Pedagogy Josef Albers page 2


Theories on Teaching
Albers compared learning to the crystallization process where one crystal forms on another. He believed that in the first year, students should learn simple, uncomplicated concepts, and as they moved through the program, the work becomes progressively more complex. Each bit of new learning is added to the first until a body of knowledge accumulates, and from there on, students are expected to grow as a result of their experiences. Albers was fond of saying that if he did his job properly from the first day of class, he was beginning a process that would put him out of work. The import of his remark was that if he was effective in his teaching, by the time of graduation, students no longer required his input.

Albers approached instruction through a pedagogical scheme employing principles, sequence, criteria and learning through doing. Albers either said or wrote “that basic studies incorporated only those elements and principles that were in common to all visual arts including painting, drawing, sculpture, design and architecture.” Within my experience, he never made any distinction between students in one discipline or another, they were all treated equally. Albers remarked several times, that as a teacher, he had to treat all students equally because regardless of individual performance, he had no way of knowing which ones might become artists in the future.

The terms problem and exercise are often used interchangeably, but they are really quite different. Problem implies a solution while exercise is defined as experiential learning without solution and it has infinite variations. In graphic design we were given problems, but under Albers we did exercises.

My observation was that Albers utilized two different types of presentation. I would identify one as demonstrations to illustrate a point and the other as exercises. Albers had strong feelings about the need for concentration when drawing. His introduction to basic drawing was to make a few remarks about mental concentration and control. Then he would take a piece of chalk in each hand, and simultaneously draw two circles on the blackboard–one from right to left and the other from left to right (try it sometime!)

To further make his point, he asked students to write their name and hold up a hand when completed. The response was nearly immediate. Next students were asked to write their name backwards and hold up a hand when completed. This took longer. He then asked students to write their name upside down and backwards. This took a considerable amount of time. He used this demonstration to talk about automatic drawing which is done without thinking. Writing their name backwards called for mental visualization and concentration, and it was this state of mind that he felt essential to drawing. I believe this demonstration was effective because students experienced what he wanted to communicate. The ploy might be compared to teachers who simply tell students that to draw, they must concentrate.

Another one of his demonstration exercises was to take a sheet of paper, fold it and then flatten it out. The crease made a line. After this demonstration, we were to lay the sheet of paper next to our drawing board. We were to mentally fold the paper on angles and draw in the crease lines. After making two mental folds, the necessary concentration was so intense as to be painful. When we reached that point, we were instructed by Albers to have that same degree of concentration each time we drew.

One day in drawing class we were doing quick sketches of the model. Albers was upset with the class as he did not believe students were concentrating on what they were doing. After some scolding, which apparently did not resolve the problem to his satisfaction, he halted the class for a fifteen minute break. Students were instructed to go across the street to Michael’s Art Store and purchase a large sheet of D’Arches paper. As I recall, it was a little over three dollars a sheet, and three dollars was quite a bit of money for most students in those days. Upon returning to the studio, he had us pin the paper on our easel, and we were instructed to resume our quick sketches. You never saw such mental concentration as this group of students making quick sketches on three dollar plus sheets of paper. When we finally went back to newsprint pads, he would frequently remind us that we were sketching on D’Arches paper. Knowing that he might make a reality of it, we gave our drawing the attention and focus he demanded. Albers effectively conveyed to students the mental and physical attributes requisite for working in the visual arts

Exercises had to do with refinements. Perhaps the best examples are found in the color course. Each exercise was preceded with a quick demonstration by him or using students. For instance, at the first class he would ask students to go through the color pack and pick out red and lay it face down on the desk. When everyone had done so, he asked students to hold up red. Of course there would be a variety of reds, and he used this demonstration as a preface to talking about the relativity of color and how each person sees color differently. He then made a statement of the principle for the first exercise and stated criteria and objectives. The exercise demanded that students go through a process of putting something down, pinning it up and evaluating it, making adjustments, and usually, repeating the last step several times. As I recall, Albers did not collect student work until the end of the semester which allowed students to do exercises over and over. Most students would go through their work prior to handing it in, and redo those pieces they felt to be weak.

At each stage of the exercise, because of working with cut and torn paper which could be moved, reduced, enlarged, added or subtracted, students made numerous decisions based on trial and error. Learning resulted from knowing objectives, and the process of evaluating the work and each decision along the way


Eye Training
Students not only learned about the interaction of color but to see nuances as well, how the smallest change affected the whole. Big decisions often were made in moments, but small decisions might take hours if not days to finalize. When studying with Albers, little decisions were the big decisions.

Just as athletes train to build their bodies, develop muscles and athletic skills, the eyes can be trained as well. Albers’ drawing and color exercises might be construed as visual calisthenics to train the eyes to recognize the most minute detail and variation along with the learning criteria which provided direction and an ability to assess work.

I recall one instance in drawing class where Albers held up his arm and explained to students that drawing the arm could be approached from several different points of view. On one hand, if the shirt sleeve was carefully drawn, it would describe the arm. Likewise, a drawing of the skeletal structure composing an arm would be another option. He rolled up his sleeve and pointed out that if he focused on drawing the hairs on his arm, it would reveal the form and shape of the arm. Albers was fond of saying the purpose of art was to re-present nature, not to represent it. Albers taught students to see objects and nature in new ways.


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To design
is to plan and organize,
to order, to relate
and to control.

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