Colour: The Hierarchy of Importance

Colour is often a fascinating but frustrating topic for students beginning on their painting journey. As we have discussed on this blog before, colour is commonly considered to be composed of three different qualities. The first, value, is the relative lightness or darkness of a colour. The second, chroma, refers to the purity or strength of a colour. The third, hue, refers to a colour’s ‘colour family’, i.e. is the colour ‘blue’, ‘orange’ or ‘green’? One often overlooked but crucial aspect of these qualities is their relative importance compared to each other, their hierarchy of importance. These qualities are not all equal in the mind of the mature representational painter. If we keep this in mind whenever we approach painting from life we will avoid much of the initial frustrations.


The most important of these three qualities is value. Value is the primary quality responsible for communicating ideas of space and volume. Take a look at his fantastic 19th century academic nude painted by an unknown artist (original, image 2). In image 1 I have used Photoshop to isolate the values, removing all hue and therefore all chromatic variation. In image 3 I have again used Photoshop to isolate its hues and their chromas by shifting all the values to the same tone. When we compare image 1 and image 3 the role of values becomes immediately obvious – while some sacrifices in the flavour of the image are felt in image 1, the solidity and character of the picture remain wholly intact. The same cannot be said of image 3, however. In fact, without value to hold it together, all semblance of an image has fled and we are left with a few abstract dabs of colour. All imagery sits on the shoulders of good value structure and this must not be forgotten when painting.

The crucial importance of value to strong image-making has been understood by painters through the history of art. In fact, value’s immense contribution has formed the bedrock of nearly all schools of thought of how to teach painting. Ingres, for example, repainted his famous ‘Grande Odalisque’ (1814) in 1834 in monochrome to, as it is generally thought, demonstrate to his students the primary important of value over the other elements of colour.

At LARA we emphasise a thorough understanding of value as being the first step in a painter’s journey. Our students begin learning to paint with a grisaille palette of black, white and raw umber.

The second most important quality is chroma. Students are often surprised just how much this quality affects a colour sensation. Using the sublime ‘Portrait of Gabrielle Cot’ by Bouguereau (orginal, image 2) to demonstrate chroma’s importance, I have unified its many delicate hue shifts into one uniform hue (a red) to isolate chroma so we can see the effect its variation is having. Although some of the rosiness of the cheeks is lost in translation, much of the colour sensation of the skin remains harmoniously intact.

Never was this quality in isolation more thoroughly explored than by the Golden Age illustrators of the 1900s. Advances in printing technology around this time saw the rise of the first forms of colour printing, but there were major technological restrictions. Duotone (or two colour printing), one of the most common forms, for example, only allowed the artist black and one another colour. Illustrators were forced to maximise their options within this palette, which they did by pushing their exploration of tone and chroma. A beautiful example of this is the painting ‘Peasants with the Priest’ by Mead Schaeffer. Using only black, white and red we can see how much the artist can express simply focusing on tone and chroma. The use of limited palettes can be a fantastic way to explore the effect of chromatic variation. At LARA, students’ first introduction to colour is through a similar palette of black, white and transparent red oxide.

Despite the immense importance of the other two qualities, our third quality, hue, generally holds the most fascination among students because hue is responsible for the more emotive aspects of a painting. It is common for laymen and students alike to misattribute painting’s finest expressions to hue. But by overvaluing this quality students run the risk of including colour from too many disparate areas of the colour wheel and of missing the colour harmony that is always to be found in nature. What may initially appear to be a green may in fact be a weak yellow, a violet could be a weak red. One great way to reinforce this idea of colour harmony in painting skin is through the use of the Zorn palette (white, ivory black, yellow ochre, cadmium red).

In this self portrait by Zorn we see him proudly display the palette he has become so closely associated with. At LARA we encourage students to become familiar with this palette and its more limited hue range in order to understand colour harmony before venturing into a more full palette. In this way our students gain a full understanding of the wondrous world of colour and all it has to offer.

by Charlie Pickard

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