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Interaction Of Color by Josef Albers

05 October, 2022 - 9 min read


I. Brief Summary

A great book for thinking deeper about the relationship of color, and how we perceive them. It is a handbook and teaching aid for artists, instructors, and students. Josef Albers heavily indexes on experimental learning versus going into theory. After trial and error and experimenting, he uncovers theory of colors and its relationship to itself and the environment. A novel way to teach anything in my opinion. After reading this, I find colors to be heavy on both technical and psychological level. Everyone must understand colors because it'll either help you reason your own prejudices or rationalize your attraction towards it. This is an essential work on visual literacy.

II. Big Ideas

  • Color is the most relative medium in art.
  • Experience is the best teacher of color.
  • It is difficult to visualize specific colors. Visual memory is very poor by comparison to auditory memory.
  • People have strong preferences in regard to colors. In addition, people have strong associations with particular colors or color combinations—reds and greens together represent Christmas, pink is feminine, green is eco-friendly, etc.
  • Few people are able to distinguish tonal value in different hues within close intervals. In other words, it is more difficult to see whether a blue and an orange are of equal, greater or lesser value than it is to distinguish values within shades of the same hue (e.g., two different shades of blue). There are exercises in the book that will help you to become better at this.
  • When two colors have the same value, they “vibrate.” Because the eye reads value more than hue, vibrating colors compete for the eye’s attention and are uncomfortable to look at. This is especially important in typography because colored type on a colored background must retain adequate tonal contrast in order to be legible.
  • While there are innumerable colors, in most of the world’s languages, there are only about 30 names for different hues.
  • Any color can “go” or “work” with any other color, it is principally a matter of in which proportions they are used. Albers often required students to use colors that they disliked in order to have them realize this relational aspect of color. You might say there are no ugly colors, only ugly uses of color.
  • Colors are in a continuous state of flux and can only be understood in relation to the other colors that surround them. Albers makes the provocative statement in the book that color is the most relative medium in art.
  • How people see color is highly subjective and varies dramatically between individuals.

    Ask a group of people to imagine Coca-Cola red and everyone will imagine a different color. While we are able to repeat a melody we’ve heard only once or twice, we have difficulty reproducing a color we’ve seen a thousand times.

    Usually, we think of an apple as being red. This is not the same red as that of a cherry or tomato. A lemon is yellow and an orange like that of its name. Bricks vary from beige to yellow to orange, and from ochre to brown to deep violet. Foliage appears in innumerable shades of green. In all these cases the colors named are surface colors. In a very different was, distant mountains appear uniformly blue, no matter whether covered with green trees or consisting of earth and rocks. The sun is glaring white in daytime, but it is full red at sunset. The white ceiling of houses surrounded by lawns or the white-painted eaves of a roof on a sunny day appear in bright green, which is reflected from the grass on the ground. All these cases present film colors. They appear as a thin, transparent, translucent layer between the eye and an object, independent of the object's surface color.

  • All colors have two key elements – brightness (which can be understood as the color intensity) and lightness (a light’s intensity). Albers practically elaborates on this point in the second half of the book through sharing a fascinating series of exercises and optical illusions that explore brightness and lightness;
  • Experience is the greatest teacher of color (i.e. an artist or designer exploring color in their practice is much more important than studying color theory by itself). Albers believed that practice precedes theory in the study of color. This is to say that through doing and practically experimenting with color, theories are produced:

    Naturally, practice is not preceded but followed by theory. Such study promotes a more lasting teaching and learning through experience. Its aim is development of creativeness realized in discovery and invention – the criteria of creativity, or flexibility, being imagination and fantasy. Altogether it promotes “thinking in situations,” a new educational concept unfortunately little known and less cultivated, so far.

  • Allow students to ‘think in situations’ can be understood as a form of experiential learning.
  • Albers’ discussion of progressive education teaching methods and how these can be intertwined with technical and theoretical knowledge that is specific to design. His ability to acknowledge the significance of combining technical skill with creative exploration underscores his pioneering vision for 20th-century design education.

III. Quotes

  • Good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers.
  • In visual perception, a thing is never seen as it really is
  • A strong challenge to a class is to work with 3 or 4 given colors selected by a teacher or student. This and a continued use of disliked colors will teach that preference and dislike as in life so with color usually result from prejudices, from lack of experience and insight.
  • Color is fooling us all the time. All the time, like women do, you see, life is interesting.
  • In my color book there is no new theory of color. But, in it, there is a way to learn to see.
  • I have not taught art. Instead of art, I have taught philosophy…I never have taught [techniques for] how to paint. All my doing was to make people to see.
  • We can hear a single tone but rarely do we see a single color unrelated to other colors.
  • Anyone who predicts the effect of colors proves that he has no experience with color.
  • I have said to my students ‘I am putting you into a vacuum and asking you to breathe.’
  • This book presents results of search, not of what is academically called research.
  • As it is not a compilation from books, it does not end with a list of books — either books read, or books not read. Instead, this book ends with an acknowledgement of my students who are the authors of sample studies, and whom I therefore consider my indirect but first collaborators.
  • I like to state that my students in color have taught me more color than have books about color.
  • “Action” is the noun for the verb “to act”.
  • The word as such [value], when unspecified, permits application in innumerable directions... Unfortunately, the careless use of “value,” particularly with regard to equal lightness—as well as false examples reproduced in books—has destroyed it as a means of measure.
  • As basic rules of any language must be practiced continuously, and therefore are never fixed, so exercises toward distinct color effects never are done or over. New and different cases will be discovered time and again, and should be presented to the class again and again. In this way the study will be a mutual give and take. It will also show that all thorough study is basic, and that all education is self-education. This indicates that we expect from every student several solutions to each problem. In the end, teaching is a matter not of method but of heart. Therefore, the most decisive factor is the teacher's personality. His enthusiastic concern with the student's growth counts more than how much he knows. It is well known that "the teacher is always right," but rarely does this fact elicit respect or sympathy; even less often does it prove competence and authority. But the teacher actually is right and always will gain confidence when he admits that he does not know, that he cannot decide, and, as it often is with color, that he is unable to make a choice or to give advice. Besides, good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers.
  • The results of our trial-and-error experimentation, mostly done after class, are exhibited at the beginning of the next class. These studies we call the admission tickets" to the class.)
  • In the previous chapters we have presented a studio course, or, if you prefer, a laboratory or workshop course which opposes an administrative attitude of "theory and practice." Naturally, practice is not preceded but followed by theory. Such study promotes a more lasting teaching and learning through experience. Its aim is development of creativeness realized in discovery and invention-the criteria of creativity, or flexibility, being imagination and fantasy. Altogether it promotes "thinking in situations," a new educational concept unfortunately little known and less cultivated, so far.
  • These exercises are not meant to illustrate, or to decorate or beautify something, but aim at the development of the ability to produce the desired color effects. This reiterates our disbelief in self-expression, either as a way of study or as its aim, in schools.
  • After too much non-teaching, non-learning, and a consequent non-seeing, in too many art "activities" -it is time to advocate again a basic step-by-step learning which promotes recognition of insight coming from experience, and evaluation resulting from comparison. This, in sum, means recognition of development and improvement, that is, of growth, growth of ability. This growth is not only a most exciting experience; it is inspiring and thus the strongest incentive for intensified action, for continued investigation (search instead of re-search), for learning through conscious practice.
  • Singing a tune and playing it on instruments- even more, conducting several instruments- provides more contact, more insight than merely hearing the tune. So cooking, normally and naturally, teaches more than reading recipes.
  • We practice first and mainly a study of ourselves.