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Black Mountain College Bulletin, Series 1, No. 2
Josef Albers, Concerning Art Instruction, June 1934


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When Rembrandt was asked how one learns to paint, he
is said to have answered "One must take a brush and
'begin." That is the answer of genius which grows
without school and even in spite of schooling. At the
same time we know that he had a teacher and became a

Delacroix went further when he wrote in his diary:
"How happy I should have been to learn as a painter
that which drives the ordinary musician to despair."
He meant by this the study of harmony and especially
the "pure logic" of the fugue: "which is the basis of all
reason and consistency in music."

These two assertions are not contradictory. They mere­
ly emphasize different aspects of an artist's work: on
the one hand the intuitive search for and discovery of
form; on the other hand the knowledge and application
of the fundamental laws of form. Thus all rendering
of form, in fact all creative work, moves between the
two polarities: intuition and intellect, or possibly be­
tween subjectivity and objectivity. Their relative im­
portance continually varies and they always more or
less overlap.

I do not wish to assert that the practice of art cannot
be learned or taught. But we do know that apprecia­
tion and understanding of art can grow both through
learning (the development of intuitive perception and

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discrimination) and through teaching (the handing on
of authoritative knowledge). And just as every per-
son is endowed with all the physiological senses, — even
if in varying degrees both in proportion and quality, —
likewise, I believe, every person has all the senses of
the soul (e.g. sensitivity to tone, color, space) though
undoubtedly with still greater differences in degree.

It is of course natural for this reason, that the schools
should at least begin the development of all incipient
faculties. But going farther, art is a province in which
one finds all the problems of life reflected — not only
problems of form (e.g. proportion and balance) but
also spiritual problems (e.g. of philosophy, of religion,
of sociology, of economy). For this reason art is an im-
portant and rich medium for general education and de­

If we accept education as life and as preparation for
life, we must relate all school work, including work in
art, as closely as possible to modern problems. It is not
enough to memorize historical interpretations and
aesthetic views of the past or merely to encourage a
purely individualistic expression. We need not be
afraid of losing the connection with tradition if we
make the elements of form the basis of our study. And
this thorough foundation saves us from imitation and
mannerisms, it develops independence, critical ability,
and discipline.

From his own experiences the student should first be-
come aware of form problems in general, and thereby
become clear as to his own real inclinations and abilities.
In short, our art instruction attempts first to teach the
student to see in the widest sense: to open his eyes to

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the phenomena about him and, most important of all,
to open his eyes to his own living, being, and doing.
In this connection we consider class instruction indis­
pensable because of the common tasks and mutual

We find this way more successful than starting, with-
out previous study of fundamentals, on studies in
special fields with purely individualistic corrections
(according to the taste of the teacher). At first every
student should come in contact with the fundamental
problems in as many branches of art as possible, instead
of beginning, for example, with life painting or animal

Many years' experience in teaching have shown that
it was often only through experimenting with the ele­
ments in various distinct branches of art that students
first recognized their real abilities. As a consequence
these students had to change their original plans. As
an instance, a student of painting discovered his real
talent was for metal working. Our first concern is not
to turn out artists. We regard our elementary art work
primarily as a means of general training for all stu­
dents. For artistically gifted students it serves as a broad
foundation for every special study.

We have three disciplines in our art instruction: Draw­
ing, Werklehre (work with materials and forms), Col-
or. These are supplemented by exhibitions and discus­
sions of old and modern art, of handicraft and indus­
trial products, of typographic and photographic work.
The exhibitions are used to point out special intentions
(e.g. art related to nature or remote from nature; the
so-called primitivism; monumental form, pure form;
and realism or imitation) and conditions due to work-

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ing material (e.g. wood form, stone form, metal form;
silver form in the Baroque, and gold in the Gothic).
In addition collections of materials (different woods,
stones, metals, textiles, leathers, artificial materials) are
shown. By excursions to handicraft and manufacturing
plants we seek to develop an understanding of the treat­
ment of material and of working in general (both as
matters of technique and as social matters).

Drawing we regard as a graphic language. Just as
in studying language it is most important to teach first
the commonly understood usage of speech, in drawing
we begin with exact observation and pure representa-­
tion. We cannot communicate graphically what we do
not see. That which we see incorrectly we will report
incorrectly. We recognize that although our optical
vision is correct, our overemphasis on the psychic vision
often makes us see incorrectly. For this reason we learn
to test our seeing, and systematically study foreshorten­
ing, overlapping, the continuity of tectonic and of
movement, distinction between nearness and distance.

Drawing consists of a visual and of a manual act. For
the visual act (comparable with thinking which pre-

cedes speaking) one must learn to see form as a three
dimensional phenomenon. For the manual act (compar­
able with speaking) the hand must be sensitized to the
direction of the will. With this in mind we begin each
drawing lesson with general technical exercises:  meas­
uring, dividing, estimating; rhythms of measure and
form, disposing, modifications of form. At the same
time the motor impulse becomes consciously directed.

It will be clear that we exclude expressive drawing as a

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beginning. Experience shows that in young people this
encourages artistic conceit but hardly results in a solid
capability which alone can give the foundation and free-
dom for more personal work.

For this reason our elementary drawing instruction is a
handicraft instruction, strictly objective, unadorned
through style or mannerism. As soon as capability in
handicraft has been fully developed, more individual
work may follow. As artistic performance it will de-
velop best afterwards and outside the school.

We repeat, our drawing is the study of the most object-
tive representation.

In Werklehre we cultivate particularly feeling
for material and space. It stands in contrast to a pure
manual training in various handicrafts which only. Ap-
plies fixed methods of work. We do not want "a little
bookbinding", "a little carpentry", but rather a gener-
al constructive thinking, especially a building thinking,
which must be the basis of every work with every ma-
terial. Werklehre is a forming out of material (e.g.
paper, cardboard, metal sheets, wire), which demon-
strates the possibilities and limits of materials. This
method emphasizes learning, a personal experience,
rather than teaching. And so it is important to make in-
ventions and discoveries. The idea is not to copy a book
or a table, but to attain a finger-tip feeling for material.
Therefore we work with as few tools as possible and
prefer material that has been infrequently used, such
as corrugated paper, wire, wire netting. With well-
known materials we seek to find untried possibilities.

Werklehre has two kinds of exercises: "materie" ex­
ercises and material exercises.


"Materie" is concerned with appearance, aspect, epider-
mis, surface. Here we distinguish structure, facture,
texture. We arrange the appearances according to op­
tical and tactile perception. We represent them by draw­
ing and other means.

In exercises of combination we examine the relations of
different materie: just as color reacts to color, in con­
trast or relationship, so one materie reacts to another.
For example, what wood and what leather go well to­
gether, or what metal and what stone. 

The study of material is concerned with the capacity
and strength of materials. We examine firmness and
elasticity, differentiate tension, compression, bending,—
in short, technical properties. Their application results
in construction exercises. At the same time comes a
feeling for space, dimension, expansion, contraction;
for balance, static and dynamic; for positive and active,
for negative and passive form.

We stress economy of form or the ratio of effort to

Comparisons of various examples in architecture, sculp­
ture, painting, help to make clear the conceptions of
proportion, function, constellation, and composition as
well as those of construction and combination.

In short, Werklehre is a training in adaptibility in the
whole field of construction and in constructive thinking
in general. Although we do not actually make practical
things, the Werklehre is not opposed to handicraft work
but is its very foundation.

Color we consider first as working material and
study its qualities. Sound production before speech,


tone before music. And so at first we study systematic‑

ally the tonal possibilities of colors, their relativity,
their interaction and influence on each other, cold and
warmth, light intensity, color intensity, physical and
spacial effects. We practice translating color combina­
tions into different intensities, and from colorful to col-
orless colors. We practice color tone scales, color mix­
tures and interpenetrations. We study the most im-
portant color systems, not for the sake of science or to
find the harmony of colors in a mechanical way, but to
learn to see and feel color. To prepare for a discip-
lined use of color and to prevent accident, brush, or
paint-box from taking authorship.

Even after these fundamental studies that occupy half
a year we are not in a hurry to make paintings. The
studies that follow, from nature or model, are in prin­
ciple concerned with the relationship between color,
form, and space. Serious painting demands serious
study. Rembrandt, at the age of thirty, is said to have
felt the need of twenty years of study for a certain
color-space problem.


By making an extended study in the three provinces of
form, material, and color, we provide a broad founda­
tion for the widest variety of tasks and for later special­
ization. No problem of form lies outside our field.
Thus we do not cultivate dilettantism—just. something
to do — (Beschaeftigungstrieb) but develop the crea­
tive, productive possibilities (Gestaltungstrieb). Class
instruction with common tasks and criticisms coming
from the students and then from the teacher com­
municates understanding of different ways of seeing
and of representing, and diminishes the tendency to
overestimate one's own work.


It will be clear that this method is meant for mature
students. For teaching children we should use other

Life is more important than school, the student and
the learning more important than the teacher and the
teaching. More lasting than having heard and read is
to have seen and experienced. The result of the work
of a school is difficult to determine while the pupil is
in school. The best proofs are the results in later life,
not, for example, student exhibitions. Therefore to
us the act of drawing is more important than the graph­
ical product; a color correctly seen and understood more
important than a mediocre still-life. It is better to be
really able to draw a sign-board than to be content with
unfinished portraits.

Most of our students will not become artists. But if
they know, for example, the capacities of color they are
prepared not only for painting but also for the practical
use of color in interiors, furniture, clothes. These ex-
amples also illustrate the need of an understanding of

We are content if our studies of form achieve an un-
derstanding vision, clear conceptions, and a productive

June, 1934.      JOSEF ALBERS.