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Even knowing that visual language is a totally different language than the language of words, each acting on its own level, color is still a very difficult subject to describe. Any form can be described, but trying to catch color in words is impossible. In the lecture Abstract Art (August 1935) Josef Albers says: “Take for instance the word red. Even when you explain this red more precisely through other words, dark, light, deep, flat, active, substantial, loose, dense, transparent, opaque—still we will have different reds in our minds. Only the pigment red, the color by itself, is able to get all the different imaginations into the same direction. But the psychic reactions are still different. We could find many examples of this kind telling us how inadequate the language is for the expression of taste, only one example more: try to describe the taste of sweet or sour—impossible to find the right word.”
Furthermore color is “the most relative medium in art” (from: Interaction of Color) depending on the light of the surrounding, on the form and quantity of the color, on the other colors, the background, on our own flexible way of looking. Color is a whole world.

Color is a Whole World


by José Heerkens


Josef Albers

Color Study for Homage to the Square, n.d.

Oil and graphite on blotting paper

 © 2017 Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 


We are so used to there being thousands of colors around us. However, seeing color is a different matter. It appears that only a minority of people is able to distinguish between higher and lower intensities of hues. Josef Albers, in both his artworks and his teaching, sought ways of developing an eye for color. In the publication Interaction of Color (1963) he describes ways to learn about color through experience – by the method of trial and error. He encourages us to study the character of color, its space and light, to be aware of the placement of color. The painter can use color to guide the observer through the painting. In Untitled Abstraction VIII, c. 1937, the eye starts at the top of the painting, at the strong warm red colors. Without theories but by discovering and looking, he went to the heart of the matter of color.

Josef Albers,

Untitled abstraction VIII, ca. 1937.

Oil on blotting paper, 19 x 24 in. (48.2 x 60.8 cm)  

© 2017 Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The only sense organ that brings us in contact with color is the eye. In order to make color to a concrete factor that we can see, it needs a form, a shape or outline. Albers made the ingenious discovery that the square as a form could be subservient to color. He made a basic composition of three or four squares set inside one another, on masonite. This form gave him the freedom to be concerned only with color; he named it Homage to the Square. In 1950, at the age of sixty-two, Albers developed this concept and would continue working on it for twenty-six years, until his death in 1976. Homage to the Square would become his most important body of work, known world wide. Looking at these works I read the sincerity of the approach as well as the fun of making, searching and finding. Everything I’ve learned about color started by looking at Homage to the Square.

Often in paintings I see that form predominates over color, and color is used secondarily only to clarify the form and strengthen its shape. To go further and make color come first is a great challenge. This challenge is optimally elaborated in Homage to the Square where the squares provide the colors with a form. The works are made in all kinds of color combinations and pallettes, from colors very close in their intensities up to contrasting colors. To exceed the form of contrasting colors, Albers uses one or two colors to mediate between the extremes; for instance, with black and white he puts a light blue. Each painting comes to the point of interaction with three or four colors. Albers makes this interesting point about color combinations: “independent of harmony rules, any color ‘goes’or ‘works’ with any color, presupposing that their quantities are appropriate.

Albers made the Homage to the Square works working with a spatula or pallette knife to avoid personal structure and stay solely with the color. “How” to paint is an important part of creating a painting, of its expression. There are many possibilities for a painter and choices to make. In his lecture The Meaning of Art (1940) Albers states: “Art is concerned with the HOW, not with the WHAT; not with literal content, but its performance of the content. The performance—how it is done—that is the content of Art”.    

Josef Albers

 Study for Homage to the Square with color study (Study for Arctic Bloom), ca. 1965. Oil on blotting paper, 12 x 12 in. (30.5 x 30.5 cm). The Josef Albers Museum Quadrat Bottrop.

© 2017 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / ARS, NY


Recently, I revisted the Josef Albers Museum Quadrat in Bottrop, Germany, which is dedicated to the work of Albers, who was born in Bottrop. In addition the museum displays work of painters of his generation and of contemporary painters. Besides his earlier work and photo collages and a beautiful textile by Anni Albers, his wife, currently there is a presentation of Homage to the Square and studies in greens, which is an interesting choice by the director.

I think green is not an easy color; it is not a color of great emotion or one that grabs attention. At first sight, green is not demanding, but this quality invites us to look more closely. Green, made of yellow and blue, has a range of tones, from yellow-greens to blue greens, and these tones go from white- to grey- to black-greens, from ochre- to brown-greens. It is through the subtly nuanced tones, the sophisticated combination, that the colors open their wide world. In the green Homage to the Square works, I read the happiness of differences, warm and cool, fresh and old, light and dark.

 View on a wall in the Josef Albers Museum Quadrat in Bottrop, Germany (photo José Heerkens)

Everyone has a preference for certain colors and color combinations, like the thrill I get in my stomach seeing cobalt blue with a soft orange. Color is both a universal language and a personal language that reveals something of ourselves. Consequently, looking at a painting is equal to reading the choices of the painter. We see an attitude towards color, certain colors; towards light, texture, material, form; and towards gesture. We can folllow the artist’s thinking and read the solutions made during the creative process. In this way, art communicates with the observer. Art asks: What do you think? Where do you stand? In fact, it poses the same questions as life itself.

In 2011, I was artist-in-residence at The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany, Connecticut for three months. As often as I wanted, I could look at the “Homage to the Square” works, finding them to be enormously rich in their intelligent simplicity. For these paintings Albers never mixed colors himself but used the color directly from the tube, and collected all possible variations of every color, of different marks. This made it easier to work systematically and to be independent of the subjectivity that enters in when mixing colors yourself.


Josef Albers 

Color Study for Homage to the Square: Green Passage, 1958.

Oil on blotting paper, 6 x 12 in. (15.2 x 30.5 cm). The Josef Albers Museum Quadrat Bottrop.

© 2017 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / ARS, NY

In oil paint on paper, Albers noted and combined different tones. I like these studies very much because of Albers’ touch, their openess, the oil creeping into the blotting paper. In Study [05_1976-2-44] every green is its own color. The greens are not variations on a single color obtained by adding black or white. The light green on the right has more yellow in it, as does the darker green on the left. Between these yellow greens Albers placed two blue greens: a lighter grey blue green and a dark cobalt green. The interaction of these four greens creates tension and the unexpected sensation of different tastes, different beats. The light green on the right is larger to balance the three darker greens. His eye for color was amazing.

This study is made with four different colours. The two squares on the outside have almost the same intensity: the largest square in grey-green and the smaller in grey- blue are in close harmony. Inside these squares Albers put a dark blue cobalt and a strong pure cobalt blue. Blue is both wide and deep and creates here a rich sound of silence. The beauty is that the colors always cooperate with each other, and with form and space, at a human scale. It says something we cannot put in words, but the intimacy of this work makes me thoughtful.


Josef Albers,

Study for Homage to the Square, n.d.

Oil on blotting paper, 13 1/5 x 11 7/8 in. (33.5 x 30.3 cm).

The Josef Albers Museum Quadrat Bottrop.

© 2017 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / ARS, NY

In my work I keep searching for each color by mixing, but the point is nevertheless to find the right color. Many times I discover that when a painting does not work, the problem lies not in the form but almost always in the color. The wrong color blocks the movement. Sometimes, just a different nuance of color suddenly allows the work to live again, to open itself. The only way to find the right color is by doing it. Mainly, I work on pure and transparent prepared linen. The brownish ochre color of the linen is the first color to work with and cannot be ignored. The same color looks much different on a white ground than on a linen ground. If a color is very close, adjacent to the color of the linen background, it almost gets absorbed by the background, like a silent dialogue, while contrasting colors create a loud expression.

To evoke space and interaction, to reach it, colors need to be at the same level. When one of the colors is much darker, stronger, larger, lighter etc. it will jump forward or backward and demand all the attention. The degree of contrast articulates the color boundaries, and this plays an important role in characterizing the painting.
Finally, the painter takes the lead and the main question always is: What does the painter want? And how to paint it?

José Heerkens is painter who lives and works in Zeeland NB, The Netherlands. She studied at the Royal Academy of Art in ‘s- Hertogenbosch NL. In 2011, she was artist-in-residence at The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany CT, USA. Of this period she published two artist books: Upon the long River (2014) and Meet me in Brooklyn (2012). In 2016, Heerkens had a solo exhibition in Mies van der Rohe Haus in Berlin, G (Cat.) and she took part in the International Painting Symposium Mark Rothko at the Mark Rothko Art Center in Daugavpils, Latvia. More info about her work at


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