A Mini Course in Color


Introduction to Color
I took the Color course at Yale with Josef Albers and Sy Sillman. This course was the single most influential experience I had in graduate school. I understood the course objectives and it conditioned me to recognize visual values, not only in color, but also in other art and design courses. Color class met for three hours twice a week and there was an enormous amount of outside work expected.

What I appreciated most about Albers' approach to color was the lack of rigidity and his understanding of the relativity of color. The first thing he did in color class was to ask every student to go through the color pack, pick out red and lay it face down on the desk. After a few minutes, Albers asked the students to hold up red. The variation among students as to what they thought was red proved to be quite amazing. This provided a basis for Albers to address students about color relativity and how no two people see color exactly the same.

Albers worked with color paper because he wanted students to focus on color and not have to battle the problems of using a brush or mixing and applying paint at the same time. The colors were precise and additional sheets of the same hue and intensity could be purchased through coded numbers on the back of each sheet.

Albers based his problems on simple principles that often had application far beyond consideration for color. For instance, how much to how much could apply to drawing, typography, painting or any other form of visual expression. Albers' problems forced students to make innumerable decisions, and he realized that eye sensitivity to color and learning resulted from having to make all these decisions. Albers clearly recognized the searching process itself to be more important to learning than the end results.

It has been interesting for me to compare notes with other graduates of Albers color classes who went on to teach color. Few of us adhered strictly to Albers, and we moved in different directions.

I never had a separate class in color. My teaching of color has been limited to taking one hour a week from Basic Design. To do this, I restricted myself to about four or five exercises, color interaction, boundaries, visual mixture and how much to how much. We did the leaf exercises as part of free studies. The one hour was used to critique student work and present new problems. When problems were not satisfactorily done by a majority of students, we did them over and over until the problems were understood and results were reasonably consistent. All the work was done outside of class time. After the theoretical problems, students worked on free studies using the four principles.

For myself, I stressed color over shape, composition and sensitivity for amounts in the use of color. I found that near the end of the term when students had used all their favorite colors, they worked with what was left of their color pack which were colors they normally would not use. Some of the most interesting color studies came from this stage of the course. One of the true values of the Albers color course is that it forces students to use colors that under other circumstances they would not consider.

Most students coming into design education are not visually sensitive, and I found the color problems the best vehicle for students developing a discriminating eye for color choice and amount, composition and better understanding of what constitutes visual sensitivity which could then be transferred to other courses such as drawing, design, typography and photography. Sensitivity itself cannot be taught, but students can be made aware of it, and they can cultivate their intuitive capabilities. I think the color boundary and quantity problems are absolutely essential to the education of every Graphic Designer.

What is described here is not so much a color course as it is a series of problems to make students sensitive to color and composition, and to further develop eye skills. Graphic Design students require a much more comprehensive course in color.

It is important for students to know the major color systems, learn color terminology and to be introduced to the physics of light and color. Students require the experience of mixing color and learning to apply it with skill. Students should be aware of how various artists or designers have used color in the past. Another consideration that is rarely touched upon but it is pertinent today as design becomes increasingly international, and that is the relationship between color and culture. The symbolic associations with color change from culture to culture. What might be attractive to one culture might be symbolic of death or misfortune to another.


Introduction to Color cont. >


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Student example of Exercise 7: Visual Mixture

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