Perception through Iteration: Josef Albers Color Workshop

Photos by Sophia N. Ahmad

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. In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually.
— Josef Albers

I recently attended a workshop based on the teachings of color master Josef Albers.

The workshop, titled Perception Through Iteration, was led by Fritz Horstman, Artist Residency and Education Coordinator at the Josef & Anni Albers Foundation. At Manhattan's Drawing Center,  Fritz took us through a few exercises from Albers' groundbreaking book Interaction of Color.

Various editions of Albers's book, which was published in many languages. See more here


I was introduced to Albers's work years ago, in a color theory class at Parsons. In the work I do now, arranging color and creating palettes is less a formal practice and more a result of instinct and mood. I felt I needed a refresher. As Fritz explained, for Albers,  "color was material". This idea resonates with me, as I've come to realize that nearly every photograph, collage or moodboard I make is driven by color. Color is the language. Color is the medium.

For each exercise, the students shared a box of Color-aid, matte sheets of paper that come in brilliant standardized colors. This is the same paper Albers taught with, and it's become a standard teaching tool in art and design classes. I still have my box from that color theory class. It's not easy to part with.


The colors are so rich and such a delight to work with. When Color-aid is around, you'll hear a lot of gasping, oohs and aahs. "It's too pretty to cut!'.


Exercise #1: Make Three Colors Appear as Four

Set two colors side by side. We'll call these the host colors. Then place a third color on top. This will be the sample color. With a thin strip of white paper, separate the sample color into two distinct colors.

It took a few tries to get it right ...


According to Fritz, if the sample color shares qualities with one of its host colors, you are more likely to see a visible shift. Another hint: the smaller the sample color is, the more light it will absorb from its host color.

I settled on the three cool colors below. On the left, the sample color looks green. On the right, it subtly shifts to a cooler blue. 


Exercise #2: Make Three Colors Appear as Two

Set two host colors side by side. Then place a third color on top. The goal is to make the sample color on each side resemble the opposing host color. 

After many tries, it became evident that the the more similarities all three colors shared, the easier it would be to pull off.  How did I do?


Exercise #3: Make Four Compositions with Four Colors

In the last exercise, we were asked to pick four colors at random and trade them with a partner. Then, create four distinct compositions, using similar shapes for each one. The idea was to explore the relationships between colors that don't necessarily share similarities in hue, value, or saturation. Or, to work with colors we're not naturally drawn to. For me, that would be the slime green you see below.


After seeing my fellow students' work, I realized my choice of rectangular strips was pretty conservative. With a quick, simple exercise, you can see some interesting ideas taking shape here. 


The backdrop of this workshop was The Drawing Center's gallery space, currently housing Drawing Dialogues: Selections from the Sol LeWitt Collection. The collection features pieces by artists like Eva Hesse and Dan Flavin. I love the feeling of the space.

Sol Lewitt never studied under Albers, but was influenced by his work. In 2005, Lewitt's work titled Seven Basic Colors And All Their Combinations In A Square Within A Square was unveiled at the Josef Albers Museum in Bottrop, Germany. The wall mural, commissioned by the museum, was Lewitt's homage to Albers. To see images of the work, go here.


Drawing Dialogues will be open for viewing until June 12th, 2016. Thanks to The Drawing Center for having me!