© Eric Merrell
"Value and composition do the work and color gets the credit." (Anonymous)
In seeking to position value and composition as more important than color in a painting, this quote sounds good but in reality is a disservice, and through its bumper-sticker witticism serves to confuse people. By implying that color isn’t terribly significant, that it's main purpose is surface decoration, we are lead to believe that as long as the values are right, the color can be relatively close to what’s expected and be o.k. (the blue sky, the green tree, the brown hair - i.e. boring). But theories (and bumper stickers) tend to reduce things to catchy oversimplification. Of the two, color is most important, since value, relative lightness or darkness, is a quality of color.
Color communicates lightness and darkness, but also quality of light, mood, atmosphere, emotion, spacial qualities, season, time of day, temperature, surface quality, and more. Color can encapsulate everything in each related spot. Color is the whole package, but value can only convey light or dark. Color is poetry.
A LITTLE HISTORY
The idea of the importance of value over color comes from the academies and historically, from ideas about what color is. For a long time artists began their paintings by working first in value. Removing the complexities of color from the early stages of a painting simplified this approach (grisaille in artist terminology) and allowed form to be achieved quickly as the artist worked in gray tones. The artist subsequently added color, either transparently by glazing or opaquely by repainting it directly on top.
Color is secondary and superficial, not integral to this way of working. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, one of the most visible defenders of the academic approach, had this to say about it:
"Color adds ornament to a painting; but it is nothing but the handmaiden, because all it does is to render more agreeable the true perfections of the art. Rubens and Van Dyck can be pleasing at first sight, but they are deceptive; they are from the poor school of colorists, the school of deception. Never use bright colors, they are anti-historic. It is better to fall into gray than to into bright colors."
Robert Henri on his teacher William Bouguereau at the Académie Julian in Paris:
”I think I am nearer right than ever before…It is a matter of color. Bouguereau is not a colorist either in combining color or reproducing it. His color is harmonious and in some cases very fine but he is never a colorist and as for reproduction of color, he never does that. It is always the same waxy, angel-like color - just a little insipid - so from this I am not inclined to put the same confidence in his criticisms on color as in the other branches.”
Artists began to think differently. Eugène Delacroix, a Romantic and Ingres' top rival in the French Salons, had this riposte in response to Ingres:
"The enemy of all painting is gray."
Art was forever changed by the insights of Sir Isaac Newton (in particular, his prism experiment showed that white light contains all colors) and Michel Eugène Chevreul (simultaneous contrast). As would be seen in work by the French Impressionists as well as the Pointillists, artists modified their palettes to accommodate this new knowledge, but these insights are not well understood today. One indication of this is the continued belief in 'local color’ - there is no such thing.
With perhaps a little more nuance, Paul Cézanne wrote in 1866 to his friend Camille Pissarro:
You are quite right to speak of gray, that alone reigns in nature, but it’s frighteningly difficult to capture.”
The advent of new groups such as Synthetism and Cloissionism, which were created in reaction to the Impressionists, were built up around various color theories. Paul Gauguin was the main proponent behind the former, while Émile Bernard and Louis Anquetin are credited with the latter. Working alongside Gauguin in Brittany, Bernard also admired and corresponded with Vincent Van Gogh and Cézanne. Bernard did some interesting work but the theory often took center stage - with Cloissoinism, he desired to simplify nature and reduce all perceived colors into the seven main colors seen in a prism. Indeed, Cézanne complained that Bernard theorized too much.
Pierre Bonnard later commented on color’s role in composition:
"Color does not add a pleasant quality to design - it reinforces it."
This rivalry about the role and application of color goes back hundreds of years and has its roots in our earliest ideas about color. St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), a French abbot and integral part of the Cistercian order, agreed with a strongly held assertion that color was purely matter, and that it should be avoided because it disguised and masked the holy and pure. Accordingly, St. Bernard's churches contained little or no color, tolerating none of the deceptions that (as St. Bernard believed) color would present to lead the faithful away from religious thought. A contemporary of St. Bernard, Abbot Suger (1081-1151), took the opposite view. He believed that color was light, and since light was immaterial and came from God, color was good. Anticipating Newton's discoveries by a few centuries, Suger's abbey at St. Denis reflected that concept: filled with stained glass, gold, gems, and enamel, all color represented and glorified God.
Value, Chroma, Hue, Saturation, Temperature, Intensity: these are all words describing qualities of color; how light or how dark it is, how strong of a red, how blue that green is. We've come up with this terminology to better communicate our ideas about color to one another, because color is a really difficult subject to talk about. We tend to think value is more important because it’s much easier to understand and measure than color. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein explains:
If we are asked, what do the words red, blue, black, white mean, we can, of course, immediately point to things which have these colors. But our ability to explain the meaning of these words goes no further.
Color – it’s hard to see, difficult to understand, and maddeningly complex to explain, especially when our understanding of it changes over time. St. Bernard believed that color disguised a more 'true' world. Over the centuries prior to Newton there were myriad other ways of understanding color. The Greek philosopher and poet Empedocles, whose writings were later a source for Plato and Aristotle, claimed that rays of visual flame left our eyes like a lantern, while simultaneously, objects in the world continually emitted 'effluences.' These effluences existed in different and various sizes; when they corresponded to similar shapes of pores in the eye, we saw color.
But we know now that color is energy: the universe is full of an immense amount of electromagnetic waves bouncing around. Our eyes and ears, in concert with our brain, interpret some of that energy into 'sight' and 'sound.' We can only perceive a very small range of these waves, what we know as visible light. Take away the light, and you aren't left with shades of gray; you have darkness: the absence of light.
A landscape under the light of a full moon is not monochromatic, a limited amount of color can still be seen - as a starting point, go outside at night and look around - the sky will be a different color than the ground. Even the near darkness of a quarter moon is not black and white. In these situations where light is reduced almost entirely, we can still see color.
In the spots above, variety in the color version is fairly distinct albeit subtle - some are a little more yellow, some a little more blue or red. Taken into gray scale, the broad difference between 12 and 13 becomes nearly nonexistent; the subtle qualities between 5, 6, and 7 disappear. #9 is the edge on the persimmon as it turns away from us, seemingly a 'cool' color in the painting; isolated, it loses its power. If you take half of the gray scale version of spot 5 and overlay it on spot 11 (see offset spots above), they're indistinguishable. But color-wise they serve very specific roles in the painting: 5 is maybe a little warmer, part of a rounded form of persimmon, while 11 resides on a flat surface.
Value is a helpful, albeit limited, tool. Here’s why. Sure, we can achieve form through value. But let’s say you’re painting that simple sphere above. If you’re looking at and painting an actual sphere on a table in front of you, you’ll notice the cast shadow (x) close to the sphere will probably be darker but will lighten somewhat as it moves away to the left. Not only will it get lighter, but the color will change. If you’re working only in black and white paint, the only adjustment you can make is to go lighter or darker. You can’t make it redder or bluer or greener or warmer or cooler. With a limited palette you have only very limited color adjustments possible, and quite likely not what you’re seeing.
You’ll notice the same thing happens in other areas - the color will shift along the top edge (y), as well as within the darker core shadow (z). The spot marked by (a) is the part of the sphere that is physically closest to us, the viewer. Every other part of the sphere is receding away from us. The spot where the (z) is placed within the core shadow is the part of the core shadow that is closest to us. As the dark line of the core shadow recedes up and over the sphere away from us, the value may or may not change, but the color most definitely will. Otherwise the far top edge of the core shadow will read as being in the same space as (z).
(Although we represent the edge of the sphere by a line in a drawing, in reality there is no line. The line represents a form receding away from us until we can no longer see the form, and something else, such as the background, becomes visible. Lines are abstractions representing the edges of forms.)
The reason mountains look bluish at a distance is because of atmospheric perspective - the amount of atmosphere between us and the object we’re looking at affects the amount/quality of light (i.e. color) that can pass through (also the reason why sunsets appear warmer/reddish). In our little sphere still life we don’t have the vast distance of a faraway mountain, but we still have small amounts of atmosphere to account for. Because of atmospheric perspective, we know that everything that recedes away from us gets lighter (value shift) and cooler (color and/or temperature shift). (The opposite of darker/warmer makes things come closer.) For the sphere to sit like a volume in space and convey a sense of light, we need all of our color relationships to reflect these basic ideas.
Value can only get us part of the way there. If the color changes but the value stays the same, we have no ability with value to create dimension. Value can’t move laterally, it can only go lighter or darker. That area remains flat.
Color can be adjusted and shifted infinitely within the same value. It can be greener, bluer, tending cooler towards violet, shifting towards orange, getting a little warmer. Color can convey form, but also quality of light, depth, atmosphere, spacial qualities, mood, emotion, season, temperature, surface quality. Color is poetry. Hardly mere ornamentation.
When Charles Hawthorne says the following, he is including all of color’s latent possibilities in each spot the artist makes:
“Painting is just getting one spot of color in relation to another spot…. Let color make form, do not make form and Color it.”
Robert Henri does the same, emphasizing the emotional aspect of making a mark:
“Whatever you feel or think, your exact state at the exact moment of your brush touching the canvas is in some way registered in that stroke.”
When you see and paint a single spot of color in relation to others, that single spot can convey light, depth, emotion, form, temperature, and more, all in one mark. It’s sounds easy summed up that way, but it’s so incredibly difficult.
Value is a component of color. Color is the whole package. If you get the color correct, the value will be correct. Remember, value doesn’t exist without color. Pure black and white is a reduction of reality. When we talk about value, we are indirectly talking about the lightness or darkness of color.
Another common misconception: if a value is 'correct' in a painting, the color can be somewhat arbitrary and still work. The opposite is true: if a color is right, the value will also be right. Each color spot must relate to every other color. Color is specific. Don't disregard color in favor of value.
TENS OF MILLIONS OF COLORS
The world is not merely black, white, and gray. We live in a world packed full of colors - of tens of millions of colors. Black and white as an art form can be beautiful, as it is in photography and printmaking - but it’s a distillation of reality as far as painting goes. Learning to understand value and composition is obviously very necessary for learning how to paint, but the road to color continues way beyond value. As artists we’re attempting to translate the tens of millions of color we can see - perceived light - into the much smaller range of pigment. The strongest palette of artist’s pigments will always fall short of representing our perceptions, but I think it’s far better to have a bigger keyboard on which to play.
(Limited palettes are a great tool for beginning artists to use. You can learn a great deal about mixing, relating, creating harmonies, etc. without having to conduct an entire orchestra. However, after painting a while with a limited palette you’ll start to see colors that a limited palette cannot achieve.)
Antony Anderson, the first art critic for the L.A. Times, has an interesting insight about systems of color:
“To arrange color by rule is to make it lifeless and without meaning, to destroy its power of exciting emotion, and to reduce it to a mechanical balancing of color areas.”
Discussions of color tend to become dogmatic and formulaic (color wheels, opposites, etc,) because we want to it fit into a system of measurement like perspective or anatomy, but color resists that kind of organization because it is a personal experience that happens in our brains. (Value is another measurable system.) The amazing part of color to me is that, although its such a personal thing, if we get the relationships to work, others will understand it, even and especially if they have no artistic background. If we limit ourselves to relying primarily on value contrasts, we will tend to paint only when value is visibly present and quite often come up with pedestrian color. Value is just color with the difficulty removed.
Two more from Hawthorne:
“If you are not going to get a thrill, how can you give someone else one?”
“The ring, the call, the surprise, the shock that you have out-of-doors – be always looking for the unexpected in nature, do not settle to a formula.”
If we accept a full range of color, possibilities open up: we can paint in the middle of the day, on overcast days, or in any number of other situations - even at night. The world remains three-dimensional, regardless of the light or time of day.
Provincetown artist Henry Hensche sums it up best this way:
“Accuracy in color, it must be noted, is as important as accuracy in drawing.”
Don't waste your time and money on color theory books*; most just regurgitate theories without presenting any new insights. There is no easy way to good color. It’s hard, toiling work. Don't worry about explaining your color; people always want to know why a certain color exists (i.e. they want you to present some science as to why your tree is red or that face is violet). That color exists because you saw it and put it on canvas.
Learn to paint by learning to see. Paint outdoors often. Paint what you see. Be bold with color. Excellence in color is rare, but despite its degree of difficulty, it is achievable to those willing to work hard enough (years and years, and then more years) to understand it. Let's strive to move beyond the predictable color of weekend hobbyists and the formulas of art workshops. Avoid prettiness and search for beautiful color - you will surprise even yourself.
The point is this: Value is important, but don’t let that contrast become the only one you use.
If you’re interested in learning to see and paint, check out my Workshop Schedule.
*For further reading, these classics will never get old. They deal with color not in terms of theory but in terms of seeing, which is what painting is.
Robert Henri, The Art Spirit
Sergei Bongart, …Touched By The Gods
Mary N. Balcomb, Sergei Bongart
Charles Hawthorne, Hawthorne on Painting
Henry Hensche, Hensche on Painting
Henry Hensche, The Art of Seeing and Painting