A Preoccupation With Color
With an accompanying Study of Josef Albers — Interaction of Color (1963)
Color is ubiquitous: everywhere and anywhere. In the womb before we ever even open our eyes, we swim with color at our fingertips. It is odd then, that such an all-encompassing medium is so scantily understood. Formal education doesn’t deem such an explanation necessary. It confines such understanding of color to the aspiring designers and artists of this world. As an aspiring Motion Graphics artist — a preoccupation with color is essential. However, while there are certainly rules to learn, I wanted something broader and relatable to the human condition. I wanted to understand color not only because of my chosen trade, but also as a way of seeing. After consulting with my father — an artist himself — I came upon the work of Josef Albers — Interaction of Color.
Josef Albers was one of the most influential artist-educators of the 20th century. Initially accepted into acceptable academic institutions, he broke off and joined the Bauhaus movement in Germany in the 1920s. By the time he started teaching in the States he was touted as a maverick; he was fascinated by the criticism he was receiving from the art establishment for his views and proceeded to publish an interaction of Color. The book synthesized his radical views toward teaching and understanding color.
Albers presented such an experimental study of color because he saw color as — in his words — ‘the most relative medium in art’. Technically, this means that the visual perception of color is almost never equal to the physical fact of the color. The same color can evoke innumerable readings. So to use color effectively we have to first understand the way in which color deceives continually.
Albers elaborates on these psychic effects and they are worth summarizing. *for the sake of brevity I have included the most important at the end of the post. By presenting such compelling evidence onthe relativity of color, Albers justifies his stance that a sensitive and flexible eye for color should be learned over memorizing strict guidelines.
What’s needed — Imagination and fantasy realized in discovery and invention — Thinking in situations.
With such a controversial (at the time) view of color, Albers suggests an accompanying way of learning. His methods focus around learning through conscious practice. A sensitive eye for color should be built over time and the learned concepts continuously applied to improve. As with any language it is important to learn the rules before freely self-expressing form the beginning. A solid base of exercises and situations, gives the requisite foundation to consciously practise an eye for color in our day-to-day lives.
The skills developed are:
- Identifying color action + color relatedness — the consequent effects on light intensity, texture, pattern etc.
- Development of observation + articulation. Emotional and aesthetic.
By forcing ourselves to engage with different colors through exercise and practice, we are further forced to overcome our in-built preferences and prejudices towards certain colors.
With regards to teaching, Albers’ advice is more general. He posits that the most decisive factor for a teacher is heart — real concern and enthusiasm for the student’s growth. He also gives the solid (not exactly groundbreaking) suggestion that good teaching is also more a giving of good questions than good answers.
How then to apply a trained eye to choosing color themes?
In short to observe, use imagination, allow for discovery, have taste and be flexible
Due to the nebulousness of color perception, choosing practical color combinations takes time to master.
There is harmony in color as there is in music. Though this harmony can’t simply be found in preset color schemes. It is the combination and use of color that will direct the harmony. Colors appear connected in space — thus, as constellations they can be seen in any direction and at any speed.
As a designer/artist we must consider that color combinations are also heavily affected by other factors:
- Reflections of light and color
- Direction and sequence of reading
- So on and so on
Thus it is unsurprising that an initial ‘ideal’ color combination often appears changed, lost and reversed. Albers sees single colors as actors in a cast. Colors can be combined in an infinite number of arrangements, as actors in a cast can combined in countless performances. Finding the right one takes time and practise.
A critic of Albers’ interaction of color opined that Albers gives ‘more questions than answers’. However, this seems precisely the point. I was under no illusion that a set of binary rules would shed lights on a runway to color mastery. The abundance of color in the art world testifies to the idea that color above other medium is entirely nebulous and spiritual in the questions and emotions it elicits. A closer look at Albers’ study garners a greater appreciation of what we may have taken for granted in our perception of color. Yet appreciation or acceptance is not enough. It is important that we continue to sharpen our observation skills and draw from various sources of learning to articulate the emotional and spiritual impact that color makes. Not just for professional expertise — but more broadly in society to fight against insensitivity and brutalization.
*Below some of Albers’ most important color theories and observations
Lightness and darkness
While writing Interaction of Color, Albers taught his theories and experimented on a class of university students. He tested their recognition of the lightness and darkness of color. He found, as suspected, only a minority can distinguish the lighter from the darker within close intervals. Especially obscured by contrasting hues or by different color intensities. Albers compares the haptic relativity of cold to hot, to show how our perception of the color depends on the colors surrounding it
Example of Albers’ color plates — this study shows that 1 color can be made to appear as 2. The two small squares are ochre, yet because of the surrounding colors no human eye is able to see both squares as alike.
Psycho-psychological perception of colour
One theory maintains that the nerve ends on the human retina are tuned to receive any of the 3 primary colours (red, yelloe, or blue) which constitute all colors. Staring at red too long will exhaust the red sensitive parts of the brain. So for example a sudden shift to white — only the mixture of yellow and blue occurs — Green, the compliment of red
Instead of 2 colors pushing and pulling their perceived appearance — optical mixture creates one new perceived color from two different colors. Seen in impressionism — instead of painting green — they will make blue and yellow dots next to each other — so only in our perception does the colour change — an impression.
Vanishing boundaries between colours
Another phenomena where the boundaries between colors are not easily distinguishable. The effect is confined to adjacent neighboring colors of equal light intensity. Can be observed in clouds and the sky when the light is right — the light grey hue of the cloud merges with the blue below or around it as they match light intensities
Color temperature and humidity in colou
Two most comprehensive of polarities in color are first:
Light vs dark, and second the temperature contrast warm — cool.
As to warm and cool — it is accepted in western tradition that normally blue appears cool and the adjacent colour group yellow-orange-red looks warm. These qualifications are only relative as temperature is perceptual — especially when mixed with other neutral colors in between. There are cool reds and warm blues within their own hues