There are only a few things a painter can control to create the illusion of reality. It’s a lot of things about which to make decisions, or maybe more so a lot of decisions to make about those few things. I would like to say that decisions about light and color are the two most important of those, but it would not be accurate.
In the scheme of things, we can control things like line, shape, value, contrast, color, edges, details, focal point, and composition. Don’t get me wrong. I mean there are heaps of facets or bits that go into each of those. Books have been or could be written on any one of those. There are plenty of other considerations, too… the materials, paints, canvas, the orientation of the two dimensional surface, which way a model poses, what subject to paint, and color theory.
Subject is no small decision either… we could paint anything… a thought, idea, an action noun, an emotion, feeling, an old pair of boots, and all at the same time. Then there is the idea of telling a visual story, a narrative, not to mention the representation of the intricacies of symbolism and the subconscious. A narrative isn’t just about a glass jar full of flowers… it’s warm versus cool, light versus dark, bright versus dull, sharp versus soft, or orange versus blue, just to name an inkling of things.
If you talk to 100 different artists, you will probably get that many different opinions about the order of precedence of all those bits, too. I remember telling my painting teacher Walter Bartman that I was colorblind one afternoon while painting a model in the bishops garden at the National Cathedral. It was my first painting course, and without even missing a paint stroke or looking up, he said, ‘that’s a good thing; because, value is more important than color, and you will be sensitive to value.’ I would probably agree that value (light and dark) is probably the most important aspect of our visual reality. Without light, there is only darkness.
Color might not even make second on the list, actually. Our visual perception is much more attuned to shape or outline than color even if we see color first, but that’s not to cast shade on color, by any means. We can completely understand the three dimensional reality of a black and white photograph. Color just makes it more realistic maybe. Clearly we evolved to see color as a survival adaptation, either that or maybe we were genetically modified by alien bacteria, viruses, or panspermatic martians or some other solar system in the Milky Way. Who knows?