Josef Albers: Color Theory, Artwork & Quotes

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Do you have a favorite color? Have you ever thought about color? Josef Albers did. In this lesson, explore the artwork and color theory of artist and teacher Joseph Albers.

Who was Josef Albers?

Josef Albers (1888-1976) was a German-American artist, teacher, printmaker and color theorist, someone who studied the effects of color and how they interact with each other. Born in Germany, as a young man Albers taught school and art classes. He then studied art at the Bauhaus, a famous German school of art, design and architecture, and eventually became a professor there.

In 1933, the Bauhaus closed when the Nazis came to power. Albers and his wife Annie, a fellow artist he had met the Bauhaus, moved to the United States. That same year, he became head of Black Mountain College, a new art school in North Carolina. There, Albers further developed his own art, his teaching ideas, and thoughts regarding color theory. He was a demanding teacher but also a funny and engaging one who left a lasting impression on his students. He wasn't one to demand easy answers, as demonstrated in one of his quotes about how he viewed teaching: 'Good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers.'

He and his wife stayed at Black Mountain College until 1949. The Albers then moved to Connecticut, and Josef Albers served as Head of the Design Department at Yale University. When he retired, he began concentrating on his influential book on color theory, the Interaction of Color, published in 1963.

Art of Josef Albers

Early in his career, Albers practiced printmaking and designed stained glass, but he's best known for his abstract paintings and pioneering work with color theory. Beginning in 1949, he created an ongoing series of paintings titled Homage to the Square. The paintings were all of the same shape and size, which allowed him to explore the visual effects of color and space. He painted more than a thousand of them, each exploring color relationships.

Each square included a series of nested squares of different colors, one inside of another and placed toward the bottom of the canvas. Some were variations of the same color -- for example, a series of darker and lighter yellows. Others were juxtapositions of dark and light colors, like light greens nestled in dark blues. It was the relationships and changes the colors caused to each other that Albers was exploring. He made careful notes about the colors he used, sometimes on the back of the painting. Although at first glance they may sound simple, each work was a sophisticated color exploration -- of contrasts in tone, of warm colors like reds and yellows, and cool colors like blues and black. To Albers, it was the interplay of color that was important. He wasn't interested in portraying something other than the relation of color in the painting. Or, to quote him: 'Abstraction is real, probably more real than nature.'

Main Points of Color Theory

Perhaps Albers' most important contribution to art is his work with color theory, or how color works and interacts. He's considered one of the fathers of modern art education. His Interaction of Color is still influential as a guide on color relationships and color theory. Many artists and art teachers use it today. In 2013, Yale even developed an app for students and color enthusiasts to explore Albers' ideas in a digital format.

Albers developed several main points regarding color, including that color is relative. It's always seen in relationship to the colors around it, and it changes and interacts with its surroundings. Or, to quote 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.' Albers taught that artists needed experience to learn color and how it works. This idea of relativity in color is one the things Albers constantly explored in his Homage to the Square series.

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