When Albers began his famous course on color, he asked his students to choose a red sheet of paper from a pack that included various different shades of the hue.
“Though there are innumerable colors—shades and tones—in daily vocabulary, there are only about 30 color names,” Albers explained in his book Interaction of Color (1963). For this reason, Albers found little use in talking about color, believing our lexicon was far too limited to capture its nuance.
Instead, he led his students through a series of trial-and-error experiments, so that they could teach themselves about the relativity of color: how a single color can take on a different quality or intensity depending on the colors that surround it.
For Albers, colored paper was the perfect tool for these exercises—it was cheap, flat, uniformly colored, and (as a bonus) mess-free. In one study, he asked his students to select three pieces of paper, all of different colors, and manipulate them in such a way that they appeared as four distinct hues. In another, he challenged them to do just the opposite—make four colors appear as three.
“In order to use color effectively, it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually,” Albers wrote of these assignments.
In 2013, the Yale University Press released an iPad version of Albers’s color studies in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Interaction of Color. The app features virtual colored paper, which users can digitally cut and paste to sensitize their eyes to the illusions of color.