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 blackboardone 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
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 Michaels Art Store
and purchase a large sheet of DArches 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 DArches 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.
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
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.
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.