Color Studies Curriculum: Re-Envisioning Josef Albers’ Interaction of Color in the Digital Age

Yue (Julia) Cao, Rochester Institute of Technology

For decades, educators have utilized the landmark work of Josef Albers Interaction of Color in their curricula. Traditionally, students are assigned to use color papers to replicate the work of Albers, with the goal of learning about various visual color phenomenon.

Inexpensive, mass-produced versions of Interaction of Color are widely available, however in 1963 Yale University Press created a meticulously produced, largely screen printed version which displayed many examples of Albers’ work. The edition features impressive color reproductions as it replicates many of the color phenomenon as originally conceived by Albers himself, who oversaw the publication personally. Rare booksellers advertise these original volumes for thousands of dollars today, and many of these editions have been disassembled and sold piecemeal, making the remaining copies even more scarce. Fortunately, in 2009 Yale University Press re-published a very carefully produced edition of the 1963 Interaction of Color to the same standards, with this volume selling for nearly $300. This edition is supported by the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. Finally, a relatively affordable, finely reproduced version of Interaction of Color is available.

Returning to curricular issues, many educators teach color studies courses the same way today as they have been for decades, with a discussion of some of the examples proposed by Albers and students using color papers to replicate those samples using an entirely visual approach. Historically, visual analysis was the only criteria used to produce and evaluate the exercises. While there have been attempts to offer software products to supplement the traditional color paper-method of learning about color, including an app for the iPad, a review of the literature revealed no studies that utilized colorimetry and a color-managed workflow to explore another method to approach this work.

The present study proposes to bring these exercises into the digital and color measurement age. The goal is to quantify select exercises and ascertain the efficacy of a commonly used color paper set versus a color managed workflow.

  1. Measure samples from Interaction of Color

Select examples from the carefully produced Interaction of Color (2009) will be measured colorimetrically using a Spectrophotometer. In particular, the various colors used in examples where two colors appear like one and one color appears like two will be recorded in L*a*b*C*h°. In this manner, the relationship of the respective colors can be compared in similarity in terms of lightness, chroma and hue, with a goal of determining possible insights into how colorimetry fits in these color relationships.

  1. Measure samples of commonly used color papers

Color-Aid papers, a set of 314 different color papers available commercially and widely used by students enrolled in color studies classes, will also be measured with values recorded in L*a*b*C*h°. Here, the colorimetric values of the Color-Aid papers will be compared to the measured samples selected from Interaction of Color. The aim here is to ascertain the best way to select Color-Aid papers to match the samples from Albers’ book from a colorimetric standpoint.

  1. The same selected samples from Interaction of Color will be reproduced in a carefully color-managed environment, using Adobe PhotoShop and a color managed inkjet printer.

Research questions are as follows:

What are the colorimetric limitations of using Color-Aid Papers to replicate the “two colors as one” and “one color as two” from Interaction of Color?

What are the colorimetric limitations of using PhotoShop and an inkjet printer in a color managed environment to replicate the “two colors as one” and “one color as two” from Interaction of Color?

The analysis will include comparison of the two methods and discussion about best practices for implementation in classroom settings.

Yue (Julia) Cao is a Master of Science degree candidate at Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 2014 at Nankai University in Tianjin, People’s Republic of China, where she majored in Management of Public Administration. As an undergraduate student, Julia worked in several internships, including work at the Cameron Pace Group, where she served as a liaison between the US-based and Tianjin-based employees in 3D film and video production. In addition, she worked at “Music Today” CCTV, a weekly television show that introduces world music to Chinese audiences. Upon graduation, she worked as a professional administrator at the Innovation Service Company in Binhai, Tianjin before coming to Rochester. After graduation from RIT, Julia would like to pursue internship or Co-op opportunities in the US before returning to China.