Updated: Dec 18, 2020
"Dark shadows”. Do these words make you think of lighting design or the new Johnny Depp movie? If you’re my age, you may think back to a childhood after-school ritual. Rushing home to watch a Gothic soap opera set along the gloomy, foggy coast of Maine. What makes this television show so memorable to us 50-somethings? The foreboding, cliffside house at Collingwood, the haunting music, or the tormented vampire, Barnabas Collins? What makes images of Dark Shadows episodes reappear so easily? Lighting … mysterious, thrilling, and dramatic lighting.
Lighting has a powerful impact on emotions. So much so that it can keep memories vivid for decades. In design, it adds texture, volume, contrast, ambiance, and highlights focal points. Yet, given all its capabilities, lighting is far too underrated and underutilized.
Terms like lumens, footcandles, and candelas send you straight to Wikipedia. MR-16s and transformers sound like missile defense weapons. Lighting design is technical and confusing but, basically, there are three forms with three different purposes:
“Task” is used for reading, sewing, highlighting art, and performing brain surgery. “Ambient” is used to set moods. Think of romantic restaurants layered with flattering uplit sconces, dimmed chandeliers, and flickering votive candles. “Accent” is used in the same way as an accessory. While your focus may be on a lamp, the beam of light, itself, is also a three-dimensional accessory.
Do these functions ever overlap? Other than surgical performances, most do. For instance, ground-in fixtures along an outdoor walkway illuminate the path as well as create a pleasant, evening ambiance. A neon sign atop a roadside diner grabs drivers’ attention and stimulates their appetite with bright color. Some lighting serves all three functions. You don’t have to know which is which or what is what in order to enjoy its creative uses:
1) Flank an object such as a bed or sofa with table lamps, floor lamps, or sconces. The symmetry of light acts as a frame around the object.
2) Use lighting to draw attention to an attractive area in order to draw attention away from an unattractive area.
3) Use lighting to enlarge and bring attention to dark corners – dark shadows!
4) Use lighting to balance asymmetrical wall art or an oddly placed window.
5) Scatter lamps to create ethereal volume in the space
6) Strategically place lamps to light architectural aspects in the room.
7) Place a table lamp next to a vase of flowers. Hang a mirror behind the table to get twice the impact.
8) Use uplights and candles to flatter your face and skin tone.
9) Mix different sources and intensities of light. Harsh and one-dimensional lighting compromise an otherwise beautiful roomscape.
10) And, my favorite - place a can spotlight at the base of a tall house plant like a palm tree. Direct the beam through the fronds to create shapes and shadows on the ceiling.
“Dark shadows” may be a redundant phrase - with or without the nostalgic association. The redundancy merely emphasizes the impactful contribution lighting can make in rendering a design memorable.
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