The key to looking at color: Empathy. 

We all have people in our lives who bring out the best or worst in us, but did you know that colors are like that, too? It’s in their nature to change when other colors are nearby. “There’s a duality that artists and designers are constantly struggling with,” says Richard Mehl, who teaches at New York’s School of Visual Arts. “Namely, what we think we know versus what we actually see.” To avoid this, Mehl tells his students to imagine they are someone else when reviewing their own work. By practicing empathy, we’re able to get out of our heads and see with our eyes.

Making one color look like two. Artist: Erin Hollaway.

For example, in the artwork above, the small rectangles are all the same color. If you don’t believe that, imagine you are the person who created this. Picture yourself cutting those three rectangles from the same sheet of colored paper. Now can you see that they are all the same color but appear different because of the backgrounds? Mehl teaches artists to practice empathy, but it’s also a powerful tool for art admirers.

As for why the small rectangles appear to be different colors, it’s because color is relative to the other colors surrounding it. The small rectangle on the left appears lighter because it’s seen against a darker background of the same hue.

Making one color look like two. Artist: Jenna Kim.

Here’s another example of making one color look like two. In this case, the illusion is broken when the two center colors are removed.

Transparency illusion. Artist: Robert Marchhart.

The illusion of transparency is created by mentally visualizing layers of transparent colors and isolating the color produced when they overlap. The goal of this experiment is create an illusion but what it teaches is color mixing.

In the classroom, Mehl’s students are assigned 50 graphic experiments to explore color design principles – all of which can be found in his book Playing with Color – but a lot of color confidence can be gained by doing just a few of the 50. “Understanding what’s possible with color enables you to make better decisions,” Mehl says.

The experiments can be done with gouache or Color-aid, which is a system of colored paper created in 1948 to serve as backdrops for photographers. It was artist Josef Albers who first started using this wonderfully uniform, matte paper with his students at Yale, and in the seven decades since then, nearly every art school freshman has experienced the excitement and sticker-shock of buying a box of Color-aid. Prices range $35–$150, depending on paper size.

Color Leaf Grid. Artist: Peter Drubetskoy.

Found materials can also be used, and Albers was especially fond of leaf compositions. “At Black Mountain College, where Albers first taught in the U.S., he encouraged students to use leaves in their assignments,” says Mehl. In the example above, the assignment was to make common objects uncommon; transform ordinary into art.

Complementary cupcakes. Artist: Alexandria Maranto.

“Another fun thing to do is hosting a color theory potluck,” says Mehl. “Assign your guests dishes that demonstrate warm and cool contrast, complementary colors or a color illusion.” Shown above, the student not only beautifully demonstrated color gradation and complementary contrast but also created something that tasted good. “Color effects our perception of taste, and when color and taste are considered equally, the results are beautiful and memorable.”

Stripe composition.

One of the last experiments in Mehl’s book is to create arrangements of common objects based on color theory principles. In other words, to organize your books by color. Before you scream “Never!” consider trying it with one section. “It’s interesting to think about your books as a composition of stripes, and a spectrum is beautiful to look at,” he says. “In a perfect world, the color of the book would reflect its contents so you’d have shelves correlated by content and color.”

As for the color of Mehl’s book, its spine is black. Likewise with Johannes Itten’s The Art of Color. Could it be that his perfect world is already here?

For all 50 color experiments, pick up Mehl’s book Playing With Color. “Studying, understanding and using color, ultimately leads you to a greater sensitivity and awareness of the world around you,” he says.