“In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is, as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art.” Josef Albers
Many people are confused about color. I can understand why. Color is all about relationship. About perception. And that can get complicated.
One color can have many faces. This means the same color can appear to be very different, depending on what’s around it. Check out the color fields below. It is almost impossible to perceive that the two small brown squares are cut from the same piece of paper.
And two very different colors can appear to be the same as illustrated by the examples below.
Our perception of a color depends on its context. On the field it’s in.
Some colors are harder to influence, regardless of what’s around them. You could say they are stable—or stubborn—or strong. Others are more fluid or flexible, easily impacted by what’s nearby—by the value (darkness or lightness) of the color next to it, or by its neighbor’s hue (the aspect of a color that determines it as red or blue or yellow).
Sound like people?
Hardly anyone has done more to get us thinking about the unruliness of color than Josef Albers, German born artist, educator and poet. His 1963 groundbreaking book, Interaction of Color, from which the above illustrations were taken, revolutionized the way we think about the art, science and psychology of color. In 2013, to celebrate its 50th anniversary, Potion Design made his book into an app. If you are interested in learning about the interaction of color in a super-fun, hands-on way, check it out.
Color field painters like Mark Rothko and Helen Frankenthaler made their life’s work of this. Stanley Whitney is my current favorite color abstractionist, alive and working today. His 2015 show at the Studio Museum in Harlem presented wobbly grids of color meeting, interacting and conflicting on canvas—somehow managing to get along and even seem harmonious. His paintings make me hopeful.
My friend and 361ArtWorks collaborator Randee Levine, another brilliant color field painter and color expert, turned me on to thinking about Mindell's Processwork relationship theory in terms of the interaction of color.
Let’s think about it like this.
Sometimes, and in some relationships we feel like ourselves. By this I mean: We have a good sense of who we are; we express ourselves in a way that matches what we intend. We have boundaries. When we act messed up or behave poorly we can self reflect and take responsibility; we see how our behavior is shaped by our internal issues—the icky stuff that happened in our childhood, the headache we’ve been nursing, a bad dream from this morning or yesterday’s flubbed presentation that’s still making us mad. Few people can actually manage this across contexts. Although, in my opinion, it is not necessarily something to strive for in every situation, it’s a good skill to have in most.
In these cases, facilitators working with couples can be most helpful when they flag the importance (and necessity) of focusing on the psychology of each separate individual and helping them to become more of a “clean whistle” in relationship.
Sometimes, and in some relationships we are heavily influenced by the person with whom we interact (even more so than by our inner lives). Like, colors, we vibrate with and against the intensity of the person next to us. We might be shaken or upset, wooed or blown away. The space between us is electric or foggy or dense; it feels like thick pea soup or like fireworks. Although this occurs more frequently when there’s misunderstanding, miscommunication, power dynamics and conflict or under the dazzling sway of sex, love or adoration, for very sensitive people, the sheer intensity of another’s presence can have this powerful effect.
In such cases facilitators are wise to tune into the entangled communication exchange between people and help make it clearer—more congruent. This does not necessarily reduce the intensity of an interaction—but it does reveal its purpose, goal or intent, which can be hugely enlightening. And sometimes very confronting.
All of our relationships take place in a context. And much like colors, the field in which they occur—the family, the workplace, the community and the zeitgeist, the spirit of the time or place and its pervasive attitudes, heavily influence us. This is especially true for culturally non-conforming relationships; such as those that challenge gender codes or heterosexual and monogamous expectations; or cross age, race or class boundaries.
When the couple itself, the relationship entity as a whole, is disturbed, hurt or shaken up by outer prejudices, it is a facilitator’s job is to notice this, take it seriously and help the couple navigate the turbulent field. It can be tremendously relieving for such couples to know that their struggles are not theirs alone; they are not crazy or twisted or less developed. That the level of conflict and grief they experience is due to a field or world that is resisting change. The couple gains awareness and power by owning those outer influences as aspects of themselves and by interacting with them, thus feeling less like victims and more like agents of change, called upon by the field to transform the world.
And then there is another context—the field of dreaming—the mostly unconscious high dreams and ideals that draw people together in the first place. Few of us pay enough attention to how our deepest hopes and night time dreams impact us day to day. They change the color of everything.
Albers himself proposed that the interaction and behavior of color could teach us about “mutual respect,” about “community spirit,” and about “equal rights for all.” He believed that to achieve sought-after effects with color, hierarchies and prejudices (about favorite colors or even “harmonious” combinations) had to be set aside.
It’s crazy (or not) how color theory leads us to diversity work.