When we look at individual colors our perception of them is strongly influenced by their environment including the adjacent or surrounding colors and the ambient light on the scene. Artists and designers routinely incorporate aspects of this phenomena in their work. One artist/teacher in the mid-twentieth century who was particularly fascinated by the way colors interact with each other and their environment was Josef Albers. The portfolio of silk screen prints he published in 1963 titled The Interaction of Color remains the definitive work on this subject to this day.
Josef Albers was born and raised in Germany. He came to the United States just before World War Two and taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. In 1950 he became the Chair of the Design Department at Yale University.
As an artist Albers’ is known for a series of paintings he created titled Homage To The Square. The composition of each of these paintings remained pretty much the same from one canvas to the next – squares nestled within squares, with subtly modified color harmonies. What was important in each of these paintings was not the geometric composition but the relationships of colors and how the viewer perceives both individual colors as well as the total combination. This series of paintings illustrates Albers’ lifelong fascination with the subtleties of color – a fascination he fully explored in the portfolio of prints titled Interaction of Color.
The following images are just a few samples from that portfolio. The original publication contains over 150 separate illustrations demonstrating exactly how subjective our perception of color is. They show, for example, how one color can radically change its appearance and seem to be two separate colors. How two very different colors can seem to be identical. How solid flat colors can appear to be transparent. Or even how colors can appear out of nowhere on a totally blank surface.
This image is of two rectangles side by side – one pale lavender and one pale yellow. Large thin “x” shapes float over both rectangles. At first it appears that the color of each “x” shape might be the same as the background color from the adjacent rectangle. On closer examination, however we can see that the two “x” shapes are joined at the bottom and that both of them are actually the same color.
This image contains orange and purple rectangles side by side. Floating in the middle of each rectangle we see smaller rectangles. At first glance it appears that these two small shapes might be the same light brown color. The truth is revealed by looking at the small adjoining rectangles at the bottom. They are the same colors as the floating shapes above but merely reversed and placed against opposite backgrounds. Two colors that first appeared to be similar – if not identical – are really quite different.
If you are interested in learning more about the many qualities of colors and how we perceive them in context, Josef Albers’ The Interaction of Color is an essential resource. Although the original silk screen portfolio is only a collector’s item today, the Yale University Press continues to publish a conventional book version you can read about here.
An interactive iPad app titled Interaction of Color by Josef Albers is available here.
To read more about color check out Chapter 7 of Design: A Beginner’s Handbook.