Tuesday, December 17, 2013


If you've attended art school in the last 40 years the chances are that your color classes used one of these books (above) as a text. I find that amazing since these books are intended for use by abstract artists who paint flat color fields, a category that doesn't include many artists. How on Earth did these specialized books come to dominate color education? I have a theory that might explain it, but I won't reveal it til the end of the post. 

Anyway, there's more than one reason why these books get used year after year. For one thing, they're cheap. The Itten book comes in a small thin edition and the paperback of Albers' book is almost pocket-sized.

Another reason is that both books have an academic, high-minded tone. Artists seem to like that. Maybe it's because we artists flatter ourselves as being the equivalent of doctors and scientists. We like having a book on the shelf that only the select understand.

Maybe it's because a lot of our ilk used to be Marxists and Freudians and that gave us a taste for the edgy manifesto style those authors use. Itten had a keen awareness of how image can sell a product. That's him above, carefully dressed and looking like the villain in a James Bond film.

Anyway, I had a chance to thumb through the books the other day and here's what I saw.

Both books start the same, with an emphasis on color gradients. They both begin with a black and white palette (above) where the values are restricted in different ways.

So far, so good. With the idea of limited black and white choices established, they go on to show how the same kind of limit (above) works for colors, too. You can favor the middle value colors with only a few darks and lights, or favor the darks and lights with only a small number of middle values. That's an interesting idea.

Unfortunately at this point they branch off into the esoteric. Both write more than you need to know about simultaneous contrast. Albers gets into a long discussion of flat, transparent colors layered on top of each other (above). It absorbs a lot of his attention at the expense of concepts that might have been a lot more useful.

Itten got into esoterica of his own. That's his color square pattern above. His book is full of them. The patterns are very pretty but, really, they're just pleasing colors of different types with some pure black and white to set them off. Why devote so much ink to them?

Maybe Itten would argue that setting off colors is no small thing. Look at the target above. It's just the three primary colors set off by black and white, but what a difference the black and white makes. Black and white are powerful activators of other colors.

Now here's the theory I promised: these books get bogged down in trivia and are only minimally useful for art students not specializing in abstraction or flat graphics. I believe the reason the books, especially Itten's book, dominates art schools is that it's so beautiful to look at. Itten's patterns especially look good on white paper with black print. The paintings themselves aren't always that interesting or profound but surround them with black and white as Itten did and they're riveting. Itten's arresting page layouts also help.

In other words, the real contribution Itten made was his re-invention of the art text book. In his shrewd hands the subject of the art book was less important than the look of the book itself.

Interesting, eh?


(not necessarily your) Uncle Skip, said...

"Interesting, eh?"

Uh huh!
I mean yes, really.

Jorge Garrido said...

Fascinating. I really don't like the sterile, geographic style of layout in these books.

Eddie, check out this cool retro photo of you and Ralph! http://i.imgur.com/zezVmNA.jpg

I hope you're not embarrassed or anything, it's a great shot!

Anonymous said...

I found something even cooler and retro:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRBjd4KijZA