How to Be an Artist, According to Josef Albers

Before Josef Albers was an artist, he worked as an elementary school teacher for over a decade. In the 1920s, much to the dismay of his parents, he quit teaching to study art and design at the groundbreaking Bauhaus school in Weimar, Germany. After just three years of instruction, Albers joined the faculty there, becoming the first Bauhaus student to be promoted to a professorial role.

When the Bauhaus closed in 1933, Albers immigrated to the United States. Over the next 30 years, he thrived as both an artist and a teacher, honing his signature style of abstraction while leading classes at North Carolina’s legendary Black Mountain College and Connecticut’s Yale University School of Art.

Albers always relied on his training as an elementary school teacher to guide his lesson plans. He rarely gave lectures—instead, he encouraged his students to learn through hands-on experimentation. This progressive teaching method proved effective. Many of his students—Eva Hesse, Ruth Asawa, Ray Johnson, Cy Twombly, Richard Anuszkiewicz, John Chamberlain, Richard Serra, and Robert Rauschenberg among them—would later become some of the most influential artists of the 21st century.

What follows is a selection of Albers’s greatest lessons, many of which continue to be used in classrooms today.

Lesson #1: Take three colors and turn them into four

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.

Lesson #2: Draw your name backwards and upside-down

To demonstrate the focus that drawing required, Albers led his students through a simple exercise. First, he asked them to write down their names on a sheet of paper and hold up their hands when they completed the task. The students scribbled their names and shot their hands up within seconds. Then, Albers challenged them to write their names backwards—and hands took longer to rise. Finally, he invited his students to write their names backwards and upside down.

To do this accurately, the students needed to focus, taking their time to envision the letter forms in their minds before writing anything down. This state of intense concentration, Albers told his students, is needed for every act of drawing.

At Yale, when Albers noticed that his students were lacking focus, he would make them walk across the street to Michael’s Art Store to buy $3 paper—then a costly purchase for students—to draw upon. Later, he would tell them to imagine that their cheap newsprint, a type of paper used for figurative drawing, was just as expensive, and ask them to draw on it with the same level of attention.

At the end of the semester, Albers collected his students’ sketchbooks to see if they had learned this lesson. “He threatened students with hell and damnation and a low grade at the least if they had doodles, phone numbers, cartoons, messages, or anything other than serious sketching in the book,” recalled his former student Rob Roy Kelly.

Albers wanted every page to be filled with careful drawings, and was known to even count the number of pages in his students’ sketchbooks to make sure that they didn’t cheat by ripping out any messy work.

Lesson #3: Use your hands to make newspaper sculptures

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are poor, not rich,” Albers announced at the beginning of his Preliminary Course at the Bauhaus, recalled his former student Hannes Beckmann. Holding a pile of newspapers in his arms, Albers continued, “All art starts with a material….I want you to respect the material and use it in a way that makes sense—preserve its inherent characteristics.”

Then, Albers gave his students their first task: to transform the newspapers using only their fingertips. Tools like scissors and glue were strictly forbidden. With limited options, the students needed to get creative—and take direction from the material itself to discover new potentials.

Albers found that his students worked with a greater sense of freedom when presented with unfamiliar materials. So instead of clay and marble, he filled his classes with corrugated cardboard, paper streamers, razor blades, and chewing gum. He often challenged his students to find the breaking points of these items. What arrangement of wire mesh would allow it to hold the most weight? How can you fold tin so that it presents the greatest shine?

The goal of these exercises was never to create artworks—in fact, Albers discouraged that. He wanted his students to learn how to approach materials without distraction. “At the moment, we prefer cleverness to beauty,” he would say.

Lesson #4: Draw the spaces between chair legs

Though he demanded focus, Albers also wanted his students to be absorbed by mundane visual phenomena, whether that be the flash of light when a television turns off, or the movement of color when a tea bag enters hot water. According to Albers, artists needed to have open eyes, sensitive to the lines, forms, and hues that are often overlooked.

Drawing the shapes (or “negative spaces”) between objects—whether that be chair legs, milk bottles, or plant leaves—would help students develop this sense of heightened perception. If students focused more on these in-between forms, they would learn to make stronger compositions, and might even become better people.

For Albers, art lessons always doubled as life lessons, and he believed that students who cultivated “visual empathy” would also develop social empathy. “Respect the other material, or color—or your neighbor. Respect the one you weren’t paying attention to,” he told his classes.

In so doing, Albers wanted to rid art and society from hierarchy. “We no longer draw distinctions between ‘carrying’ and ‘being carried’; we no longer admit divisions between ‘serving’ and ‘being served,’ between ‘decoration’ and ‘that which is decorated,’” he taught his students. “Every element must simultaneously help and be helped by the whole, support and be supported.”

Embodying these lessons, as you might imagine, takes time. Fifteen years after he graduated from Albers’s classroom, Rauschenberg admitted, “I’m still learning what he taught me.”

—Sarah Gottesman