Jeff Zych

Learning the True Power of Artist Dates

I saw a color palette I liked recently, and wanted to use it on something, but I had no project for it. I decided to just make some fake card UIs (plus I got to use some fonts I had been itching to use for awhile). There was no point to it other than playing with some colors and fonts. No one else saw it (until now). It will never be built. It won’t win any design awards.

Screenshot of my card UIs that won't win any design awards and had no purpose... Some card UIs that won’t win any design awards and had no purpose…

Afterward, I felt more creative energy coursing through my veins. I felt more creatively attuned.


When I first did The Artists Way, I thought “artist dates” were mostly about filling the tank with inspiration. That’s partly true, but their true power revealed themselves to me when I took a break to move. I had a few weeks of ignoring my inner artist, so when my ears finally perked up again I learned why artist dates are so powerful: You practice listening to your artist. Their voice gets stronger. Your ear is more attuned to it.

Over time the voice gets drowned out by society, your inner critic, fears, doubts, societal expectations, your idea of who you think you are, or should be. But the voice never goes away. It’s always there.

Think back to when you were a kid and you just made stuff for the fun of it. It didn’t matter if it was good or not. There was no point to it. You didn’t worry about calling yourself an artist or changing your identity. Listening to your inner artist gets you back to that place.

The artist’s way shows you how to turn down the dial on your inner critic, and turn up the dial on your inner artist. You’ll strengthen your creative muscle and enjoy your creativity like a kid again.

Notes from "Vernacular Eloquence"

How can speech improve your writing? Your initial reaction is probably, not at all. But it turns out there’s a lot that speech can offer writing, and that’s what Peter Elbow’s Vernacular Eloquence (Amazon Affiliate link that I get a small kickback from) is all about. It’s full of practical advice for harnessing the power of speech to improve your writing, so I wrote them down here for future reference.

The writing process

To oversimplify, the writing process can be split into 2 phases: first, getting words down on the page; then, editing those words into a finished piece that’s consumable by other people. Vernacular Eloquence contains techniques for both phases of the writing process.

Capturing raw thoughts

Freewriting

Overcome the fear of the blank page with freewriting. The method is simple: just write continuously for a set amount of time, usually 10 minutes, without stopping. If you don’t have anything to say, just write that. “I have nothing to say I have nothing to say I have nothing to say.” Or “I hate this I hate this I hate this.” Anything. Just don’t stop.

Don’t worry about form, grammar, sentence structure, spelling, or even if it’s any good at all. Freewriting is just for you. No one else needs to read it. Self-editing as you go and worrying about perfect grammar and spelling is the best way to go nowhere fast. You’ll return to spelling and grammar later in the editing phase.

A few tips:

  • “Without stopping” doesn’t mean rushed. You can take a minute to breathe deeply, un-tense your muscles, or let a thought develop.
  • It’s private. Not to be showed or read by anyone else. You’re speaking, but with the added safety of not having any listeners. This psychological safety will help you be messy and unrefined and just get thoughts down.
  • You can freewrite about a topic, or you can just write whatever comes to mind. During quarantine I started the habit of doing morning pages (hat tip to the Artist’s Way) every day, which is just writing 3 straight pages of whatever thoughts come to mind.

The structure usually isn’t usable as is. It will likely jump around too much and be meandering. But there are usually sentences or multiple paragraphs that are perfectly readable. The next section on the editing process will give you tools to make sense of this mess.

Invisible writing

A specific form of freewriting is invisible writing. It’s writing without seeing what you’re writing, like the name implies. Most writing is actually reading and writing, since you’re reading back what you wrote and editing it at the same time. This slows down your writing, and gets in the way of developing your ideas. It’s like if you set out to carve the statue of David and obsessed over getting the pinky perfect before realizing you bought the wrong type of marble. Oh, and the slab is too small.

Since invisible writing prevents you from reading as you go, you can only add more words and focus on developing your line of thinking. You can do this by making the text color the same as the background color, turn your monitor’s brightness down, or use an editor I built called Invisible Ink that blurs out your text and doesn’t let you edit.

This is a more opinionated form of freewriting. In the 70s, Sheridan Blau studied people writing invisibly (using empty ballpoint pens and carbon paper) and observed it “enhanced their fluency and spurred their creativity. The invisibility of the text seemed to force them to give more concentrated and sustained attention to their emerging thoughts than they usually gave when writing.” (p. 162). In other words, it improved their thinking. As Elbow puts it: “What it helps is productive thinking — the ability to come up with lots of ideas and to explore them in creative and fruitful ways.” (p. 163). I have found myself exploring more ideas from writing invisibly.

Why freewriting and invisible writing work

  • Since they’re private and disposable, they help you overcome the biggest impediment to writing — getting started — by giving you psychological safety to write messy, unreadable, worthless prose.
  • Since they force you to just keep producing words, “it pushes most of us into our mental speaking gear where we can’t plan or rehearse words before uttering them.” (p. 149). Your thoughts naturally connect to each other, as they would if you were speaking to another person. You don’t have gaps in logic, which you often see in poor writing. This helps the reader follow your train of thought. Reading is actually more similar to listening than we give it credit for, hence writing that follows the cues of speaking is easier to read.
  • By shifting into that mental speaking gear, you’ll write with livelier and more natural language.
  • It quiets the internal editor who’s telling us everything we create is awful, worthless drivel.
  • It gives your unconscious mind space to take over. Your conscious mind is busy focusing on the words you’re putting on paper, and in the process your unconscious mind can get to work and serve you up new and sometimes surprising thoughts. You’re tapping into the same phenomenon that leads you to getting your best ideas in the shower.

Using these techniques, I’ve been surprised at the number of times I’ll start down one line of thinking, then switch tracks, then double back on that and end up somewhere totally unexpected. It often feels like arguing with myself, which helps me develop stronger ideas.

The editing process

Now that you’ve gotten your raw thoughts down, how do you make sense of that messy, incoherent, meandering blob of text? Elbow describes two methods, which are poles on a spectrum: collage and essay.

Collage

In this technique, you grab the best phrases, sentences, paragraphs, etc., and string them together, separated by lines or asterisks (or not, up to you). This method lets us avoid:

  • Revising weak passages. Just throw them out instead.
  • Figuring out the main point. It can function as a series of vignettes, moods, impressions, and so on.
  • Figuring out the best logical order. Just use an order that feels right or intriguing.
  • Making good transitions. Just stop when you’re done with a section, and start the next one.

Steps

  • Look through the rough writing, and choose the bits you like the most (phrases, sentences, whole pages, etc.)
  • Lay them out in front of you (physically, or in a tool like Notion [my preferred tool of choice, especially since you can just drag and drop whole paragraphs and sections around. You can also put bits of text side-by-side.]), then read through them — slowly, respectively, meditatively.
  • Arrange them in an order that feels pleasing or compelling or logically makes sense or just intuitively feels right. It doesn’t really matter; listen to what the piece wants to be.
  • At this, you may see some missing bits: missing thoughts or ideas or stories to add. Maybe you see your core idea now and can state it with clarity and can write a reflection on it. Maybe you remember a badly written bit that you see now is needed. Or maybe you see a good way to write an opening or closing bit. Remember, however, that good collages can get along without openings and closings: you simply need a bit that works as a way to “jump into” your piece and another to “close the door” at the end.
  • Revise it. But do so with a “negative” approach. See how much you can do by just leaving out words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, etc. Omission usually adds energy; addition saps it. Some rephrasing is fine, but see how far you can get without heavy re-writing. Reading your words aloud is best for this process (more on that below).
  • Instead of trying to make nice connections or transitions, just use asterisks or dingbats.
  • Do a final copy edit if you want to finish it (for style, clarity, and grammar).

You can start with a collage, and revise it in the direction of an essay.

Essay

An essay has more of a narrative than a collage. The process is to find the “stray bones” laying around, and gradually build them into a strong, coherent “skeleton” that’s alive.

  • Find promising passages. Read slowly and grab the good bits — phrases, passages, whole pages. Some will be important because they contain stories or examples, not just a thought or idea or point.
  • Create bones. For each important passage, create a tiny summary germ sentence. Make it as brief and pithy as you can. Summarize it with verbs as the point you’re trying to make, rather than a description of what it is. For example, not just “The ad for Coca-Cola,” but instead “The Coke ad implies that Coke will improve your health.”
    • Why do you want to summarize with verbs over single words or phrases? Because this strongarms you into thinking. You’re creating ingredients that will later help you see the logic of your thinking. A little sentence says something and has conceptual semantic energy that helps you get from one idea to the next.
    • Germ sentences might well be questions.
    • If a passage of rough fast writing feels important in some way for the topic you are writing about, force it to yield a germ sentence.
    • Germ sentences will help you later when you are trying to figure out a sequence or organization.
  • Figure out a main idea. Look through the list of germ sentences and mark the ones that feel important or central. Look at the marked ones and figure out your main idea.
    • Maybe there’s a felt but absent main idea here. An idea trying to hold all this interesting material together. Figure it out. Write it out. Do more freewriting around this implied idea. Or talk it through with someone.
  • Build the skeleton. In other words, a sequence. Begin to work out a good sequence for your bones.
    • Start with the main idea and the germ sentences you marked as most important. This forms a story outline – it tells a story of thinking that feels coherent and sensible. It’s an outline of thoughts, not just single words or phrases that point to mere topics or areas. Try to build a good sequence of sentences where each point follows the previous one naturally, where the sequence is going somewhere and has felt shape.
    • There are lots of ways to tell a story. They can start at the end and you tell how you got there, or at the beginning, or middle with some random interesting anecdote.
    • You may find there are gaps now. If so, fill them in. Return to freewriting to capture more raw thoughts that you can revise into coherent points.
  • Revise this into a readable draft.
  • Do final revisions by reading aloud (more on that below).

Revising by reading aloud

Once we have a draft down, we can start making the final revisions that has correct grammar, spelling, punctuation, and style. The editing process is the hardest and longest part of writing (assuming you can get over the fear of the blank page in the first place). The process is slow, and you’re often bogged down by word choice, sentence structure, grammar, and all the fiddly bits of writing that we learn in school.

While much of this process is mechanical and following rules, speech can still help us write final, grammatically correct sentences.

The technique

This technique is pretty much what it sounds like: read your writing aloud. But as you do so, pay attention to how it feels in the mouth, and how it sounds to your ear. Where do you stumble? When does the kinesthetic feeling of physically moving your mouth and tongue feel off? When is it grating in the ear?

Consciously thinking about what is wrong with a sentence is much tougher to spot and fix problems then just saying it aloud and feeling how it sounds. This doesn’t usually point to a solution, but it will point to problems.

This method helps solve:

  • Bureaucratic prose that sounds stilted and dry
  • Roundabout or long-winded language
  • Repetition and clang (conversely, it will help you hear when repetition is good)
  • Interruptions that break the flow of a thought or sentence

Punctuation and emphasis

You can think of reading aloud as helping people hear your writing like you’re speaking it. When you speak, you put emphasis on certain words, pause in certain places, and modulate your volume and rhythm. Try to punctuate and format the text to achieve this. Where is there a longer pause, and where should the words just flow? Where do you want to signal a shift in tone?

For example, consider the phrase, “I didn’t steal the book.” Think of all the different ways you could say it:

  • I didn’t steal the book.”
  • “I didn’t steal the book.”
  • “I didn’t steal the book.”

Each of these has a very different meaning. Which will the reader hear when they read it? Punctuation and formatting can ensure they read it the way you intend, and revising by reading aloud will help you identify how they should read it.

In Elbow’s words, “It’s the marriage of sound and meaning that we seek with reading aloud — and that punctuation is meant to convey. We are looking for the out loud performance that best matches the meaning — that is or enacts the meaning.” (p. 279)

The author provides a few additional pieces of specific grammatical advice:

  • About commas: When in doubt, leave it out. Careful reading aloud will help us avoid most of the extra commas that come from the pauses in casual speech, but some will creep in.
  • Stick to periods, commas, and question marks. These minimize chances for grammar infractions, yet they’re all we need for excellent writing. The most realistic goal for punctuation is the same one for spelling: not to be noticed.
  • Never use which. Most that/which tickets are issued for illegal whichs. The workaday that is fine for most of what we normally write.
  • And then there are dashes. When you’re perplexed about what to use, use a dash. A dash is never wrong from a strictly legal point of view if you use it in any spot where you pause in careful reading aloud.

Does it lead to perfect grammar every time? No. But grammar is full of ambiguity, and good writers break the rules regularly. It will lead to proper grammar enough of the time to not make your writing more confusing.

Some other advice

Elbow sprinkles some other pearls of wisdom throughout the book, so here they are in a grab bag “collage” format 😄

  • On starting: “If we don’t have an actual story to drive our essay, the most obvious way to create a "story of thinking” is to start with an itch: not a claim or a policy but a question of problem or perplexity. “ p. 309 (emphasis added). You may remember this from the opening to this post…
  • "Good orators often consciously startle an audience with something that seems wrong or even is wrong.”
  • “One of the best ways to help readers understand a complex idea is to start with an oversimplification. A simple claim is easily stated and easily grasped; complications and qualifications can be added later. This strategy can function not just in sentences but in paragraphs or even whole essays.” (p. 312). When we build in all the qualifications our sentences are too complicated, and boring, and have no energy or pull.

I highly recommend Elbow’s book if you want to become a better writer. It’s one of the few (only?) books I’ve read that improve your writing by showing you how to develop better ideas and arguments, instead of teaching you rules of grammar and style. The techniques above are the most concrete takeaways from the book, but it’s full of longer explanations about why speech leads to better writing, with studies and practical teaching experience to back up his arguments.

The book can be academic and long-winded at times, which I simultaneously enjoyed and felt bogged down by. He would often make an argument and then write out all of the counter arguments and then counter-counter argue those, to which I would sigh, “I was convinced 5 pages ago. You don’t need to convince me anymore!” But it was also fun to see his logic unfold. He’s good at calling out sections that are skippable and largely academic, so they’re easy to skip over if you don’t want to go down long academic rabbit holes. He also includes historical explanations of how the current system of “correct” writing is just as arbitrary as any other form of “incorrect” writing (tl;dr the people in power make the rules).

Buy it now if you want to improve your writing (this is an Amazon Affiliate link that I get a small kickback from).

My Experience with "The Artist's Way"

Creativity is an innate gift we all possess. And it’s part of our nature to use that creativity. I firmly believe this, and so does The Artist’s Way author, Julia Cameron. Unfortunately, for most of us, it’s stamped out at an early age by education, society, friends, family, and other cultural norms. A lucky few get encouragement at a young age, or have enough creative energy to push through those headwinds, but the rest of us are left thinking we aren’t “creative.” Fortunately, Julia is here to undo that damage.

Picture of The Artist's Way

As one of my quarantine activities I read this book, and boy am I glad I did. And by “read” I mean I surrendered myself to the 12 week program, which is structured as a weekly essay followed by a few exercises. I left it feeling not only more creative, but also more confident in my creativity. It broke down mental blocks I had put up over my whole life. Society telling us why we can’t follow our passions. The voices telling us no. The inner critic that says your work isn’t good enough.

Now I’m less afraid of following my creative urges. Instead of worrying about it being “good” or asking what the “point” of it is, I can jump into it. Feel like writing some short fiction? Go for it. Want to paint a drug-fueled hallucination on your iPad? Sure man. I’ll just do it, even if it has no immediate purpose beyond indulging my inner artist.

To get there, you do two key activities throughout the program: daily morning pages, and weekly artist dates.

The morning pages are a simple, yet surprisingly powerful tool. You write 3 pages of whatever thoughts come to mind. Without stopping. Every morning. By doing so, you empty your head of all the random thoughts you have swirling around. The lingering doubts, the worries, your to-do list, whatever is weighing you down. You’re quieting the voices in your head so that your creative voice can come through loud and clear.

I regularly find myself exploring ideas on the page, like the visual design of an app, or a blog post I’m writing, or a problem I’m wrestling with at work. It helps me develop these ideas, which I then draw on later in the day.

The morning pages also make me feel calmer. Fears, worries, concerns, and anything else bopping around feels more like a passing cloud now. I’m more aware of the transient nature of my thoughts.

While the morning pages gets stuff out of your head, the artists dates gets stuff into your head. They “fill up the creative tank,” as she says. The idea is to indulge whatever creative impulses or curiosities you have by going to museums, buying that book on typography you’ve been eyeing, taking that figure drawing class you’ve always been curious about, and so on. You’re both gathering inspiration and learning to listen to your inner artist’s desires.

While you do those two activities throughout the program, you also do weekly exercises to explore specific aspects of your creativity and what’s holding you back. They include things like blurting all your fears and doubts onto a page, gathering imagery of how you envision your life in the future, writing letters to yourself from age 8 and 80, and more. None of them on their own are profound, but taken together, over 12 weeks, they transform you.

One exercise that did stick with me is affirmations. You write down statements of belief and encouragement (such as “I am a great writer”), then read them after your morning pages. It sounds hokey and woo woo, but actually does help silence your inner critic and build up your confidence.

All of these activities attuned my ear to what my creativity is telling me. I’m more driven by intuition, rather than by what other people expect of me, or society deems “good,” or will impress people. It’s very freeing.

They also got me back to the childlike place of approaching ideas with a sense of play and fun. I can get caught up making something “perfect,” or needing it to serve a purpose like posting on social media to get a million likes (that’s never actually happened before, btw). But now I feel more comfortable just indulging in my creativity without worrying about it being “good” or “shareable” or having any point other than scratching my own creative itch.

Even in my job as the head of a product design team I feel more confident. I more readily pursue the course of action that feels right to me, with less worry about whether it’s objectively “right” or “wrong.”

On that topic, I used to be a lot more concerned whether something was “right” or not (which school stamps into us), rather than accepting that there isn’t one “right” and everyone has their own style. It doesn’t matter if someone else dislikes it, as long as it’s true to me. (I’m still working on internalizing this).

I didn’t feel markedly different or more creative after any particular week or exercise, but when I look back at where I had been I can see there has been a big internal shift. Even now it’s tough to pinpoint and describe, but I know something’s different.

For anyone who’s felt the inner tug to create more (and be honest, that includes you), I couldn’t recommend this book enough. Whatever you’re interested in — painting, writing, strategy, music, law, finance — this book will help you find your inner artist’s voice and live more in tune with your true creative self.


Buy The Artist’s Way on Amazon (affiliate link)

Lessons in Creativity from Leonardo

Creativity is a muscle that we all have. It can be strengthened. It can be practiced. It’s not an inherent trait that only a chosen few are anointed with.

I firmly believe this, but it’s also one of the central themes of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci. In the book he highlights Leonardo’s ordinary human habits that anyone can adopt to be more creative. I wrote them down as a reminder to myself, and to help others be more creative.

Self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci Self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci

The Lessons

  • Be observant. Look closely at every detail. Like, really closely. Uncomfortably closely. Marvel in the beauty and complexity of the world. As Leonardo put it: “If you wish to have a sound knowledge of the forms of objects, begin with the details of them, and do not go on to the second step until you have the first well fixed in memory.”
  • Be curious. Why is the sky blue? How does a hummingbird’s tongue work? What makes people yawn? These are common occurrences that most people don’t give a second thought, but Leonardo did. He followed pursuits of inquiry like these not because he thought they had any practical use, but purely out of curiosity. Some of these never led anywhere (like studying the tongue of hummingbirds), while others influenced his work in suprising yet profound ways (like anatomy and Mona Lisa’s smile).
  • Abandon paths that aren’t working. Leonardo left a wake of unfinished work behind him. He often began projects, but gave them up or changed direction when the path he chose was a dead end. Sometimes he would return to a piece after years of not touching it (he worked on the Mona Lisa until the end of his life, and is technically “unfinished”). This practice gave Leonardo the space to pursue multiple creative endeavors at once, and to let ideas marinate until they were ready.
  • When you’re stuck, take a break. Leonardo was known to stare at a painting for hours, make one small brush stroke, and leave. Then he may return the next day, week, or year to keep working. What he was doing was focusing deeply on a problem, then leaving to focus his conscious mind elsewhere so that his unconscious mind could take over. The unconscious mind organizes information, makes connections to other parts of your brain, then serves it back to your conscious mind when it’s done. This is why you often need to “sleep on it,” or have your best ideas in the shower. (I like to wash dishes as a way of quickly stepping away from a problem). As Leonardo put it: “Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work least, for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterwards give form.”
  • Look for patterns and make analogies. When Leonardo observed rivers branching and splitting into tributaries and offshoots, he saw the same pattern in the trunk of a tree splitting into branches, which he also saw in the arteries of humans. Comparisons like these led to breakthroughs in Leonardo’s work across science, engineering, architecture, art, and more.
  • Embrace mystery, the unexpected, the unknowable. This leads to happy accidents, unexpected connections, and surprising breakthroughs that look like genius to others, but to you feel like obvious connections.

Notice how these all work in tandem and build on each other. Being observant and curious gives you multiple areas of interest to pursue at once, which gives you topics to switch between when you’re stuck, which fills your brain with more knowledge, which gives your mind more connections to make, leading to creative breakthroughs and new mysteries to observe and be curious about.


Was Leonardo a singular genius? Absolutely. Could anyone become the next Leonardo with enough practice? Sadly not. But Leonardo was still human, and we can all bring out our inner Leonardos by embracing the ordinary, human techniques that Leonardo used throughout his life.

Buy Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci biography on Amazon

Exercises from 'Interaction of Color' by Josef Albers

Interaction of Color is, by far, the best book on color I’ve ever read. Other teaching methods focus on theory, color systems, the physics of color (wavelength, rods and cones, etc.), or resort to rote rules like, “red means danger.” It’s mechanical, mathematical, rules-based, and divorced from how people perceive and react to color. Or as Albers puts it: “Experience teaches that in visual perception there is a discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect.”

In contrast, Albers’ teaches you how to truly see color. His central thesis is that there are no absolutes in color. The way humans perceive color is influenced by the surrounding context of neighboring colors, lighting conditions, size and quantity, what we look at before and after, and more. Two colors can look like one. One color can look like two. What looks dull in one context may look bright in another. Reds can look cool-toned, and blues can be warm-toned. As Albers says, “This fact makes color the most relative medium in art.”

He teaches you to see this relativity of color through a series of exercises. To get the most out of the book, you need to do the exercises, and often many times to make sure you’re getting the desired effect. As a result, it took me at least 4 years, off and on, to get through it all (you could do it in a couple of months if you were diligent, though).

Now that I’m done, I thought it would be fun to share the output of those exercises, both for posterity and the benefit of others.

Warning: This post ended up being longer than I was expecting, so feel free to just skim through the pictures.

The Exercises

These exercises’ aim is to show a particular color effect that exploits a gap between what’s physically happening, and what humans perceive. They’re often little optical illusions. Because of this, they aren’t meant to be good, by any definition of “good.” They aren’t pretty, the colors aren’t harmonious, and any layout and shapes are arbitrary.

I did most of them in Procreate on my iPad. Albers recommends using colored paper rather than mixing oil paint because it’s hard to get precise mixtures in paint, paper is less messy, and the focus stays on how you’re perceiving color rather than trying to get the right mixture.

Working digitally had these advantages, plus some that weren’t available in Albers’ day, like measuring precise color values, blend modes, and adjusting hue/saturation/brightness after the fact. This was also a downside, though, because I sometimes got bogged down fiddling with the lightness and saturation of a color. A limited palette of colored paper would have prevented this. I did some of the later exercises with water-based markers, which were a good way of having a limited, but still expressive, palette.

So if you do these exercises, the iPad is a good way to go. Just aim for approximate colors that show the effect, and don’t spend too much time fiddling with the colors (or cheat with blending modes).

I — Color recollection

If I ask you to imagine the color “red,” the color you see and the color I see will be different. Even if I ask you to imagine Coca-Cola red, we won’t see the same color.

This demonstrates that peoples’ ability to recall a specific color is hard (as compared to a specific flavor or sound, for example), and that there are no absolutes in color.

II — Color reading and contexture

This chapter says that the way we perceive color depends on context. “We almost never (that is, without special devices) see a single color unconnected and unrelated to other colors. Colors present themselves in continuous flux, constantly related to changing neighbors and changing conditions.”

III — Why color paper

In this chapter Albers just explains why you should use colored paper. No exercise here.

IV — A color has many faces — the relativity of color

This chapter expands on the previous ones by explaining how our perception of color is further influenced by the colors we see before and after them.

Albers uses an analogy of three buckets of water – warm, lukewarm, and cold — to demonstrate this. If you dip your hand in the warm water first, then the middle bucket, it will feel cold. But if you start with the cold bucket, the middle one will feel warm. This happens despite the fact that the physical temperature in the middle bucket is constant. Color is the same way.

V — Lighter and/or darker — light intensity, lightness

This exercise asks you to sort grays from lightest to darkest. I didn’t do this one since I didn’t have colored scraps of paper. Also, I’ve done sorting exercises like these in the past.

VI — 1 color appears as 2

This is the first “Oh shit!” moment. All the talk of “context” influencing color perception is made real here. He shows how one color can look like two. I didn’t believe my eyes when I first saw the effect. All the small blobs of color in the middle are the same. If you don’t believe me (and I didn’t when I first looked), you can measure them yourself.

I had fun with this one and made a ton of these. This isn’t even half.

In this one I tried to achieve this effect just changing the hue, and keeping saturation and brightness constant. It was tough to do. It’s weaker than some other examples, but works overall.

Below are two few free studies I did that explore different ways of exploiting this effect.

VII — 2 different colors look alike

This is the opposite of the above exercise — make 2 colors look like 1. This one was hard. It took me a lot of trial and error to even get these solutions, which aren’t that pronounced. Even Albers says this effect sometimes just “pushes” colors closer together, rather than making them look exactly the same. But regardless of how strong the effect is, it will influence how people perceive colors you use, so you should be aware of it.

The larger dots at top are different gray colors. The small dots in the middle corners are the grays used on the opposite side, which makes it clear how different they are from each other.

This uses the colors from above. The gray streaks look like they’re an even gray tone, but they’re not. They’re a gradient from the middle colors above. See below for the solid gradient.

This is the solid gradient of “gray” streaks above. Clearly not a flat gray.

Not particularly effective, but close.

A free study using the colors above. I like the way it draws your eye around and different blues pop out at different places. There are only 4 colors in this image, but it looks like more.

VIII — Why color deception? After-image, simultaneous contrast

This chapter isn’t an exercise, but demonstrates the effect of after-image. We all experience this when we look directly at a light for a few seconds, then look elsewhere, and the “after-image” of the light bulb follows you around, but in the opposite color (usually a blue-ish color since most light is yellow-ish).

According to Albers, this is the “cause of most color illusions.” This exercise magnifies something that’s happening to us all the time, but usually in subtle ways we aren’t conscious of. The variables are the amount of time and quantity of the color.

IX — Color mixture in paper — illusion of transparence

This exercise challenges you to take two pieces of different colored paper, say blue and yellow, imagine the mixed color in your head, then find a piece of paper that matches this mixed color. I didn’t have colored paper, so I didn’t do this exercise, but chapter XI studies a similar effect.

X — Factual mixtures — additive and subtractive

Colors can be mixed with an additive or subtractive processes. This wasn’t an exercise, but rather an explanation of the effect, so I just used the blending modes in Procreate. The next exercise asks you to exploit this effect.

“Additive” refers to mixing color with light, which makes the resulting colors brighter (because there’s more light. “Screen”, “Overlay”, and “Lighten” are blending modes you can use in your graphics program of choice or CSS).

“Subtractive” is mixing colors with pigment, as in painting and printing. This makes the resulting color darker (“Multiply” and “Darken” are examples of this in graphics programs and CSS).

Subtractive color mixing, as with pigments.

Additive color mixing, like mixing light.

XI — Transparence and space-illusion

This exercise asks you to choose colors so that where they overlap, one appears “above” the other, then “below” it, then the “middle mixture” where neither is above the other and they’re perfectly mixed (this is also the point at which the middle color looks like its own distinct color). This demonstrates the illusion of spatiality. Doing this successfully requires understanding the effects from the previous lessons.

I did this one initially with water-based markers, since it’s easy to cheat in Procreate by just choosing blending modes. I wanted to see if I could achieve these effects using my eyes. I used Procreate for one (shown here first since the effect is easier to see), but chose colors by hand.

To test which color is “above” the other, or if you’ve found a true middle, Albers recommends running your eyes from left to right over the edges where the colors meet many times, then top to bottom, and vice versa. Which border has a “harder” edge? That color is more dominant, and thus perceived “above” the other one. To me this can feel like your eyes fall off a cliff, or hit a wall (depending on the direction you’re coming from).

As Albers explains it: “Since softer boundaries disclose nearness implying connection, harder boundaries indicate distance, separation. […] Thus, with a middle mixture, all boundaries are equally soft or hard. As a consequence, a middle mixture appears frontal, as a color by itself.”

In the top two streaks, blue feels above the yellow. In the bottom two, yellow feels above blue. Run your eyes over the edges to feel the “hardness” and “softness” of the borders. There is no middle mixture.

XII — Optical mixture — after-image revised

“Optical mixture” means our eyes will mix two colors into a third. We all experience this daily without being aware of it. The printing process only uses 4 colors – Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and blacK (aka CMYK), yet a full gamut of colors can be reproduced. How? The answer is because each color is printed in tiny dots (smaller than we can individually make out), and our eyes “mix” them into their final color. Cyan and magenta, for example, combine to make blue. These are also known as “halftones” in offset printing. If you look close enough at a newspaper or magazine you can see the individual dots.

Pointillist painters also exploit this effect. They wouldn’t paint green directly, for example, but instead use small dabs of blue and yellow and let the viewer’s eyes “mix” the colors.

This can happen with larger blobs of color, too, if you’re far enough away. This once again demonstrates how size, quantity, and viewing distance influence the final perception of color.

XIII — The Bezold Effect

Bezold was a rug maker who learned he could swap out one strong color (white for black, say) to change how the rest of the colors are perceived, thus making the rug “feel” like a different design. This occurs due to a combination of optical mixture and after-image.

The only difference from the left and right sides is the background. Notice how the left side feels lighter and calmer, whereas the right side feels heavier and more aggressive, like each rectangle is jumping out at you.

XIV — Color intervals and transformation

This was a tough exercise. The goal is to take a collection of 4 colors, and “transcribe” them into a different “color key” of 4 different colors. In other words, the relationships, or “intervals,” between each color’s lightness and saturation are the same for both collections of colors. Just like transcribing a piece of music to another key.

Once again, this is trivial in Procreate or any graphics program. But I did it by eye to train how I see color. (Doing the transformation in Procreate does provide a useful way of “checking” your work, though, since it can be hard to know if you did it correctly until you’ve trained your eye).

Once again, the technique of running your eyes over the borders reveals the “hardness” and “softness” of each, which can tell you if you maintained the “intervals” in the transcribed colors.

In this one it looks like I used Procreate’s HSB tool to rotate the hues around. But even this doesn’t work because it doesn’t take luminosity into effect, which is the measure of the perceived brightness of a color. For example, yellow appears brighter than blue, even at the same lightness and saturation levels. In this exercise, it makes the top-right blue color a salmon that’s more luminous than its source color, which makes its border “softer” than the original.

This one, and the previous one, were the hardest of all because you have to transcribe four colors of different hues. Looking back at the solution above, it’s clear it’s not transcribed correctly. The intervals between the left two middle colors isn’t the same as the original, underlying colors.

XV — The middle mixture again — intersecting colors

Albers has you do an activity to test if a color is the “middle mixture.” Get three colored papers of same hue but different lightness (you can also do this with overlapping rectangles in Figma or graphics program of choice — see picture below). Place the lightest one on the bottom, then the middle one partially overlapping that, and the darkest on top of that, showing just a sliver of the middle color. Slowly pull the top, darkest color to the right, revealing more of the middle color. Stare at the middle color while you do this, and you’ll see a gradient from darkest, at left, to lightest, at right. If it’s even, it’s a middle mixture. This is also a result of our vision’s “after-image.”

Start with the top setup, then slowly move the top color to the right to get to the bottom image.

If this middle color is truly in the middle, the gradient will appear even.

This is also known as the “fluting” effect. It can make blocks of color appear to have gradients, or to be “concave” like doric columns. In the image below, stare at the middle color for awhile and you’ll start to perceive a gradient in each row. Or a “shadow” at bottom and “highlight” at top. Once I started seeing this, I couldn’t stop seeing it.

XVI — Color juxtaposition — harmony — quantity

This chapter was another “Oh shit!” moment. The goal is to use the same four colors, but make them “feel” different, by varying the quantity and relative proportion of each. In my solution below, the four circles use the same four colors, but each feels different because of the varying quantities of each. “Quantity” here refers to both size and amount of repetition.

Albers makes an analogy with actors and performances. A cast of actors puts on performances, each of which will feel different depending on who is in the lead and supporting roles, despite it being the same actors throughout. Colors are the actors, and the way we use them are the performances.

This chapter sums up why all other methods of teaching color have fallen short for me. They talk about warm and cool tones, analogous and complementary and contrasting colors, but don’t recognize the impact of quantity and context. As Albers puts it: “Our conclusion: we may forget for a while those rules of thumb of complementaries, whether complete or ‘split’, and of triads and tetrads as well. They are worn out.” Amen.

Most palette generators and color inspiration sites overlook this, too. Once again, Albers expertly sums this up: “Usually, illustrations of harmonic color constellations which derive from authoritative systems look pleasant, beautiful, and thus convincing. But it should not be overlooked that they are usually presented in a most theoretical and least practicable manner, because normally all harmony members appear in the same quantity and the same shape, as well as in the same number (just once) and sometimes even in similar light intensity. Such outer equalizations may unify them, but at the expense of the more important inner relatedness — namely, as color only.”

This chapter is full of great quotes, but I’ll leave you with just one more: “Good painting, good coloring, is comparable to good cooking. Even a good cooking recipe demands tasting and repeated tasting while it is being followed. And the best tasting still depends on a cook with taste.”

XVII — Film color and volume color — 2 natural effects

Seeing mountains in the distance, or an object through water, or putting semi-transparent acetate in front of something all diminish the colors of the underlying object. Distant mountains look more washed out, for example. No exercise here, just showing examples of the effect.

XVIII — Free studies

The idea here to play with color, divorced from form and layout and anything else that influences its perception. This is, strictly speaking, impossible. But the point is to use color to produce a mood or effect on people.

The next three explore “old–young.” I was trying to juxtapose muted colors, to represent old (like faded newspapers), with lighter and brighter colors. I think they’re going the right direction, but not all the way there yet.

These next two use a “magical” palette from Palette Perfect by Lauren Wager. This is a great book for color inspiration, and it gets bonus points for including the proportions in which you should use each color 🥳.

This final one makes use of a bunch of effects – the blue lines are factually the same color throughout but shift their “feel” over each background (chapter IV, 1 color becomes 2), vanishing boundaries (below), and slight vibrating boundaries (also below).

XIX — The Masters — color instrumentation

This was a fun one. In this exercise, we choose a painting and then recreate it using blocks of color (scraps of paper as written in the text). The point isn’t to recreate the masterpiece, but instead to engage with the color choices the artist made. “We try to give a general impression only as to climate, temperature, aroma, or sound of their work — not minute details.”

The point, as Albers puts it, is that it’s “another means of learning to develop a sensitive and critical eye for color relatedness. […] Singing a tune and playing it on instruments — even more, conducting several instruments — provides more contact, more insight than merely hearing the tune. So cooking, normally and naturally, teaches more than reading recipes.” In other words, doing what the artist did forces you to engage with their work more deeply than just looking at it, even though it can feel like you’re just “copying” it. This is also the main point of Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like an Artist.

This is a fun drawing and coloring exercise I did using the palette from above. I like that it still “feels” like the original painting, even though it’s in a completely different form.

XX — The Weber-Fechner Law — the measure in mixture

This effect demonstrates that to achieve a perceptually even gradation of saturation of color, you need to double the amount of pigment used at each step. This is more easily shown than described.

The left progression shows adding one more pen stroke at each step (as in, 1-2-3-4), whereas the right one doubles the pen strokes at each step (1-2-4-8). The left one doesn’t look equally more saturated throughout, and the last two steps especially look the same, despite the literal amount of pigment being doubled.

XXI — From color temperature to humidity

This demonstrates that traditionally “warm” colors, like reds, oranges, and yellows, can also appear “cool.” And vice-versa for “cool” colors, like blues, purples, and greens. This depends not only on their underlying hues, which can have warm or cool tones mixed in, but is also relative to the surrounding context.

Some of these blues look warm, and some reds look cool.

XXII — Vibrating boundaries — enforced contours

There’s a coffee shop near my house that has a sign I can’t help but look at every time I walk by. It has a bright, saturated blue background with the name in bright, saturated red letters. I would sometimes perceive a slight border between the letters and background, but when I looked directly at it it would disappear. Are the letters slightly overprinted? Is there a subtle shadow or border there? Are my eyes just playing tricks on me? I could never quite figure it out.

Then I read this chapter. “A-ha!” I exclaimed. “I knew I wasn’t crazy!”

What’s happening is that contrasting, or near-contrasting, colors of similar saturation and brightness, when placed next to each other, will have a vibrating boundary. Sometimes it looks like reflected light, or a shadow, or a doubling or tripling of the border, or a separate border in a new hue. It happens in some conditions and not others, like natural light versus artificial, near or far focus, etc.

It’s a rare effect, and one that’s surprisingly hard to pin down. I often see it in my peripheral vision, but when I try to look directly at it it disappears, but then I’ll see it in another part of my peripheral vision, and on and on, pulling my eyes around and around. When it appears it’s usually somewhat unpleasant.

My first attempt was not so great. Doing it with pens was a mistake because the edges need to be precisely against each other, but my edges overlapped, mixing the pigments and ruining the effect.

I made the ones below in Procreate and they’re much clearer.

XXIII — Equal light intensity

This exercise is the opposite of the previous one. Colors of similar hues, of similar light intensity, will have borders that disappear. It’s an even more difficult effect to achieve than the last chapter. Albers says very few painters can achieve it at all (it’s not so hard in Procreate).

Try looking off to the side, instead of directly at the image, and see if you can make out the jagged border between the two colors. For me, it disappears and the colors blend.

XXIV — Color theories — color systems

At the end of the book, Albers gets to color theory. Only after experimenting with color and learning to see it, and all the tricks it plays on us, should we talk about underlying theories. As Albers says, “A sensitive eye for color became our first concern.” We must learn how to look at color, and to train our eyes. There are no absolutes in color. Therefore, using color theory without understanding this, and knowing all the ways colors can change depending on their context, is pointless. Even now color theory is of marginal usefulness, and trusting ones eyes is more important than following rules or the math of what a color “should” be or is “measured” to be.

This is pretty much all Albers says on color theory. He doesn’t talk about contrasting colors, analogous, complementary, split complementary, etc., because it’s all relative. You need to learn to use your eyes and recognize the influence of quantity and context. As he says, “We emphasize that color harmonies, usually the special interest or aim of color systems, are not the only desirable relationship. As with tones in music, so with color–dissonance is as desirable as its opposite, consonance.”

Techniques for seeing and evaluating color

This book taught me some useful techniques for evaluating color. I included them in the relevant sections above, but I also collected them in a more general way here so they’re easy to refer back to.

  • Look at colors out of the periphery of your eyes. Stare at a point off to the side, but focus your attention on the color (or area) in question. Does it pop out? Recede? Vibrate with its neighbors? And so on.
  • Look at a middle point between two colors or areas to compare them simultaneously. Don’t look back and forth at them directly.
  • Run your eyes back and forth over edges to see which are “hard” and which are “soft.” This tells you the color relationship between colors (which is darker or lighter, above or below, and so on).
  • Look at work close up, and far away. Blur and squint your eyes. These reveal the overall gestalt of a piece. What colors pop out? Which recede? Which feel balanced?
  • Put two colors on top of each other (paper, rectangles on a screen, etc.). Stare at the overlapping area for longer than is comfortable (about 30 seconds or more). Then abruptly remove the top color, but keep staring at the covered area to look for an after-image. Do it again in the reverse order and look for an after-image. If they both have after-image (or no after-image), they’re about equal light intensity. If one has after-image but not the other, then the top color is darker. Do this multiple times to make sure the readings hold.

Fin

Wow, what a journey. Going through this again has really shown me how far I’ve come. I look at color completely differently now. I can remember designing UIs in the past, looking at a color (border, shadow, whatever) and thinking it looked “off,” and checking its hex value to see if it was the correct color (“correct” here meaning the hex I expected, or the same value we’ve used previously, or in our design system, or whatever). Turns out I should have learned to listen to my eyes more.

This is also a mistake I see in junior designers. Yes, a color might be what’s in our design system, but does it look good? Does it feel right? Learning taste and judgement is much harder, but infinitely more valuable. This lesson applies beyond just color — spacing, alignment, layout, size, and more.

This has also had a profound effect on me beyond just colors. Context is a key, yet overlooked, ingredient to a lot of parts of life. It influences flavors in cooking, sounds and notes in music, temperature, textures, smells, life experiences, how teams perform, how people behave, and more.

In short, I can’t recommend this book enough (and actually doing the exercises!) if you’re serious about color. I’ll leave you with one last Albers quote that sums this all up nicely: “Again: knowledge and its application is not our aim; instead, it is flexible imagination, discovery, invention – taste.”


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