I told my students the other day, “The first rule of color theory, is that all color is relative. But there is another rule that comes before the first rule. That rule is: value first.”

In color theory, we don’t actually use the word color much, because it is too inexact. “Red” is too vague a word to describe the four-dimensional visual event caused by using a certain paint in a picture. Instead, we talk about hue – the place in the spectrum of the paint, or value – the lightness or darkness of the hue, or saturation – the intensity of the hue.

Color names try to push all these distinctions together. Pink is a red with white added. Scarlet is a red leaning toward orange. Puce is a pink with violet in it and black to make it desaturated. Color names try to combine the first three dimensions of color: hue, value, and saturation.

Then there is the fourth dimension: what the color is compared to. A given pink next to a blue looks orangish. Next to orange it looks violet. Next to white it looks dark. Next to black, almost white. The way we actually perceive the color changes according to context. Color is always relative. This is why the first rule of color theory.

We use names to pin them down: red, orange, yellow. But words limit our thinking. Clearly, if there is an orange, it is distinct from red and yellow. However, orange doesn’t exist except as a blend of red and yellow. And how can you distinguish between a really red orange and a really orange red? There is no visible dividing line – one color blends into the next. Naming conventions don’t matter. Naming something blue merely means that it’s bluer than something else and really, really NOT orange.

We use the word spectrum to describe a lot of things: the political spectrum, the autism spectrum. How about the gender spectrum? Or the racial spectrum? Or a religious spectrum?

We do the same thing with these spectra of abstractions as we do with colors – we give them names and think that names the differentiate them from each other. We think that because this is called blue, it can never ever be green. But wife and I used to argue about a hue of teal that I saw as blue and she insisted was green. In the end we agreed to call it glaucus. This didn’t change the hue, but it stopped the arguments.

Giving something a name doesn’t change what it is, nor how you see it. Calling someone a name, doesn’t change who they are. If you are called Henry at birth, and later decide you are Joe, it alters nothing.

Telling someone on the left of our political spectrum that they aren’t liberal enough is kind of like saying. “You, Red! You aren’t the saturation I like! You are Pink!” What does that even mean?

We talk about blue and red on the political spectrum. Are they any different from blue and red on the color wheel?

Are male and female any different from green and orange?

All yellows are either greenish or orangish, depending on context. All greens are partially blue and partially yellow. People are the same. Why is Barack Obama called the first black president even though he is just as much white as black?

Whether you are talking about race, or religion, or politics, or gender, we are each of us, all of us, somewhere on the spectrum. Our particular flavor or person is a mixture of a lot of things – hue, saturation, and, yes, value.

Which brings us back to the rule that comes before the first rule of color: value first. Because of the way our eyes work, the amount of dark and light has more impact than the colors. When you are making art, how relatively light or dark something is compared to its surroundings is more important than what color it is. This is why black and white photographs or films work so well. If the colors are slightly too red, or blue, or green, it really doesn’t matter, but if the picture is too dark, everything changes.

And that is why I would like to suggest that the rule that comes before the other rules is most important. Because (play on words here) values matter more than where you are on the spectrum.

Are you a conservative? Fair enough. But what are your values? How do you treat people? When do you give honesty a space in your life? What about charity?

Are you a socialist? Excellent! How tolerant are you of other people’s ideas? Are you generous with your time to your friends and family? Will you cut someone a little slack if they don’t entirely agree with you?

Is your heritage Spanish? You do realize that there’s a fair chance of some Visigoth blood in your background along with the Basque, Greek, Moroccan, and Jewish? Me, I’m German, which means mostly Scandinavian, with a big dose of French, Dutch, German, Hunnish, and probably Ostrogoth, along with a dash of Etruscan and Pole. Probably. Who knows?

Take green and add a dash of yellow, and it’s chartreuse. That’s called a tertiary color. We are all tertiary humans. Every last one of us.

So think about the rule that comes before the spectrum. Values first.

At one end of the value spectrum we have every decent person who has changed the world for the better.  

At the other end we have dicks.

Values first. The rule that comes before all the other ones.

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