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Black Mountain College Bulletin
Series 1, No. 2 (Second Printing)

Josef Albers, "Concerning Art Instruction,"


Page 1 (Illustrated cover)





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[Page 2]

When Rembrandt was asked how one learns to paint, he is said to

have answered "One must take a brush and begin." This 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 teacher.


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 har-

mony 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 merely 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 render-

ing of form, in fact all creative work, moves between the two

polarities: intuition and intellect, or possibly between subjectivity

and objectivity. Their relative importance 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 appreciation and understanding of art

can grow both through learning (the development of intuitive per-

ception and discrimination) and through teaching (the handing on

of authoritative knowledge). And just as every person 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

further, art is a province in which one finds all the problems of life

reflected not only the problems of form (e.g. proportion and bal-

ance) but also spiritual problems (e.g. of philosophy, of religion, of

sociology, of economy) . For this reason art is an important and rich

medium for general education and development.



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If we must 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 his-

torical 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 ele-

ments 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 become 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 the phenomena about him and, most important of all, to open

to his own living, being, and doing. In this connection we consider

class work in art studies necessary because of the common tasks and

mutual criticism.


We find this way more successful than starting, without previous

study of fundamentals, on studies in special fields with purely indi-

vidualistic corrections, depending on 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 begin-

ning, for example, with life painting or animal sculpture.


Many years' experience in teaching have shown that it was often

only through experimenting with the elements 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 re-

gard our elementary art work primarily as a means of general train-

ing for all students. For artistically gifted students it serves as a

broad foundation for later special study.


We have three main disciplines in our art instruction: Drawing,

Basic Design (Werklehre) , and Color-Painting. These are supple-

mented by exhibitions and discussions of old and modern art, of



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handicraft and industrial products, of typographic and photo-

graphic work. The exhibitions are used to point out special inten-

tions (e.g. art related to nature or remote from nature; the so-called

primitivism; monumental form, pure form; and realism or imita-

tion), and conditions due to working 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 de-

velop an understanding of the treatment 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 lan-

guage it is most important to teach first the commonly understood

usage of speech, in drawing we begin with exact observation and

pure representation. 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 over-

emphasis on the psychic vision often makes us see incorrectly. For

this reason we learn to test our seeing, and systematically study fore-

shortening, overlapping as the main form problems of graphic ar-

ticulation, and distinction between and the pronunciation of near-

ness and distance.


Drawing consists of a visual and of a manual act. For the visual act

(comparable with thinking which precedes speaking) one must

learn to see form as a three-dimensional phenomenon. For the man-

ual act (comparable with speaking) the hand must be sensitized to

the direction of the will. With this in mind we begin drawing les-

sons with general technical exercises: measuring, dividing, esti-

mating; rhythms of measure and form, disposing, modifications of

form. At the same time we use the motor sense as an important cor-



It will be clear that we exclude expressive drawing as a beginning.

Experience shows that in young people this encourages artistic con-

ceit but hardly results in a solid capability which alone can give the

foundation and freedom for more personal work.


For this reason our elementary drawing instruction is a handicraft



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instruction, strictly objective, unadorned through style or man-

nerism. As soon as capability in handicraft has been fully devel-

oped, more individual work may follow. As artistic performance it

will develop best afterwards and outside the school.

We repeat, our drawing is the study of objective representation.

In Basic Design (Werklehre)  design with material  we culti-

vate particularly feeling for material and space. It stands in contrast

to a pure manual training in various handicrafts, which only applies

traditionally fixed methods of work. We do not aim at "a little book-

binding", "a little carpentry", but rather a general constructive

thinking, especially a building thinking, which must be the basis of

every work with any material. Basic Design is a forming out of

material (e.g. paper, cardboard, metal sheets, wire), which demon-

strates the possibilities and limits of materials. This method empha-

sizes learning, a personal experience, rather than teaching. And so

it is important to make inventions and discoveries. The idea is not

to copy a book or a table, but to attain a finger-tip feeling for ma-

terial. 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 un-

tried possibilities.


Basic Design deals mainly with two subjects, with matiere studies

on the one hand and material studies on the other.


Matiere studies are concerned with the appearance, the surface

(epidermis) of material. Here we distinguish structure, facture,

texture. We classify the appearances according to optical and tactile

perception. We represent them by drawing and other means. In

combination exercises we examine the relationship of different sur-

face qualities. Just as color reacts to and influences color  in con-

trast or affinity  so one matiere influences another.


Material studies are concerned with the capacity of materials. We

examine firmness, looseness, elasticity; extensibility and compres-

sibility; folding and bending  in short technical properties. These

studies in connection with the mathematical inherence of form

result in construction exercises. With these we try to develop an



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understanding and feeling for space, volume, dimension; for bal-

ance, static and dynamic; for positive and active, for negative and

passive forms. We stress economy of form, that is the ratio of effort

to effect.

Comparisons of various examples in architecture, sculpture, paint-

ing, help to make clear the conceptions of proportion, function,

constellation, and composition as well as those of construction and



In short, Basic Design is a training in adaptibility in the whole field

of construction and in constructive thinking in general. Although

we do not actually make useful things, Basic Design is not opposed

to handicraft work but is its very foundation.


Color we consider first as working material and we study its quali-

ties and activities. Sound production comes before speech, tone be-

fore music. And so at first we study systematically the tonal possi-

bilities of colors, their relativity, their interaction and influence on

each other, cold and warmth, light intensity, color intensity, psy-

chical and spatial effects. We practice translating color combina-

tions into different intensities, and from colorful to colorless colors.

We practice color tone scales, color mixtures and interpenetrations.

We study the most important 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 disciplined use of

color and to prevent accident, brush, or paint-box from taking



The studies in painting, from nature or model, are in principle con-

cerned with the relationship between color, form, space, and com-

position. Series 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 main provinces of form;

namely shape, material, and color, we provide a broad foundation

for the widest variety of tasks and for later specialization. No prob-

lem of form lies outside our field. Thus we do not cultivate dilet-



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tantism  just something to do  (Beschaftigungstrieb) but de-

velop the creative, productive possibilities (Gestaltungstrieb). Class

instruction with common tasks and criticisms coming from the stu-

dents and then from the teacher communicates 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 methods.


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 draw-

ing is more important than the graphical product; a color correctly

seen and understood more important than a mediocre still-life. It is

better to be able really to draw a signboard 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, furni-

ture, clothes. These examples also illustrate the need of an under-

standing of materials.


We are content if our studies of form achieve an understanding

vision, clear conceptions, and a productive will.




Frontispiece : Study from the Werklehre class,

plastic construction in paper