The Art of Seeing : Josef Albers and Relative Color

At Colour Studio, our job as architectural colorists is to please the eye, but visual perception of any one color is one of the hardest variables to control.  Josef Albers, German-born American artist and professor, taught that all color is relative.  His work explores the variances in color relationships and how subtle shifts in those relationships can have drastic results.

Josef Albers “Homage to the Square”

Albers stated that “… In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is — as it physically is.”  His teachings are based on the idea that the world is controlled by vision, and that our eyes become accustomed to the world around us and begin to take certain things for granted.  He believed our brains process only what it expected and not the entire reality of what is actually in front of us.  Teaching first at the Bahaus, and later as head of Black Mountain College in North Carolina, Albers challenged his students to experiment with visual perception.

A color has many faces, and one color can be made to appear as two different colors. Here it is almost unbelievable that the left small and the right small squares are part of the same paper strip and therefore are the same color. And no normal human eye is able to see both squares — alike. – Maria Popova

 Albers’s art work illustrates his ability to see beauty in the mundane.  He worked with non-representational forms in an impersonal and detached style.  Rooted in his theory on the art of seeing, his work is devoid of his own sentiment in order to challenge the viewer to form their own emotional reactions based on their perception of color and the subject matter.

Josef Albers “Variants” 1947

His work is summed up in a treatise titled “Interaction of Color” published in 1963.  Written while teaching at Yale, the book investigates the properties of color.  An extension of his life long fascination with the deceptive nature of color, the treatise expands upon his teachings of visual perception as well as his own exploration of color relationship.

“Homage to the Square” 1964

For example, in his series of oil on paper paintings Homage to the Square, Albers experimented with the effects of perception, such as the apparent oscillation between the flat surface design and the illusion of movement and depth.

“Homage to the Square” 1972

Albers says of his work, “They all are of different palettes, and, therefore, so to speak, of different climates. Choice of the colors used, as well as their order, is aimed at an interaction – influencing and changing each other forth and back. Thus, character and feeling alter from painting to painting without any additional ‘hand writing’ or, so-called, texture.”  Forever trying to teach the mechanics of vision and show even the uninformed viewer how to see, Homage to the Square embodied a shift in emphasis from perception willed by the artist to reception engineered by the viewer.

“SP-V” 1967

 Albers work demonstrates that subtle shifts in color relationships can alter our perception.  Color interactions can elicit emotional responses that influence the way we perceive our environments.  Everyone sees and perceives color differently, but with thoughtful color combinations one can create with the eye and brain in mind.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first edition of Josef Albers’ Interaction of Color, Brenda Danilowitz, Chief Curator for the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation,  and Philip Tiongson have developed an iPad app that expands upon principles and experiments featured in the book.  Follow the link below and tell us what you think!

http://yupnet.org/interactionofcolor/

Monticello : Historic Trends for a Modern World

This week at Colour Studio, we have been researching historic color palettes and thinking about what exactly makes a  palette “historic”.   When we are asked to consider historic palettes, we are essentially looking at color trends from a past era.  While some colors may be more popular than others at a given period of time, the fact is, trends are fleeting.  What is trending this year will be inevitably be replaced by something new the next year.   So what is it about these historic colors that continues to inspire us today?

Thomas Jefferson’s Dining Room at Monticello
West facade of the Palladian inspired plantation in Virginia

In historic preservation, recreating historic palettes means maintaining pieces of history, allowing us to experience monuments of our past as they were originally intended.  Paint analysis research being conducted at Thomas Jefferson’s famous home Monticello in Virginia has allowed color experts to recreate historic colors by providing scientific information about the chemicals and pigments used to make them.  Until the mid-1880s, paint colors were custom mixed by hand, and so your colors were only as good as the ingredients available to mix them.

Dining Room interior with table setting designed by Charlotte Moss
The Dome Room

Thomas Jefferson himself rejected the idea of trends, turning away from the somber Georgian blues, grays, and greens popular in America at the time in favor of more vibrant hues being developed in France.  The dining room at his Monticello home, for instance, was painted a brilliant chrome yellow in 1815.  The color was new at the time, mixed with lead chromate yellow pigments that had only just been discovered in France in 1810.

Entry Hall

The original palette was designed while the plantation was under construction in the early part of the nineteenth century.  It was an exciting time for color.  Advancements in color pigments in Berlin were making new hues possible like Prussian Blue and  Verdigris Green.  Both colors have been identified in samples of the original palette used at Monticello.  This historic palette is more than just a collection of colors, but a collection of new ideas stemming from cross continental travels, scientific discoveries of pigments and the cultivation of knowledge.  Many of the rooms have now been restored to their original color thanks to a generous donation from Ralph Lauren.

Tea Room

Monticello in Fall

Historic color palettes are more than just specific pairings of colors used on old buildings.  Each palette  represents a moment in time allowing us to channel the feel of generations past. This is why they continue to color our built environments today, so many generations later.