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Four Professional Research Tools for Theatre Design

One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about setting up We Teach Drama, is meeting so many amazing theatre designers who are leading professionals in their specialist fields, whether it be lighting, sound, costume or set design. It has been fascinating to gain an insight into their process and professional practice through the Think Like a Designer Webinar series. I wanted to ask the professionals who are working with us how they research, as this is something which teachers and students ask about a lot and feeds into so many aspects of the curriculum. So, here we go- a Blog post focusing on the best approaches, tools and practices which professional designers use when researching a project!


A fantastic source of inspiration for lighting designers is the art world. Researching paintings from time periods can provide an insight into kinds of lighting used around then.

Professional lighting designer Josh Tomalin uses Galleries as an important research tool. He explains how he uses Galleries to research and select specific colours for his designs:

“The concept of ‘memory colours’ means that we associate particular colours with particular information or emotions. For example, we associate the warm pastel colours used in 16th or 17th paintings with that period, and the blue-tinged whites of fluorescent lighting with the present. So even if the art is not naturalistic, looking at art from a period can help in choosing gel colours.”

This does not only apply to naturalistic lighting styles, however. He reflects how much inspiration can be had by looking at the paintings of artists who used light in a more dramatic and figurative way:

“The Dutch masters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer are essential viewing. Renaissance artists such as Caravaggio and Leonardo da Vinci are associated with the ‘chiaroscuro’ style which used strong, hard lighting to create lots of contrast and drama in their works.”

Galleries have become so much more accessible digitally since 2020, which is great for students and teachers! Set a task for students to use one of the following Gallery Websites, which Josh suggests, to find images of paintings and create a digital or paper mood board. This is the perfect resource if students are studying set texts from historical time periods, such as the Victorian Era:

National Portrait Gallery – huge collection of portraits which is searchable by date.

National Gallery – A huge and beautiful collection of paintings from the 13th century onwards. Annoyingly, the collection is not searchable by date, but there is a selection of masterpieces from various time periods here. Most of the more famous paintings by Caravaggio, Rembrandt and others have absolutely fantastic videos or audio descriptions from the curators going to into detail about how the artist creates an emotional response. Highly recommended.

National Gallery of Scotland – large and varied collection with lots of drawings. Very usefully searchable by date and colour.

Rijksmuseum – Dutch national museum with huge collection of Rembrandt work. Searchable by date and by colour scheme. Most famous paints have an audio description from the curators. The Masterpieces section is an essential introduction to the Dutch masters.


Another great resource which professional designers use to gather visual research is Pinterest. Lighting Designer Edward Saunders says:

“I tend to use Pinterest, mainly because it’s so smart at suggesting other images based on the board you’re building.”

Ed suggests the following approach to building a Moodboard, using Pinterest:

“I think the trick to getting it to work properly is to feed it with images of your own when you’re getting started. So I tend to upload images of other designs or artworks from other sources (credited!) – things already on my radar or suggested in the brief, maybe from Shotdeck or other designers’ portfolios – and build it out from there. The beauty of Pinterest is that it once your board is rich enough, the suggestions can be really stimulating!"


Josh Tomalin first made me aware of Shotdeck last year. It has been a revelation discovering this site, so I have to share it with you! Shotdeck is a website which has thousands of visual stills from movies and film. Their website explains:

“If you are creative, Shotdeck is the place to get inspired and discover new films and talented artists through our meticulously tagged database of still images, all while saving you time.”

It is free to sign up for and easy to use. You can search for specific moods, colours and time periods, to find images which resonate and inform your research. Images can then be downloaded easily to create stunning mood board.

We've created and uploaded this Moodboard & Brainstorming Template to the Resource Library this week. There is a modeled example and a template version. Students upload four striking images from Shotdeck, then sketch and write notes & phrases underneath, as their ideas start to develop. This is great for Online or Blended Learning and can be used for either Devised Work or studying set texts. If you have already registered, log in here to download it now or click here to register.

Josh has also created an amazing tutorial video about Shotdeck which he is going to share in his Lighting Masterclass on 6th March! Click here for more information.


Another amazing research tool is using designer’s websites and online portfolios. This is really useful for studying set texts and contemporary practitioners. Here are some of the best online design portfolios:

Josh Tomalin has a range of experience as a professional lighting designer and has a stunning website, showcasing his extensive work in theatre and dance.

Edward Saunders is a talented artist-designer whose practice “sits somewhere between stage design, installation, and spatial design”

Rory Beaton has an excellent website and gallery, showcasing his work as a lighting designer.

Sophie Ruth Donaldson is a professional costume designer with extensive experience in theatre, film, television and dance.

Richard Cooper's website showcases his set and costume design work, from his initial sketches through to his final designs.

Sam Beal's website showcases his multidisciplinary approach as a set and costume designer, including a production of set text The Crucible.

Naomi Dawson is set and costume designer who has worked with the RSC, Katie Mitchell and Kneehigh.

Eva Collins Alonso is a professional sound designer and showcases her work via her you tube channel.

So I hope that's given you some inspiration from the professional about how to support students when they are researching and creating mood boards. Log onto our Resource Library and access FREE beautifully-designed templates! If you have already registered, log in here or click here to register.

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