Be the Artist: Josef Albers

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albers main
Make superhero tributes to Josef Albers’s “Homage to the Square” series by using colors that best represent the characters. Image by Lisa Kay Tate.

Part of my summer-long series where kids, teens, and fun-loving adults can learn about influential and popular artists by lending their own geeky edge to their styles.

albers and work
Josef Albers worked on his “Homage to the Square” series from 1949 until his death in 1976. Images via flickr: creative commons.

The Artist: Josef Albers

Josef Albers was born in Germany in 1888 and was an active artist and teacher at the celebrated German art school Bauhaus in the 1920s.

Although he was accomplished in many visual art forms, including photography, typography, and printmaking–not to mention being a talented poet–he is best known as an abstract painter and theorist.

It was after he moved to the United States that he began working on his famous Homage to the Square series in 1949. This series meant so much to him that he continued it until his death in 1976 in New Haven, Connecticut. These works, consisting of three or four layers of nested squares, may look at first like just a series of square patterns, but they were really all about color.

Albers was very serious about “chromatic interactions,” or how colors look when seen next to each other as well as how they appear one at a time.

According to Albers’s own writings on the topic, the way people experience color is “varied based on our individual personalities and on factors such as hue, dimension, and placement.”

For example, orange might make some people angry or anxious, and others energetic and excited. Place it next to yellow, and someone might see fire, while others see feathers, or flowers. Everyone, he realized, sees colors in their own way.

 The Project: Homage to the Superhero

Red, blue, and yellow can represent any number of heroes, including this representation of Superman. Image by Lisa Kay Tate.

For this project inspired by the series, we’ll take a look at the personality of favorite superheroes through color.

First, pick a medium to paint/draw with and on. Albers did much of these paintings on masonite in oils, but any medium will do (acrylic on canvas, watercolor on paper) as long as the attention to color relationship is the focus. If using a rectangle piece of paper, fold or cut it into a square shape, if possible.

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Incorporating Albers’s appreciation for colors in everyday doodles representing Wonder Woman and Spider-Man. Images by Lisa Kay Tate.

Find an image for the shape that might represent that hero. Logos work well, but keep them as simple as possible. Albers used the square because it was a neutral shape that would not distract viewers from focusing on the colors. Keep that in mind when picking a shape.

Use a template for reference, if needed, or draw it freehand, off-centered on the paper. Draw two or three larger outlines around the shape, so they look like concentric, or “nesting,” images.

Find three or four colors to represent the hero. Starting with the center image fill in each outline in an order so it conveys the hero’s personality or mission. Superman or Wonder Woman might have the brightest or lightest color on the outer edge, to represent hope or strength. Batman, on the other hand, might be a bright light surrounded by darkness.

Younger artists can try making different color patterns when doodling with crayon or marker and see how certain colors can create a mood, convey a personality, or even tell a story. Even the same four colors arranged in different patterns can change the mood.

For an extra challenge, use only squares, as Albers did, and represent the superhero entirely with colors. Many heroes may utilize the same colors (red, blue, and yellow is popular with many heroes), but the different arrangements are what make them unique. Anyone can draw squares, but squares using the right color patterns will make all the difference if distinguishing Supergirl from Wonder Woman.

Albers used simple squares because they didn’t distract from the color schemes. Shown is an Albers-style representation of The Hulk. Image by Lisa Kay Tate.

Even then, Albers said everyone will interpret the pattern in very personal ways.

“If one says ‘Red,’–the name of color–and there are fifty people listening, it can be expected that there will be fifty reds in their minds,” Albers said. “And one can be sure that all these reds will be very different.”

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