The Secrets of Color

A Bauhaus artist’s classic, with a new app, is eye-opening.

An illustration of the relativity of color in Josef Albers's Interaction of Color: The inner violets are alike. But the one to the right appears to match the outer violet on the left, which is actually lighter.  (Josef Albers)

At one end of our bathtub is a demolition derby of plastic ducks, a dinosaur, and a mermaid Barbie in a formfitting pink-and-blue outfit, her bright-blond hair streaked with red and blue. The dinosaur is orange (what colors were dinosaurs?), with a tiger’s black stripes fanning out from its backbone. The ducks are bright yellow—naturally—but also hot pink, shiny black, and in one case (because there should be no limit to a child’s delight) a squeezable spectrum of green, purple, orange, yellow, and blue.

We grown-ups, of course, have our own “beautifully, unapologetically plastic” toys, and they keep getting “more capable and certainly more colorful.” That hype came from Apple’s design guru, flacking the leap beyond shades of gray and chrome in 2013: the iPhone 5c in white, blue, yellow, pink, and green, with mix-and-match cases “designed to add fun,” not “just to add protection.” Who isn’t entranced by the vibrantly pleasing surfaces of things in an intoxicatingly colorful world—although who hasn’t also been taken aback by the weird unreality of it? “Food-coloring pink, dead yellow,” my wife sighed as she shopped for her new toy, settling on a dark-gray device with a white case.

As the American silk dealer Ward Cheney had already figured out back in the 19th century, “Color is one of the most influential factors in the saleability of products.” He had no idea what a neon surfeit of manufactured color—dyed, painted, digitized—lay ahead as the engine of consumerism amped up childish enchantment into churning desire for, as Apple puts it, “bright combinations,” the more, the better. By now, the electrical and chemical industries, and the expert “colorists” hired by countless companies, have applied their magic to far more than our fancy silks and shiny gadgets. Everyday staples—toothbrushes, running shoes, cars, homes, the entire urban environment—have become exponentially more colorful than Cheney could have imagined. In turn, most of us might be startled to learn that not so long ago, the world was far more somber than we can imagine.

The “color revolution,” which is not too strong a term, has been more than a century in the making. The liberation story is one we’re still trying to understand—for good reason: color confounds us. Its elusive complexity is central to its allure, and to a long history of anxious efforts to keep it under control. “Chromophobia,” as the artist and writer David Batchelor has gone so far as to diagnose the tendency, dates back to ancient Greece, and its symptoms are not subtle. The pejoratives applied to color have run the gamut: foreign, primitive, frivolous, feminine, superficial, vulgar, inconstant. Immanuel Kant voiced a deeply rooted bias in Western art when he wrote, “In painting and sculpture … the design is the essential thing … The colors … may, in their own way, give an added liveliness to what we are looking at. But they can never, in themselves, make it beautiful.”

Two suitably dazzling, and dizzying, guides by contemporary design experts are crammed with up-to-date evidence of how much we have gotten wrong in trying to tame the mysterious power of color with rules and assumptions that turn out not to apply. Jude Stewart takes the title of her giddy exposé of conventional wisdom, ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color, from the most basic error of all— the seven-color spectrum we’re taught in kindergarten. Its inventor, Isaac Newton, seems to have gone ahead and decided that the spectrum should echo the seven-note musical scale, arbitrarily dividing purple into violet and indigo. (What is indigo? Don’t ask. Nobody knows.)

In The Secret Language of Color, Joann and Arielle Eckstut offer a thorough survey of social and cultural lore, with bright daubs of science along the way to add information—and fun. The “secret” they set out to celebrate is that the language of color is irreducibly subjective—its expressive power a product as much of slippery psychology as of intricate physics and chemistry. The retina, as they explain, discriminates among millions of light-wave combinations, converting radiant energy into electrochemical energy. The brain then synthesizes and interprets the stimuli as colors. So external conditions, such as lighting and texture, aren’t the only factors that cause color to behave in the bizarre ways it does. What happens in our heads makes all the difference: there is no such thing as color independent of the human system of visual perception. And that system encompasses everything from optical quirks (like contrast effects) to emotional, cultural, and even political associations. (Why are English speakers “green with envy,” while Germans are not just green but also yellow, and Chinese speakers are red?) Glossy primers destined for coffee tables, these are guides guaranteed to trigger delight and surprise in all ages.

But for the historical insight and lucidity our color-drenched era could definitely use, the 50th-anniversary edition of Interaction of Color, by the Bauhaus-bred artist and teacher Josef Albers, is especially worth examining. Hailed as a “grand passport to perception” by one reviewer of the 1963 best seller, Albers’s book now comes with just the right visa to get it into circulation today: a sophisticated app for iPads. Albers, who sailed for America in 1933 after the Nazis closed the avant-garde fine-arts-and-crafts Bauhaus school, liked to say that he wanted to “open eyes.” Half a century after it appeared, his book still does that. It also serves as a reminder of how much the color revolution owes to artists who hoped to let loose a power that would prove far more than decorative.

A true stimulant to the imagination, as the modernists saw it, color just might work social and spiritual transformations in a world cowering before the oppressive gray of industry, the foul brown of the trenches. It was “a power which directly influences the soul,” in the words of Wassily Kandinsky, and at the Bauhaus, where he arrived in 1922 after leaving Communist Russia for Germany, he proposed the theory that primary colors are intrinsically linked with basic forms. In a kind of utopian holy trinity, triangles were yellow, squares red, and circles blue. These pairings became the foundation of a new design grammar to be applied not just to canvas and sculpture but to daily existence—refashioning everything from buildings and chairs to cradles and nursery toys. “Fortunately,” Frank Lloyd Wright wrote, summing up the wishful credo of innocence reclaimed, “human beings are really childlike in the best sense when directly appealed to by simple, strong forms and pure, bright color.”

If only color, and humankind, were so tractable! Certainly the Josef Albers who arrived in the United States to head the art department at the newly founded Black Mountain College—a progressive incubator of experimental creativity and artistic collaboration outside Asheville, North Carolina—was a hard man to pin down. At once a twinkly-eyed spiritualist and a demanding pedagogue, Albers proved to be the advocate color had been awaiting. He was “a beautiful teacher and an impossible person,” in the words of Robert Rauschenberg, one of Black Mountain’s many illustrious alumni, who declared, “What he taught had to do with the entire visual world.” Albers, who went on to head Yale’s design program in 1950, emerged as the century’s clearest expositor and defender of color’s unruliness. Color could be put through its paces, he showed, but it could not be contained. Even as he rigorously pointed the way toward acquiring a command over color, Albers honored its independence. In the process, he dispelled its frivolous, sentimental aura.

“Art is swindle,” Albers was known to say, implying that if you had the right bag of tricks, you could pull off any effect. But the ethos that prevailed in his classes, and in the book that he constructed out of the lessons he taught his students, was the antithesis of “anything goes.” Famously wary of straying from a deliberate approach to “the most relative medium in art,” he was determined that the studies he designed for Interaction of Color should focus only on color itself—no distractions. They should offer “no opportunity [to use color] to decorate, to illustrate, to represent anything, or to express something—or one’s self.” And in his own art, he was nothing if not exacting. His best-known series of paintings, Homage to the Square, consists of differently colored squares, nesting inside one another so that the colors interact, in many cases with lovely, uncanny results. His impossible yet fruitful quest was to see these colors “behave; to do what I want, and not what they want.”

That has an awfully authoritarian ring, yet the tentative theory Albers extrapolated from his simple experiments with combinations of three or four colors sounds almost like the underpinnings of an open, democratic society. These combinations, he proposed, could be seen as symbols of “community spirit, of ‘live and let live,’ of ‘equal rights for all,’ of mutual respect.” He meant to point up differences between his own understanding of color and earlier views, such as the theory of complementarity embraced by van Gogh and the pointillists, which in practical application involved imposing a hierarchy: in each pair of opposites—red-green, yellow-violet, blue-orange, and white-black—one color was usually dominant. Albers realized that the matter was more complex—and more interesting. To achieve sought-after effects with color, hierarchies and prejudices (about favorite colors or even “harmonious” combinations) had to be set aside.

Color’s relativity had been established (and scorned by chromophobes) long before Interaction of Color came along. What was ingenious, and groundbreaking, was the way Albers presented the evidence: clearly, rationally, with each concise lesson leading on to the next, so that he achieved his goal—the honing of color sensitivity—in an unfolding, absorbing process. Using colored paper salvaged from printers’ workshops and bookbinders, pieces of magazine pages, paint samples, and rolls of unused wallpaper, he crafted extraordinarily effective demonstrations of color’s startling and deceptive behavior. He lured readers in with the basics, showing how one color can have, as he put it, “many faces”: the same color can be made to appear quite different if judiciously modified by other colors nearby. Conversely, different colors can be made to appear the same.

But to emphasize Albers’s careful plotting—and to extol the sparely elegant primer in which he compiled his lessons—is to miss a crucial ingredient of his approach: the infectious spirit of serious play he encouraged. Until now, Albers’s classic couldn’t do justice to the hands-on, experiential nature of classroom lessons that inspired Rauschenberg to praise him as “the most important teacher I’ve ever had” despite being “sure he considered me one of his poorest students.” Thanks to the brilliantly designed app that accompanies Interaction of Color, readers can be collagists rather than just attentive spectators.

They can mix and match, and be mystified and enlightened. Take two different colors—a tan and a darker brown—and drag the tan over to a field of very light gray. Now drag the darker brown alongside a deep, bluish green. Ooh and aah: the two colors look indistinguishable. But you won’t just gawk, you’ll go on to explore further. I couldn’t resist trying to solve Albers’s tricky puzzles. How do you tell which of two colors is darker than the other? (In many cases it’s difficult, if not impossible.) Can you transpose a constellation of colors (for example, four shades of blue) into a constellation of different colors (say, reds and pinks) while keeping their “intervals” basically intact, like changing keys in music? (Yes, sort of, but it’s not nearly as straightforward as you might think.)

Above all, I became intrigued by the challenge of connecting Albers’s distilled and adamantly rectilinear experiments with actual phenomena in nature and everyday life—the uniform blueness of distant mountains; the “glaring white” of the sun at noon; afterimages in complementary colors when you switch off the bedside light; the green ceilings of rooms surrounded by lawn. Interaction of Color takes color back from marketers and manically accessorizing consumers, calmly enlisting it to remind us how to be wide-eyed perceivers. Color, Albers reveals, is so much more than a merchandising tool, a marker of gender differences, a source of Instagram effects. Color is an inducement to wonder.

​When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.