one + one line = many meanings
3 min read

one + one line = many meanings

one + one line = many meanings

Josef Albers was an artist and professor of colours. His book, Interaction of Colour, is the book on colour. Illusions of transparency in colour, vanishing and expanding borders, and colour relativity are a bunch of theories Albers explains in beautiful visual detail but the big lesson for me was learning that what we see is often not what we get. Colour, you see, changes based on its relational context to others around it. Sounds familiar...

Albers demonstrated the discrepancy between what you see and what you know. He described this as the difference between a 'factual fact', something you intellectually know, and an 'actual fact', your experience of something. Here's an example to help explain:

On the left, the dark greens in the centre of the boxes look different, but they are in fact the same, and despite the boxes being the same size the top box looks as if it's growing while the bottom appears to be shrinking. The small brown boxes on the image on the right are also the same colour, yet the lower brown looks darker. Albers proves in a beautifully aesthetic way how different things can look based on what's around them and goes on to explore how colours play with one another to create various illusions.

Albers was obsessed with exploring how the eye filters colours. His interest lay in how light leaves a surface and is at first processed by the eye followed by the brain. What he showed is that everything is very much open to interpretation in different contexts. The way colour travels to our eyes and is then filtered to the brain reveals a daily dance between actual reality and factual reality. Neither the greens nor browns in the above illustration are entirely real or not real in how we view them. Most of us process the information in the same way and see these colours in the same way, so how can it be that one reading of colour is wrong while another correct?

The inner purples are the same. I think. 

I found comfort in knowing how reality changes around us at the most basic level and his work seemed to chime with an interest I had since I was young about how animals see the world differently. A bee, for instance, sees the world in ultraviolet light - their actual view of a flower is very different to ours, even though it is the same object. How funny, I thought, that all these creatures see everything so differently.  

Albers has a series of tutorials to help  students understand how colours play with each other in our eyes. He teaches us that ideas are born in this gap between two realities, that there is a gap between what we interpret as real and what is, and that this is actually a wonderful gap to step into.

I've used Albers' work at some trainings and workshops to help people better understand how reality can look different to the actuality in which we exist, and to demonstrate why scientific evidence - trustworthy or not - can be rejected by some and accepted by others. By using the example of colour distortion, I am attempting to show why facts, data, and evidence alone will never be enough to fully convince groups of people because we build filters for everything.

What I've noticed in these workshops is that those with a more artistic bent tend to enjoy and welcome this information. It just seems to make sense that between the physical world and our senses everything is filtered and it's only normal that reality becomes distorted in some way. On the other side of the fence, there are those who are in need of datasets to reassure them that everything is under control struggle to accept that one thing, colours in this case, can have many meanings. It can be a destabilising experience.

I'll close this little thought with the words of Josef Albers himself on how we describe the world in ways in which it is often not. But then again, sometimes is.

Enjoying these posts? Subscribe for more