Plate IV-I

My research has lead me into the dangerous world of perception. So much of how we interpret the world is based on experience, language, culture, and so on – all very subjective words. If this is true, how would someone that cannot communicate through verbal or written means see the world? Do they see, hear, feel differently? Can we interpret their interaction as a form of expression?

There’s enough in those sentences for a few PhD’s, so I’m nervously dipping my toe in the shallow end: first up looking at Josef Albers 1963 text, Interaction of Color. The book is a relatively straightforward art education affair, but it touches on some really interesting practical examples of subjectivity in viewing colour (even if it’s mostly about training the ‘artist eye’).

In the book, Albers shows some step-by-step exercises he created for students using coloured paper. I thought it might be interesting to try and reproduce one on-screen. Turns out it was an utter bastard. Representing printed colour on a computer screen is always nigh on impossible, but it seems that Albers’ colour ‘plates’ were exceptionally specific. Working in the limited gamut of a monitor colour space was tough.

On top of that, embedding a Processing sketch in WordPress took days off my life. Chrome didn’t even want to run Java applets from the Processing example sketches, WordPress doesn’t like… anything really, and all the plugins out there are utterly useless. In the end I just uploaded the latest Processing.js and Processing PDE file and it seems to be running fine. I don’t know why this couldn’t be turned into a WP plugin. If you can’t see the sketches on this page, please let me know


The above sketch is Plate IV-I from Interaction of Color. The idea is that the eye sees colours differently, depending on adjacent colour. The orange box in the blue looks to be a different colour to the orange box in the orange (at least that’s the idea – colours are going to look different on different screens). If you click on the sketch, the two horizontal bands will disappear, showing that the orange boxes are in fact the same vertical strip of colour.

I’m going to use a quote from Albers to introduce the following sketch:

If one is not able to distinguish the difference between a higher tone and a lower tone, one probably should not make music. If a parallel conclusion were to be applied to colour, almost everyone would prove incompetent for its proper use. Very few are able to distinguish higher and lower intensity (usually called higher and lower value) between different hues. This is true despite our daily reading of numerous black-and-white pictures. p.12


Again, I attempted to reproduce this exercise with Processing. Clicking on the top or bottom diamonds in the sketch above will reveal a different optical illusion. Albers puts it thus:

Focus longer than the eye wants to on the covering corner (B) of the upper paper and then quickly remove this upper sheet. If area (C) now appears lighter than area (A), then the upper paper is the darker – and vice versa. After this, repeat the experiment with the papers in reverse order. Frequently only 1 of the 2 reversed comparisons reveals the true relationship.

(A) is the background colour; (B) is the corner of the foreground colour, covering the other; and (C) is the corner of the background colour revealed when you click on the sketch. I was going to mark that in the sketch itself, but I’ve had enough of embedding technologies today and I couldn’t be bothered trying to get a font file into Processing.js right now. Nor am I going to give my opinion on the result of Albers test on the above sketch – or indeed if it actually works – after all, colour is totally subjective.

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