The following is an expanded excerpt from my February 4, 2009 lecture at the Brooklyn Public Library. You can find additional excerpts (including Parts 1 and 2) under the theory label.
Earlier, I described value as being primal, which has two meanings, both of which were intended. Value is primal in the sense that it is the most significant and fundamental of color’s attributes. It’s the foundation of our understanding of the world around us because it reveals what, if anything, lies before us. It is also primal in the primitive sense: it was the first part of our visual system to evolve.
Because of this, I give it greater weight in the balance of color composition. As I mentioned previously, I begin most paintings with a monochromatic underpainting. It’s the foundation on which I construct the rest of the painting. It is the axis upon which the globe of color spins!
But let’s take a nice trip down Pragmatic Blvd. (my favorite place to "cruise for chicks") to the local Kinko’s. In this command center of paper clips and photocopiers, they thoughtfully display an informational poster. It is provided to customers as a general guide for selecting colors that are best suited for creating legible text. To see the reason for this, all we have to do is convert the image to grayscale. It is their great hope that you don’t end up making something like this:
The point is that contrast, not what is commonly known as "color," is what we see. People (and, quite possibly, anything with eyes) see change, which is the key to understanding—and reproducing—the myriad of images that life brings us.
As representational artists, we must balance many factors, sometimes conflicting, in order to arrive at our goal. But by isolating one of color's three variables, value, we can significantly reduce the guesswork from the total equation. Furthermore, through diligent practice and repetition, a more natural sense of relationships will eventually develop, meaning we can "skip" that step physically because we have already completed it mentally. I liken this to using cylinders to construct the human form: it's not that I don't think that way when I'm sketching, but rather that I've surpassed the need to record it. The process happens without much thought because I know the rules of perspective and believe in the space (and forms) that I'm trying to represent on a flat surface.
There's actually quite a bit more I'd like to say on this subject (don't be surprised to see a Part 16 of 3 at some point), but I am out of time for the moment. I would, however, like to leave you with my favorite chapter from one of my favorite books, The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins. It provides a concise summary of how our vision works on the molecular level, but more importantly, it was instrumental in shaping the way I think about color and perception. The Howler Monkey's Tale explains how a chance mutation can provide unexpected benefits. The larger question—how a brain can cope (brilliantly) with such changes—remains unanswered. Fortunately for us, the opaque process does not need to be fully understood to be enjoyed.