In the Studio: The Relativity of Color

Written by Jessica Farris

We all probably know that the elements of art are what artists use to create a work of art. They’re often referred to as our building blocks, or, as I like to tell my students, they’re our Legos! To keep things interesting, each year students explore the elements from a new lens. For the last few weeks, third graders have been learning about the element COLOR, and more specifically, about the science of color. So what is color exactly? Ask a third grader and you might get a different answer than you’d expect. They know color isn’t something that exists “out in the world” but is something that happens in each of us. Learning that color is our brain’s interpretation of different wavelengths of light, third graders have discovered through testing and observation that the brain is not always a reliable narrator!

We’ve been looking to artist Josef Albers for inspiration and knowhow, not that you’ll find any answer key in his book The Interaction of Color! Albers spent his entire life observing, testing, documenting, teaching, and writing about color. One of his discoveries, now known as the Bezold effect, is that a single color can look like a completely different color depending on context (i.e. the time of day, neighboring colors, etc.).

In the spirit of Albers, third graders have been making their own tests, hypotheses, and observations. Sally Stover is one said student. To make her experiment, she picked four colors, or constants, to test: lilac, charcoal, lime green, and burnt sienna. She too wanted to see if these colors could appear differently when placed by other colors. Making three rows of colors with varying values, she worked from darkest, to medium, to lightest. These base colors were her variables. Sally cut her four constants into smaller squares and placed each color on its own row from left to right. What she discovered was amazing! After the experiment, Sally shared her observations with me, saying, “The colors [constants] on the darkest appear the lightest. The colors on the middle row seem medium. Colors on the lighter squares seem darkest.” Even though Sally herself cut each constant from the same piece of construction paper, each constant now appeared not to be one color but several!  Look closely at her work above and see what your own brain perceives!

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