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The Art of Seeing:
Josef Albers and Relative Color


By Jill Pilaroscia

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, the 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.

Homage to the Square
Photos: Courtesy Jill Pilaroscia

Josef Albers' Homage to the Square series and other works explore the variances in color relationships and the impact when they shift.

"... In visual perception, a color is almost never seen as it really is—as it physically is," Albers stated.

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.

Albers believed that our brains process only what is 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.

Albers - Interaction

"A color has many faces, and one color can be made to appear as two different colors," Maria Popova writes of this Josef Albers work. "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 squaresalike."

Albers's artwork 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 viewers to form their own emotional reactions based on their perception of color and the subject matter.

Albers - Variants

In 1947, Albers produced "Variants." His work challenges viewers to form their own emotional reactions based on their perception of color and the subject matter.

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 lifelong fascination with the deceptive nature of color, the treatise expands upon his teachings of visual perception as well as Albers's own exploration of color relationship.

Homage to the Square 1964 Homage to the Square - 1972

The Homage to the Square series, with works from 1964 (left) and 1972 (right), experiments with the effects of perception.

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.

"They all are of different palettes, and, therefore, so to speak, of different climates," Albers said.

"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

"SP-V" was created in 1967. Albers' work demonstrates that subtle shifts in color relationships can alter our perception, sometimes dramatically.

Albers's 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.

50th Anniversary App

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first edition of Josef Albers's 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.

Check it out here, and tell us what you think!


Jill Pilaroscia

“Life in Color” is co-authored by architectural color consultant Jill Pilaroscia (pictured), BFA, and creative writer Allison Serrell. Pilaroscia’s firm, Colour Studio Inc., is based in San Francisco. A fully accredited member of the International Association of Color Consultants, Pilaroscia writes and lectures widely on the art and science of color.



Tagged categories: Color; Color + Design; Colour Studio Inc.; Consultants; Designers; Architectural history; Design; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); North America

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