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Josef Albers


"In visual perception, a color is almost never seen as it really is- as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art."

- Josef Albers


To my mind, one of the last century's greatest artists was Josef Albers (1888-1976), one half of the famous artist couple, Josef and Anni Albers. Both artists worked a large variety of media and had diverse artistic careers. Josef began his professional life as a public school teacher. In his artistic practice, he worked in stain glass, interior design, as a lithographer, inveterate sketcher, oil painter, master of op art, and as a professor of art at Yale University. Above all, he was an extraordinary theorist of colour and his lessons in colour theory, printed in 1963 as a book, The Interaction of Color, remains the classic statement on how colour affects the human perception of form, shape, depth, transparency and, of course, colour itself.


Albers' Resources[]

Josef Albers, 1954, Study for Homage to the Square



An excellent resource for the art and life of both Albers is the website of the Albers Foundation Unfortunately, apart from the Albers' series Homage to the Square, there are very few images of Josef Albers' work that are not copyrighted, and hence that appear on the web (or that I could put on this website). However, any local library will have a copy of The Interaction of Color, or rather the small booklet that was published after the limited series edition of the lithographs and text that made up the original edition. This small book has some truly stunning images, most of which would make for good projects for students — because they were designed as studies for students!







Project for Students[]

Many of the studies presented in The Interaction of Colour would make great class projects, with each student presenting a differently colour demonstration.

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Simultaneous Colour Contrast. Everyone knows that the colour of an object can seem quite different depending upon its background — the same tie or scarf can look distinctly blue with one shirt, but distinctly green with another shirt. Albers was responsible for a number of famous demonstrations of this effect — indeed demonstrations that are so good, you find it hard to believe you are not looking at two different colours. In the orange and blue image on the left, the two small squares are identical in colour—the brown square with the blue background merely l

Albers.jpg

ooks lighter. Perhaps Albers' most famous demonstration of simultaneous colour contrast is to the right, bottom. If you look carefully at the top of the image, right where the X's are joined, you can see that the X's are indeed the same colour (whether that colour is yellow or grey is the mystery!).


There are numerous variations that can be done on this theme, which as beautiful as they are intriguing. Perhaps the best suited for students is to use Albers' "small square within a large square": the background changes, the small square in the center is always printed in the same colour. Yet the small center square always looks a different colour. There are an indefinite number of ways to produce this effect (with different coloured backgrounds) as explained by Albers. A very effective group project might be to "cycle through" related colours (yellow, to yellow-orange, to orange, etc) for the background squares — the inside squares should appear to change shade over the course of a large canvas. Or you could go POP and use highly contrasting colours for the backgrounds (same colour of small square in the center). A quick look at the Interaction of Colour should give you a wide range of simulataneous colour projects. These projects could be painted or printed — see the METHODS page for printing suggestions.

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