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Interaction of Color, Josef Albers


I am sure that people that have been working with color detection, will agree with Josef Albers’ statement that

“Color is the most relative medium in art” 

Since color is reflected light, and because the light is ever changing in a room, and because the reflected light is affected by other sources of reflected light, that reflects reflected light, it can be a very tricky to work with!

 “Colors and Hues are defined, as are tones in music, by wave length” 

I decided to read the book “Interaction of Color”, by Josef Albers – student and teacher at Weimar Bauhaus, because I found it to be relevant to me and Natasha’s Color Play project. For our project we have built our own color sensor by a light sensor and an RGB LED. Im am just recently beginning to understand how the sensor actually works – how it much like the human vision, reads waves of light physically bouncing off of a surface.

Because our project deals with a color – sound relationship, I read the book with these color-sound glasses on. Reading the book in that context totally made sense, because in “Interaction of Color”, Josef Albers uses several musical analogies such as harmony and harmonization, dissonance, consonance, interval, composition, arrangement and more to explain his color theory and it was great to learn more about Albers thoughts on how the senses of vision and hearing relate. He compares how hearing music depends on the recognition of the in-betweens of the tones, of their placing and of their spacing and to how the concern should be the interaction of color and seeing what happens between colors.

He also talks a lot about the differences in how we perceive color from sound, how we are able to hear a single  tone, but that we almost never see a single color. He states that if one is not able to distinguish the difference between a higher tone and a lower tone, one should probably not make music, and explains how that conclusion can’t really be applied to color, since very few people can distinguish higher and lower light intensity between different hues.

According to Josef Albers, what is the most distinct difference between a musical composition and a color composition is, that music is perceived over time, where colors can be seen in any direction and at any speed.

“different basic conditions of these media result in different behavior” 

Bauhaus was founded with the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk, creating a ‘total’ work of art in which all arts, including architecture would eventually be brought together. To me, ITP could be the Bauhaus of today. This possibility of synthesis of the arts is what I find to be so great and special about ITP. Here you meet people with skills in all the different fields of the arts and beyond.

Just as with Bauhaus, ITP offers an experimental hands on approach to learning and creating arts education. Let’s think about what it is that makes a coding class at ITP different from a coding class at computer Science studies?

 “Just as the knowledge of acoustics does not make one musical… so does no color system by itself develop one’s sensitivity for color… What counts here is not so called knowledge, but seing. Seing here implies fantasy and imagination”  Josef Albers


6 comments to Interaction of Color, Josef Albers

  • Andrew "Sigler"

    This is an interesting topic you bring up, trying to tie color and sound, or visuals and music, together in some fashion. We see a lot of things that talk about visualizing audio, or people who install computers on their heads to “hear” color, but really it seems that trying to make one form analogous to another is a very tricky thing to do.

    Let’s take the first one, visualizing audio. How do you visualize audio? The most obvious thing to do it make something “bigger” or “more distinct” when a sound get’s louder. There is some sort of direct correlation between sonic amplitude and visual awareness. However, beyond that, we enter strange lands. How do you represent frequency and tone with color and/or shape? In the audio industry, people like to use colors to describe timbre. For example, if someone says “can you make it a bit more purple,” or “that’s too yellow, you know?” you have to translate that into some sort of frequency response. Purple = dark = deep = lower frequencies. Yellow = bright = light = near = high frequency. It’s a strange thing to do, but people are inclined to use color to talk about sound.

    What about the other way around? Hearing visuals. The artist Neil Harbisson uses a computer to hear colors. That is, he mapped certain color to be specific frequencies, so that over time and training, he can identify colors by their sound. The sound it makes, however, is not very pleasant. In order for it to be accurate, it creates a single sine wave or tone, that sort of jumps around when it sees multiple colors. Doesn’t sound good at all. But, it is useful for him. Whenever we see pieces that attempt to “hear” color and visuals, the musician and sound designer is not trying to make something as literal as this, but is instead doing some sort of personal translation, where she will create whatever sounds come to mind for a given image.

    I guess this all interests me because what it really comes down to is the individual’s creativity in trying to map one sense to another, which is what we’re trying to do every day at school (at least I am). When we say “hey, push this, and you’ll hear this and see that,” we are translating across multiple senses to try and create an unified experience. There are no literal translations between senses, and if we tried to do this, it would probably not be too enjoyable. Maybe thought provoking, but definitely not something an eight-year-old would want to witness, if that matters at all to you. At least for myself, I try to steer clear of the “oh, that’s interesting to think about” stuff.

  • Nancy

    Nice that this book could be helpful to you on an ITP project. It is a venerable old and seminal book. The people at the Bauhaus were trying to define and re-define design and the approach to the world. you should read Dexter’s post of Thinking With Type. He references Albers’ book and didn’t find it stood the test of time. I’m glad you did. (Dexter.. it’s all right that you didn’t. I just have a soft spot for Albers)

  • Fang-Yu

    “Colors and Hues are defined, as are tones in music, by wave length”
    I did a project named “ Listen to light ” which is related with this sentence in the cooking with sound class .I believe there are some ways to transfer between light and sound because both of them are composed of wave. So how to listen the light? On the other hand ,how to see the sound? It is amazing if people can listen the shining light .

    In this experiment, I try to use solar panels to detect light, like the link # step1
    Although I failed in the final because the solar panels generated electricity too weak to create sound. But I still believe that this could be successful.

    The other thing you mention that a lot of the itper try to use color detection in their project. But there are seldom people using color emotion .So I think if someone can map color emotion on the human emotion, it will be interesting. Actually in the Chinese literature , “Jinghua Yuan or Flowers in the Mirror” , one of chapter is telling everyone has their own clouds which represent their personality. If you are a bad person, your cloud is black. If you are a nice person, your cloud is colorful. In that world, no one can do illegal thing and no one can have bad heart. So~ if I can detect the user’s emotion or user’s mind, I can map these information on the color and then show it. If our mind become transparently, what kind of world will become? Whether it will be like the book said,it is a safe world.

  • Sam Brenner

    To the point of color being a relative medium: (the “green” and the “blue” are the same color. Neat!)

    To answer the question about what makes a coding class here different from a coding class in a computer science program: I think it’s not so much about the specific class, but the context it’s happening in. Processing, Arduino, websites etc. are nothing more than tools in our toolbox to execute whatever creative vision we might have. The fact that there are people of such diverse backgrounds here – all of which inspire many different visions – is an aspect of the Bauhaus that we’re fortunate to share (and expand on). There, you might have a typographer sharing ideas with an architect. Here you might have a lawyer and a musician trying to make a robot together.

    About “mapping senses,” “turning emotion to color,” etc: I think it’s important to have a really clear goal for any project that attempts this, since it is, as has been mentioned, entirely subjective. Not only that, but it’s also subject to a lifetime of reinforced stereotypes (red is angry, blue is calm! Though I suppose that’s something that can be taken advantage of). I wonder what is the next step these sorts of projects can take? That is to say, cool, I can make “red” equal “middle C,” or I can make “bad” equal “black cloud,” but what next? What larger goal does that help accomplish? Louise and Natasha’s project was successful in taking this step, I think, because it seemed (to me, at least) that its goal was novel way to make melodies. A user isn’t asked to find a deep emotional value in the assignment of a color to a pitch, beyond its role in the larger melody-making system. Which makes it a project I can easily understand and enjoy.

  • Harry (Chiu-Hao) Chen

    To manipulate color is always a fascinating part for any kinds of creative works. However, our brain to interpret color is always NOT so correct to the “real” color! Our brain’s interpretation of color may sometimes make more sense of beauty, but sometimes confused us. Try to use this color theory exercise: (thanks Katherine to provide this url) See how many exercises you can answer correctly?? As the previous experience, it may result bad guess when people try to recognize if the color matching is different or the same! I want to bring this test because there might be some advantage and disadvantage to make use of color definition related to our brain. For example, we can easily make some game (or trick) based on misunderstanding of colors, such as this: Are you stunning that you are totally can not tell the TRUE color? People always say that ‘ to see is to believe’, from this example, do you still think so? For the bright side, we might develop some system to help some disable people to live better. For example, if we know what color combination (shape, contract, brightness, hue….) can cheat our brain, we can create a fake but helpful signage for people with bad eyesight for instance. Again, to manipulate color is always a challenge and if we can utilize how our brain behave, we can create more helpful (some sort of cheating) color system maybe. Finally, if you are willing to know more about your brain, check this paper: I haven’t read it yet but in my library collection, I hope you can share with your thoughts to me if you read it!

  • gj lee

    about the difference in taking a coding class at itp vs. cs studies… the way this program is structured, it seems like people form the classes into what works for them… which is why people with various backgrounds regarding coding (and any other skill for that matter) can take a class together and create something. it’s something i find to be rare.

    this is a little off topic but your response reminded me about something i read a while ago about synesthesia. people with color synesthesia correlate abstracts things like numbers with colors.. the person will look at the number 6 and will see that number in a color that people without synesthesia can’t see. it’s quite interesting. each person’s perception of those letters and numbers vary because it’s based on their own senses and experiences. those numbers and letters can have emotional attachments to the person as well.