as much on what we light as what we don’t.

‡‡         The Power of Singularity

Modern technology and energy efficiency has given us the luxury of fitting more and more lighting fixtures into smaller and smaller footprints. Four universes of DMX used to be considered a large show. Nowadays, four universes could be consumed by eight fixtures. This ability has led to the rise of mega-rigs. These rigs are so full of gear that additional engineers are being brought out just to certify roof capacities. We have enough gear to literally bring the roofs down if we are not careful. The act of transporting and hanging these juggernauts is a feat all on its own. Turning on the entirety in a static look is already enough to impress the most seasoned concertgoer.

Paradoxically, the most powerful moment we can create with these rigs comes when we turn them all off. To this day, I think of the 2016 Grammys when Adele took the stage. The entire venue went dark except for one single incandescent back light. It was exactly the kind of haunting visual the song deserved. The restraint necessary to pull off such a feat still makes me envious. With an entire rig of infinite possibilities, the designer had to convince everyone that one perfectly placed, perfectly focused fixture was the right choice to highlight the most amazing voice in the industry. The decision paid off, and a beautiful moment was created. Lit from behind, Adele appeared in a ghostly silhouette filmed from a distance, and when the camera cut to a close-up, the light seemed to create a halo around her, her disheveled curls picking it up and accentuating it. The audience was transported to a world of pure Adele by one fixture in a thousand.

‡‡         The Power of Contrast

The same technology that has given rise to infinite fixture possibilities has also given us access to infinite color options. Modern fixtures can dial up color combinations at any time in a flash. Rainbow chases that would have taken a week to program are now available in just a few keystrokes. We are not limited by technology; we are only limited by our own sense of good taste. It is easy to fall into the trap of bragging about the fixtures by using every feature in every song. This is where contrast can provide us with some magical moments. Just a few years ago, I was doing a corporate nightclub event where the designer wanted complete mayhem. His clients were drinking, and the music was bumping. Strobes on every down beat and every light moving across the dance floor was an easy order to fill. Halfway through the evening, the headline DJ sent his assistant out to speak with me. She asked if I could go completely blue for the entirety of his first song. The DJ was not my client, so I had to clear the request with my supervisor. Initially, they were against the idea, but after some drinks, the deal was sealed.

After an entire evening of flash, trash and multicolor assaults, the entire room went completely blue. Even the LED bars and video panels perfectly matched the color and hue. The escape from the barrage of Crayola colors was soothing and invigorating. The color matched the song, and everyone was in the same aura of light. The sense of unity was tangible. The movement continued, and the hits were still respected, but the monochromatic mood made the room change for the better. The color statement would have been completely lost if it had lasted more than one song, though. The blueness was not the statement, the contrast was the statement. This statement set the DJ apart from his predecessors.

‡‡         The Power of Community

Roadies are a diverse bunch of people. We come from all over the world with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints. This diversity of opinion is what allows us to step outside our comfort zones and embrace new ideas. Being forced by our paychecks to work with people who do not share our values or experiences can lead to some long, drawn-out creative discussions. The hierarchy is rarely crystal clear during the creative process. When opinions differ wildly, we have to take the best from each point of view and make them meld together. We have to step outside ourselves to observe the problem from a different point of view. These stark oppositions force us to go above and beyond what we thought was necessary or even possible. When we respect these opposites as parts of the whole, we can more forward together.

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