© 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 anonymous 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 value of a color is accurate, the hue can be relatively close and be o.k. But this oversimplification is a misunderstanding. Value - the relative lightness or darkness of color - is an intrinsic part of color. Value is part of the picture - but Color is the bigger, fuller picture.
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.
What is little understood is that color contains the information found in value. When we remove a good deal of the information found in color, we are left with value. When we talk about value, we are indirectly talking about the lightness or darkness of color. If you get the color right, the value will be right.
“There’s only one road to a full rendering, a full translation: color.” (Paul Cézanne)
A LITTLE HISTORY
The idea of the importance of value over color comes from the academies and historically, from ideas about what color is. Mankind has for centuries had myriad and changing ways of understanding color. The Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras held an early color theory that involved the Earth, the moon, the planets, and their revolutions. Fellow philosopher and poet Empedocles 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. Building on Empedocles’ ideas, Plato postulated that our ray of vision is white and the opposite is black; red and ‘radiant’ completed his system of four colors. Aristotle expanded this further to echo the transition of day into night: white, yellow, red, violet, green, blue, black.
Pigments were often hard to come by; some were also quite expensive. Many colors we have available today didn’t exist a few hundred years ago; others were fugitive, meaning the color wasn’t lightfast and would fade over time.
Because of those ideas about color and limitations of what was actually possible on a palette, 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, a Neo-Classicist and 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."
Ingres' Neo-Classicism was rivaled in the French Salons by the Romantics, led by Eugène Delacroix, who commented:
"The enemy of all painting is gray."
Students of Ingres were criticized for a lack of understanding color and light; his star pupil Théodore Chassériau eventually defected to the romantic school of Delacroix. As Charles Baudelaire observed:
“the students of M. Ingres have very uselessly avoided any semblance of color; they believe or pretend to believe that they are not needed in painting.”
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.”
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 (his concept of simultaneous contrast resulted from his time at the Gobelins Manufactory in Paris). As would be seen in work by the French Impressionists as well as the Pointillists, artists expanded their palettes with brighter and stronger colors to accommodate this new knowledge. Claude Monet was particularly concerned with using lightfast colors and in reducing the oil binder content in his paints, as oils such as linseed can lead to yellowing. Part of the revolution that the Impressionists demonstrated to the world was that 'local color’ doesn’t exist - everything is color and light.
Though mentored by Camille Pissarro and friends with the Impressionists, Paul Cézanne didn’t consider himself a part of that group. In an 1866 letter to Pissarro, he related some of the nuance of color:
You are quite right to speak of gray, that alone reigns in nature, but it’s frighteningly difficult to capture.”
Later in his life, Cézanne commented to his friend Joachim Gasquet:
“You’re not a painter as long as you haven’t painted grays. Gray is the enemy of all painting, said Delacroix. No, you’re not a painter until you’ve painted a gray.”
Cézanne also had this incredible insight long before science confirmed it for us:
“Color is the place where our brain and the universe exist. That’s why color appears so entirely dramatic, to true painters.”
The advent of new groups such as Synthetism and Cloissonism, 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. Theory often took center stage is Bernard’s work - with Cloissonism, 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.
A disciple of Cézanne, Pierre Bonnard later commented on color’s role in a painting:
"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.