"Value and composition do the work and color gets the credit." (Anonymous)
The quote about value and composition doing the heavy lifting in a painting is problematic in that it implies that color isn’t terribly significant, that it's main purpose is surface decoration. But think about it: color is of primary importance, for this is the world we live in; ultimately, value is inseparable from color. Of the two, color is most important, since value is a component of color.
For a long time artists have begun 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 (1780-1867), 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."
Art was forever changed by the insights of Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and Michel Eugène Chevreul (1786-1889), as seen in work by the French Impressionists as well as the Pointillists, but these insights are not well understood today. One indication of this is the continued belief in 'local color.'
But artists were beginning to think differently. Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), a Romantic and Ingres' top rival in the French Salons, had this riposte in response:
"The enemy of all painting is gray."
(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.)
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. Learning to understand value and composition is obviously very necessary for learning how to paint, but the road to color continues way beyond value.
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. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) 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 easy to see, difficult to understand, and much harder still to explain, especially when our understanding of it changes over time. St. Bernard believed that color disguised a more 'true' world. 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 seen under the light of a full moon is not monochromatic, a limited amount of color can still be seen; even the near darkness of a quarter moon is not black and white.
Value is a limited register. Imagine a flat piece of construction paper, a tall skinny rectangle representing the trunk of a tree; the scale would be darkest at the base of the tree, rising through mid-range values until it reached pure white at the top of the trunk. Just a flat gradation from bottom to top. We can create a sense of form using just value, making that 2d trunk curve into a circular 3-dimensional form, so the tree goes from light to dark vertically as well as horizontally, left to right across the trunk. But that's the extent of this imaginary tree of pure value, because with black and white, once you've placed a value, the only adjustment you can make is to go lighter or darker. On the other hand, color can be adjusted and shifted infinitely within the same value, but this takes supreme control.
Color is a many-branched tree. As the branches radiate out from the central trunk, they change colors within the same value range; lower down on the trunk are the deeper colors, while the branches extending from the higher/lighter parts of the trunk are in those higher keys. Color is more robust, full of more possibilities than just value, but that makes sense because again, value is a component of color. Painting with full color, we are able to better represent the myriad minute colors we see everywhere – millions of them.
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 grayscale, 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. Color can perform above and beyond what value alone can accomplish - color can convey form, but also quality of light, depth, atmosphere, mood, emotion, season, temperature. Hardly mere ornamentation.
Another common misconception: if a value is 'correct' in a painting, the color can be arbitrary and still be true. The opposite is correct: 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.
Discussions of color tend to become dogmatic and formulaic because we want to it fit into a system of measurement like perspective or anatomy, but color resists that kind of organization. If we limit ourselves to relying primarily on value, we will tend to paint only when value is visibly present. If we accept a full range of color, however, 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 (1899-1992) summed it up this way: “Accuracy in color, it must be noted, is as important as accuracy in drawing.”
The point is this: don't worry about explaining your color. Don't waste your time and money on color theory books; most just regurgitate theories without presenting any new insights. Learn through seeing - paint what you see. Excellence in color is rarely achieved, but despite its degree of difficulty, it isn't a gift bestowed by the gods: it’s achievable to anyone willing to work hard enough to understand it. Let's strive to move beyond the predictable color of weekend hobbyists and the limited formulas of art workshops. Go be excellent.