How to Develop Color for Destinations: The Sun Does Shine Differently on All of Us

Illuminated evening crashing wave exit at Explorer's Reef at SeaWorld San Diego

How to Develop Color for Destinations: The Sun Does Shine Differently on All of Us


By Maura Murphy-Pusateri, Designer / Art Director


We are thrilled to introduce Designer / Art Director Maura Murphy-Pusateri! After engaging in fascinating studies across the world – Theater and English in Denver, Art History and Theater in London, Fine Arts in Chicago, and more – Maura can usually be found elbow-deep in clay, paint, and ink (maybe compiling a document or two) in our model shop. Working  on site and in house with Creative Directors, Show Producers, Props, Set Designers, Painter, Sculptors, Graphic Artists, Architects, and final installers she brings PGAV’s in-house designs to life at destinations across the country/world.


Color is often so well-integrated into the attractions we visit, the mere thought of its practice and careful artistry might not even cross the guests’ minds. However, it takes plenty of intricate science and collaborative art to bring these immersive environments to life.

The Study of Color Theory Exhibit at the Van Gogh Museum

The basics of color theory are practiced every day in our studio. Whether we’re crafting natural habitats or space-age interiors, understanding the fundamentals of hue, saturation, brightness, and complimentary colors can make or break an environment. Failure to apply these principles can leave an environment feeling disjointed and uncomfortable, while using them as a foundation allows us to successfully convey its intended emotional and storytelling impact. Here I give a brief look into some of our team’s primary considerations as we move forward with the design intent.

The first and most critical concept is to carefully consider where the color’s final application will be located. Is the element you’re designing outside or inside? Is it in a shaded environment or under the open sky? In either circumstance, it’s important to note how the lighting designer plans to cast the colored surface. Below is an excellent example of how colors in the same range of tone and hue can be drastically affected under different lighting conditions – in this case, the range between sunlight and an underwater viewing area is striking.

Tone and hue in the same range for color samples compared in sunlight and an aquarium setting

When observing materials under contrasting light, our perception of color literally displays a night-and-day difference. As you can see, water reflections significantly alter the sample colors’ appearance. Imagine you’re designing objects within an aquarium, and you want to display a vibrant shade of yellow; as this lesson shows, you would likely need to apply an exceptionally bright yellow in order for the desired color to appear through the blue water.

Guests photograph penguins from pop up tunnels at the Georgia Aquarium
Natural light from skylights, UV light, and guest viewing lighting combine to create unique exhibit vignettes based on the light source.

The second critical element to consider is when to make the final application. While the angle of the sun is a concern when determining the position of an outdoor attraction, there are many other variables to take into account. For instance, during what season will our work be viewed? The distance of the sun from the earth, depending on the time of year, can also affect the way a color reads. Bright greens from plant life or a gray day of winter can make the color dull or pop, so the seasons in some parts of the world do play a role in color selection. Additionally, our designs may need to be tailored to a time of day. An outdoor exhibit that’s only visited in the daylight has far different color requirements than an attraction which has a 20% nighttime visitation rate, and this needs to be balanced to work for both situations. Knowing when the final piece is going to be viewed can change our whole approach to the color study. A color observed at midnight with lighting effects looks entirely different than it does at high noon. Even in a “controlled” studio setting, lighting will change throughout the day, either from the sun’s movement or the interior lights turning on and off.

Lastly, you must consider on what the paint is going to be applied. The object’s form and texture can affect the overall process of applying color. Different results will be achieved depending on whether the surface is rough or smooth in texture. The material also absorbs the paint, resulting in the same color on concrete, wood, or smooth glass varying depending on how porous it is. Also determine whether those surfaces are beneath, beside, or above you. Establishing texture, material, and surface is crucial as the final surrounding surfaces will reflect color and emphasize one of these elements more than another. As the designer, PGAV picks what we want to highlight as the focus-point for the guest. Is it the color, or is the color secondary to the material, texture, or surface on which it is applied?

When creating different colors for an attraction, PGAV works with a variety of paint systems from brands like Matthews, Sherwin-Williams, Smith, and PPG. Since they each take a different chemical approach to mixing colors, one system can’t be mixed with another. However, you can get any one color you’re looking for using a single system. Regardless of which system you choose, light will affect its colors in the same way.

Once your colors have been selected and the paint has been mixed, create draw-downs – cards coated in the paint/color with the mix formula to be able to recreate that paint/color – and review the cards on-site at the attraction before application. This is a critical step in evaluating the where and when to ensure your colors will capture the final design intent and effect.

Transitioning into the field is an exciting and collaborative effort. I start by taking an illustration of the element that we’re coloring. I also draft ample notes to provide instructions that may not be readily apparent to others working on the project. My final goal is to help the client and artists “hear” what I’m saying on-site, even if I’m not there. The notes pictured below describe which colors go where, display a printed graphic, and lay out the lighting detail.

These notes may be a bit messy, but they’ll still help keep us all on the same page!

Whether I’m working with the client, general contractor, on-site artists, or lighting designers, a formal introduction is key. We all come from different backgrounds and disciplines within attraction design, so this initial meeting is a critical step in establishing a frame of reference, depth of knowledge, strengths, and weaknesses. Once I (and other field art directors) understand our partners’ familiarity with color theory, communication and creative collaboration can flow. In my experience, general contractors tend to prefer objective direction, while artists can sometimes feel argumentative if we haven’t already met. Recognizing personal preferences is important. Do they rely on notes or photographs? Do they prefer texts or conversations? What are their inspirations as an artist? Answering these questions can be immensely helpful and make the process more efficient, precise, and enjoyable between all parties involved.

With our teams aligned and on-site, we can experiment with the colors on a larger scale and offer the client different approaches to fade and gradient. It’s also important to work with crisp edges and lines. If the sections don’t align perfectly, the final product can look sloppy and rushed, like attempting to line up wallpaper with a pattern at home.

Left: We experiment with blended colors within a warehouse. Right: A completed element sits in natural light.

Once all of these considerations have been resolved and the teams understand their roles, paint can finally be applied to the elements. Though the process takes time, it’s integral to delivering the attraction’s complete experience.

Color theory and practice in the attractions industry is as much a refined art as it is a complex science. Achieving a desired outcome requires careful planning, a deep understanding of lighting and texture, and a collaborative approach. Seeing that hard work reflected with wonder in the eyes of our guests makes it all worth it, though. It’s an exhilarating field that takes me to captivating places and allows me to meet incredible people. Most of all, it’s a joy to bring more color to the world.

An on-site artist’s workshop, including an element model, color samples, meeting notes, mockups, paints, tools, and the notes and directions I’ve sent along
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