Dick Nelson and his epiphany: The Color Matrix

Dick Nelson was studying at Yale with Joseph Albers when he had his epiphany with color.

Albers had shown that in an array of swatches, where each end was a parent, and all the children were ordered properly, something exciting happened (halation).

Color Array with two parents and five children

Color Array with two parents and five children showing halation

It took endless hours to mix the paints to create perfect children. However, Dick Nelson discovered that using Adobe Illustrator, he could create blends of swatches that were about 90% accurate in creating proper children. The remaining 10% that didn’t work was explained by someone from Adobe, that this program was never designed to show color in the way that Dick Nelson was teaching it.

However, using this new tool at his disposal– equitable to having “100 apprentices”– he advanced Albers’ concept. Instead of a single dimension of a color array, he added a second dimension. By choosing four corners of color and blending the colors, he created the color matrix.

Because each color swatch in the matrix is a perfect step towards the next, halation– luminosity, brilliance and thus beauty– is achieved. Nelson discovered that every lesson taught by Albers could be achieved using 25 colors created by just four chosen corner colors and the children achieved in the color matrix.

I spent endless hours working with the matrix. One day I placed a large square image behind the color matrix to create an overall background. Using the eyedropper tool in Illustrator I would change the background to match one of the individual swatches in the matrix. The impact was startling.

I created this effect on a webpage and called it Color is Relative. Within days, I recieved over 8000 visits. Color is Relative continues to receive 500 visits a day


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