Pedagogy Josef Albers page 6


Color Principles
At no time within my teaching career was I afforded the opportunity to teach the Albers’ color course as a separate class. The best I could do was to steal an hour a week from the design course and teach a class with very restricted content. The color principles I selected to work with were color interaction, how much to how much, color mixture, color boundaries and free-studies.

Color interaction used three colors to appear as four using two small squares with each centered on a larger square. A variation of the exercise using the same format was to make four colors appear as three. The most common difficulty for students with this problem was confusing color with value change. Sometimes Albers would have students use the same format but work with values, i.e., make three values of gray appear as four, etc. I would sometimes have students do a twenty-step value scale for them to better understand that color also has value as well as density and hue, and value change is not the same as color changer.

Albers told students that when one color is laid next to another and nothing happens, color is not being used. The color change problems forced students into extensive exploration of color on color and helped them to better understand color interaction. The how much to how much problem always began by Albers asking the class what two colors did not go together? After a few minutes listening to student responses, he informed them that there was no such thing as two colors that did not go together. It was really a question of how much of one to how much of the other.

Students chose two colors that they thought to be ugly in combination. First they put down an equal amount of each butted up to one another; using the same format, they searched for a quantity relationship that was pleasing or, at the least, less offensive.

The next part of the problem was identified as color climate where students chose four colors and did four small compositions. By varying amounts in each composition, the objective was to disguise the fact that the same four colors were used. Sometimes the compositions were done as vertical stripes.

I found the how much to how much problem to be especially good for awakening latent student sensitivities. The exercise required a great deal of experimentation and refinement. The concept applied to other areas of design such as how much type to a page, how much drawing to how much white of the paper, how much line to how much shape and so on. I found this exercise very effective in terms of students grasping its significance and using it in a wide variety of applications.

Color mixture was most often done as a stripe problem. Students selected three colors and attempted to create as wide a range of colors as they could using the optical mixture principle. Each of the three colors were included as a wider band to identify the base colors. This problem required a high degree of craft to assemble.

The color boundary problem was of extreme importance as it allows designers to be precise in controlling depth of elements in the picture plane. When one color butts another color, it forms a line. The line may be soft or hard according to values. Colors that are far apart in value create a hard line; colors that are close in value create a soft line. A traditional belief was that cool colors recede and warm colors advance. With the boundary theory, students discovered this was not true–it was really the boundary lines that determined spatial relationships and not hues.

Our first problem involved selecting six squares with three in one color and three in another and an illusion of transparency. One set of squares over-lapped the other. The area of overlap was done in another color creating a smaller square with two boundary lines in each of the large squares. If the boundaries of the overlap that were within the top square were softer than the boundaries in the lower square, the reading was that of transparency with the large top square in front of the bottom square. If the boundaries of the overlap within the lower large square were softer than the boundaries in the large upper square, the reading was that of transparency with the lower large square in front of the square above it. The last step was to find a value that would make the boundaries of the overlap equal in hardness or softness in both the large squares. The reading would be of colors merging, and both the large squares would appear to be on the same spatial plane.

The second part of the problem called for the selection of four colors of different intensities and butt them against one another forming one large square. A small square was selected arbitrarily and positioned in the lower right corner of the top left block. Another color was selected that had the same boundary value as the first square. The process was repeated twice more. The objective was to create a boundary line around all four of the small squares that had the same degree of hardness or softness. Needless to say, finding the first three were relatively easy but finding the fourth small square that had a boundary which was equal to both the square behind and the one above was nearly impossible. If you were successful, the integrity of a square formed by the four small squares was established. The square formed by four small ones appeared as a transparency. The check on this problem was to reverse the sizes of the large and small squares and see if the boundary around the four small squares was consistent. I believe that Albers was much more concerned with students’ exploration of this problem than with their success in finding the solution.

The boundary concepts were another example of principles with broad application. Hard and soft edges to place elements in space–including pencil lines in drawing–were a tremendous tool for the designer.

As students did each of the four principles, if I thought they were not understanding, students were required to repeat the problems until it was evident that the majority understood the objectives. As a check of student understanding, I often asked them do a free-study demonstrating the principle.

After the theoretical problems, students did free-studies without any teacher imposed conditions. Application of the principles are evident with some regularity in the free compositions. An interesting aspect of the free-studies came near the end of the course when students had used all the colors of first choice and they did not want to buy another color pack. They began using colors that they would probably never have used, and the results were often stunning. I firmly believe that students working with the color pack were exposed to, and used, many color relationships that they would never have tried if they had been using brushes and pigments. I believe that Albers’ color course truly broadened the students knowledge and use of color.

By the end of the course, most students had tremendous self-confidence regarding color. With the knowledge and experience gained from the color course, students were prepared to move into mixing pigment, using the brush and applying color to any artistic endeavor.

I am convinced that students’ realizing the relativity of color and understanding definition of problem objectives and criteria; combined with the ease of exploration using cut and torn color paper; plus the flexibility of the color course which could be absorbed into personal terms by a wide range of individuals with different tastes and objectives reflects the genius of Albers as a teacher.

Those individuals who were never students of Albers or actually did the exercises within a classroom context cannot possibly understand the value of Albers’ pedagogy through reading a book or simply looking at the illustrations in Interaction of Color. Albers’ teaching has to be experienced to be appreciated. This how I remember Josef Albers, the man and the teacher.


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I believe that
Albers’ color course
truly broadened
the students knowledge
and use of color.

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