Perfect Locations: Seeing the Light

This series was written for RPG Blog Carnival: Fantastic Locations.

When I used yesterday’s post to introduce the idea of the perfect version of a location, one of the mood-contributing factors I discussed was light. It’s easy to forget, as an element; we’re used to always having at least some around us, and to not being particularly concerned with where it comes from unless the bulb’s gone out again. A lot of people don’t describe it when setting their scenes, unless it’s doing something particularly symbolic. I remember, as a kid, being absolutely shocked that there was an entire book about seeing and painting light (and not being sure what to do with the copy that had been given to me).

And yet it matters.

First, there’s the issue of presence or absence of light. When I was talking about fear, long ago, I mentioned that one of the reasons why horror tends to run to limited color is that the closer it gets to grayscale, the more it brings out the use of rods over cones in our eyes, the same way trying to see in the dark does. When I’m dealing with mood, I often try to figure out which of several general categories of ambient level I’m dealing with (Next to none, not quite enough, enough, a bit too much, and OW my eyes.) I find most of my work with the supernatural to be at everything but “enough light”–the overly bright ranges tend to be good for getting across an image of overwhelming power (or overwhelming something, anyway), and the dark ranges are good for mystery and (with local light sources in particular) the invocation of wonder.

Pure light levels aren’t all we want to deal with, though. Think about clouds and smoke, and the effect they have on the color spectrum. We all know that under clouds things tend to have more of a gray tinge to them than when the sky is blue as far as the eye can see, and that firelight, sunlight and artificial light get us different ambient appearances, but there’s more than that. Have you ever seen that peculiar yellow tinge the world seems to have when it’s just rained, when the clouds are still there but the sun’s shining through them and between that and everything being darker when wet every color is more intense? How about the way that point sources of light in pea-soup fog tend to bleed into the air around them until they run into another color, like a spectral mosaic? The way that after dark, rain seems to fall only from the streetlamps, or how motes of dust in the air are only visible in that beam of morning sun through the half-curtained window?

Low light levels also give you the option of contrasting no/some light with more light. Watercolor artists and people with inspirational messages absolutely love the effect when a single sunbeam breaks through cloud cover, a practically visible spear of white that leaves puddles of brighter colors on the landscape below. One of my favorite tricks for evoking a sense of wonder through clearly magical locations is taking light levels in which we shouldn’t be seeing color, and then having color anyway—magic manifesting as patterns or motes of light, buildings of sufficiently supernatural construction that they reflect the little light there is or glow in their appropriate colors, grayscale places where someone decorated with something that shows up in its proper brilliant blue or stunning gold.

We may not be taught how to look at light, but we should cultivate an eye for it anyway. It’s one of those subtle little details that can turn one mood into another with just a few words.


  1. Shinali says:

    That yellow after the rain color (incidentally before the monsoon rains sometimes too) has always struck me as beautiful yet ominous, and I call it monsoon gold or monsoon yellow, and slip it in where I can. As a result if this post I switched a fluorescent bulb for a blue incandescent one and the effect is dimmer, and both bluer and yellower somehow. Another lighting thing to think about are shadows and reflections. The moon is actually not very reflective, but it reflects yellow-ish sunlight in a normally white or blue-white hue. Skin is more reflective than most cloth, and it’s undertones affect the color, even if it’s say Samar-on-power-bleed-violet, a green robe won’t look violet, it will look blue or gray depending on the shade of green (per my experiments), but black hair will look blue, brown, or violet even in strong “white” light. Also magical light can have magical shadows, meaning that the shadow need not be the natural color, per se. Just some points to consider.

  2. Michael says:

    Light has been tricky for me in Return to Hinamizawa — since I’m used to being in a big city, it’s hard for me to mentally adjust to how really dark the place would get. Certainly, it’s easy enough to describe, but then I need to keep remembering just how much the characters would and wouldn’t be able to see, and what effect this would have on their emotions and actions. You once mentioned — I think I was asking you how you manage to write such amazing descriptions — that you always start with setting the light level, and I’m very glad to have got into that habit, as it is certainly very helpful when trying to visualise a scene.

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