Pedagogy Josef Albers page 3


An aspect of courses under Albers that impressed me was the absolute silence when students were working. The only sound was an occasional crumpling of paper as students made the decision to start over. The ability to judge their own work was the direct result of Albers providing simple, uncluttered objectives which made criteria obvious. This can be compared to the more prevalent practice of students not starting over until the teacher is critical of the work. Albers taught students how to evaluate work for themselves, and thus began the process of students becoming less and less dependent on the teacher with each new exercise as they progressed in the program.

In drawing class, Albers required students to keep a sketch book which was turned in at the end of the semester. He threatened students with hell and damnation and a low grade at the least if they had doodles, phone numbers, cartoons, messages or anything other than serious sketching in the book. He likewise cautioned students about not tearing out any pages–he wanted to see everything. I don’t know if it is true, but students swore that Albers had counted the pages in the sketch book that we used, and if he suspected pages had been removed, he counted the pages. He did not like work that was crumpled, dirty or otherwise damaged. He could be scathing when messy work was submitted. Albers taught students to respect their own work no matter if it was a sketch or a finished piece.

In Basic Drawing, Albers did not permit charcoal drawing–he referred to it as smear drawing. (That is with a German accent that sounds more like schmeer.) He had equal distaste for rubbed graphite or blunt pencils. Every student was required to have a pencil sharpener and to keep a sharp point on the pencil when drawing. Particularly so in drawing classes, Albers constantly admonished students “You must learn to crawl before you can walk, and until you can walk, you cannot run.”

Once students progressed beyond the abstract exercises and began to draw objects, Albers demanded a single line describing form. He became agitated when students used multiple lines to define a contour – what he called hen scratching. He would point to one stroke and say, “Do you mean this line, or perhaps this one, or which one do you mean?” He justified this as saying that he could not judge what the student had done when there were so many options. Whether students were drawing with line or mass, he required control and students were held accountable for every mark they put on paper. Albers did speak a great deal about the need for discipline and not much about skills or craft, but he constantly demanded them from each student.

A large part of Albers’ success with teaching had to do with his ability to verbally communicate with students regarding visual theory and content. He most often expressed his views through metaphors that students understood. He was uncanny in this respect. Albers clearly stated problem objectives which were uncomplicated and easily grasped by students. He always provided criteria for evaluating progress and goals. Consequently, students became increasingly self-sufficient in working toward problem objectives. He presented exercises in sequential and incremental steps with each new one building on the one before,–much like the crystallization process he described.

The Misunderstood Albers
Albers’ pedagogy was not suited to every individual’s concept of an art education. Because of the restrictive nature of simple exercises with specific criteria and objectives, some felt that he was too dogmatic, rigid and arbitrary. Albers classes were never conducive to free spirits who wanted to do their own thing. My observation was that students who had another education in art before Albers did much better than students who had only Albers. I think the reason for this being that students with prior experience had something to compare with what they were receiving from Albers, and immediately, they realized the value of Albers’ approach to visual education. Because of the positive response, they were better motivated, more appreciative and productive.

Albers was often misunderstood and unfairly judged by many. Because Albers worked with color paper packs and controlled line did not mean that he believed that these were ends – he used them only as instructional strategies at the initial stages of visual education. There was a distinct difference between how Albers related to students at the beginning level and with those in advanced classes. In basic courses, Albers dictated objectives, format and materials. In upper level courses, students chose content, style, format and materials and Albers taught within parameters set by students. Never before or since Albers have I seen so much variety of approaches to painting in one class

Never Question Content
Students worked with abstract expressionism, representational art, impressionism, or color studies in paint and some even imitated Albers’ work. He never questioned content, only what the student was doing or trying to do visually. The same was true with prints and drawings. Albers was open and receptive to all kinds of expression, it was always a matter of the student’s level of study and understanding what they were doing.

When critiquing painting students, it was customary for Albers to ask the student what they were trying to do. If the student responded in terms of color, space or form, Albers engaged in meaningful discussion with the student. If the student responded in terms of feelings, or some esoteric rationale, Albers would throw up his arms and in a loud voice exclaim, “Gotten Himmel! Don’t show me your intestines.” He would avoid that student for the next few weeks. It did not take students long to learn how they should reply to Albers' inquiries if they wanted his input.

Albers was extremely rational in his approach to instruction. When it came time to put pencil or pen to paper, brush to canvas or chisel to wood or stone, Albers believed that artists became intensely rational as they concentrated on how best to give form to intent. In the classroom or studio, he had short shrift for mood, emotion, mystique or self-expression. He rarely relied on the past for examples. He was more likely to rely on analogies to explain a point. He concentrated on pedagogical principles and reacting to what the student was doing. Albers said to me that those aspects of painting dealing with emotion, expression or message were personal and subjective, therefore, that as a teacher he was in no position to judge them. Albers confined his comments to what students were attempting to do in terms of color, line, shape, space or form. Albers clearly made distinctions between what could and could not be taught. He provided students with tools for expression but felt that expression itself was a private matter.

The implications of Albers’ view are that artists work with objectives in mind, and they do not meander aimlessly in a purely reactive manner. Albers never made a specific statement about subjective factors, but my impression is that he thought them to be personal, incidental and not a goal in themselves– they were something that occurred while seeking other objectives.


Albers on Teaching >

Download PDF








embraces all means opposing
disorder and accident.

Site Index




. 1 2 3 4 5 6


. .