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The Best Art Books - Colour

Updated on November 9, 2015
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Katherine regularly reviews art books and has a very extensive art library (4 bookcases and lots of stacks waiting for the next one!)

Want to understand more about colour?

Read the best books for artists and painters about understanding colour, mixing colours and using colour in paintings.

  • Find out which are the leading art books about colour.
  • Read associated art book reviews.

Many of the books listed on this site were identified via "The Colour Project" on Making A Mark and the book reviews on the blogs of participating artists.

It's linked to:

(1) COLOUR - RESOURCES FOR ARTISTS which is assembling links to information and advice about colour and how to understand and analyse it as an artist. This lens includes:

  • lists of colours
  • pigments and the issues they present for artists
  • colour theory - and how different people explain it
  • colourist painters.
  • books about colour

(2) COLOUR THEORY FOR ARTISTS. This is an introduction to the more technical and scientific aspects of colour.

(3) The Best Artist Guides for Mixing Colours. This site:

  • identifies art books which help you to mix colours
  • highlights aids for mixing colours

Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter (James Gurney Art)
Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter (James Gurney Art)

Author: James Gurney

Paperback: 224 pages

Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing;

Original edition (November 30, 2010)

 

Color and Light - A Guide for the Realist Painter

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

This book has been a best selling and top rated art book on Amazon since before it was published. It continues to be one of the top rated art books for sale today.

Ranked #1 in the Top 100 Painting Books

  • BEFORE it was published - on the strength of pre-publication sales alone
  • stayed at #1 for OVER TWO YEARS
  • still ranked #1 in Books > Arts & Photography > Painting

Currently Rated:

  • USA - rated an average of 4.7 out of 5 stars (539 customer reviews + 222 customer reviews
  • UK - 4.8 out of 5 stars (43 customer reviews)

This book is EXCELLENT. I was sent a copy of this book to review and here is my book review Book Review: Color and Light by James Gurney

Like many others I followed the development of the material for this book on James Gurney's blog (Gurney Journey) and like many others, knew before it was published, that this book was going to become a very important book about colour

Written by a practising artist, this book is based on diligent and intelligent research about colour - how it behaves in theory and when it interacts with light. It's well informed, very accessible and very helpful and has been extremely well received within the art community both on and offline.

This book is the second in a series based on his blog, gurneyjourney.com. His first in the series, Imaginative Realism, was widely acclaimed in the fantastical art world, and was also ranked the #1 Bestseller on the Amazon list for art instruction.

Makingamark - The Colour Project - part of my bookshelf for art books about colour

art books about colour and light
art books about colour and light

Making A Mark - introduction to the Colour Project

Before we get into the books, here's the reason why this website exists - my Colour Project!

I'm known for my use of colour - but decided I didn't know enough about colour. So in 2008 I decided I wanted to undertake a very thorough study of colour - with a view to becoming better at understanding and using colour. The idea was to:

  • remind myself of what I do know - so it gets bedded down even further into the braincells
  • then work out what I don't know and find out about as much of that as possible in the time.
  • Plus along the way I hopefully identify all the things which currently I don't know I don't know about - and learn about those too!!!

The project became known as The Making A Mark Colour Project with the findings recorded in blog posts on my blog Making A Mark. It also includes my reviews of books included on this site.

My project is now referenced in the "Recommended Reading" of 'Colour and Light' (see above) by James Gurney as follows

"makingamark.blogspot.com by Katherine Tyrrell. Various resources for artists, including summaries about color theory with additional links."

Learn About the Origins of Colour for Artists

The development of art is intrinsically linked to new discoveries - about sources of new pigments, new dyes and the science of colour - and changes in technology for producing colour and making it available to artists.

Color Studies
Color Studies

Authors: Edith Anderson Feisner and Ron Reed

This is the NEW 3RD EDITION of this invaluable book.

Paperback: 256 pages

Publisher: Fairchild Books;

Published 21 August 2013

 

Color Studies

Edith Anderson Feisner explains the history, physics, psychology and physiology of colour

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED 2nd edition: Rated an average

  • 4.8 out of 5 stars by 6 reviews on Amazon.com and
  • 5.0 out of 5.0 by 3 reviews on amazon.co.uk

This is the most comprehensive book about colour that I've come across to date. It's academic but accessible and I think it likely that it would be of most interest to colour nerds (like me)!

This book deserves to be much better known and read than I suspect it is. I don't think the cover of the 2nd edition of the American version did it any favours!

However a third edition was published in November 2013 and has a much more exciting and colourful cover! Even with an Amazon discount it's not cheap but my personal view is that it's a very worthwhile investment if you want to learn more about the theory behind colour. However you could get virtually the same book for a lot less money by buying the second edition second hand!

You can preview this book and the full contents guide on Amazon or Google Books. This is what it provides:

PART 1 COLOR FOUNDATIONS

  • Chapter 1 What Is Color?
  • Chapter 2 Color Systems And Color Wheels - explanation of the five main colour wheels and their application
  • Chapter 3 Color Theorists - a historical account of colour theory plus a chronological list of colour theorists (unique?)
  • Chapter 4 Coloring Agents a historical account of pigments and their use in fine and applied art plus a list of historical colour palettes linked to current colour code. The appendices are fantastic!

PART 2 DIMENSIONS OF COLOR

  • Chapter 5 - 8 provide an analysis of the four dimensions of colour - hue, value intensity and temperature

PART 3 COLOR IN COMPOSITIONS

  • Chapter 9 - 12 examine colour in composition - in relation to the principles and elements of design space, colour interactions and the impact of illumination

PART 4 THE INFLUENCE OF COLOR

  • Chapter 13 Color Symbolism - including colour symbols in religion
  • Chapter 14 Putting Color To Use - Then And Now

APPENDICES - by far the most comprehensive of any book I've yet come across

  • Appendix 1 Color Content Identification Charts
  • Appendix 2 Chronological List Of Color Theorists
  • Appendix 3 Coloring Agents - Dry Binders
  • Appendix 4 Coloring Agents - Liquid Binders
  • Appendix 5 Coloring Agents - Pigment Origins And Characteristics Of Common Colors
  • Appendix 6 Hue - Various Art Media Matched To Color-Aid Paper Pure Hues
  • Appendix 7 Value Orders
  • Appendix 8 Color Legibility Rankings
  • Appendix 9 Color Symbols In Religion
  • Appendix 10 Historical Color Palettes

Note: This is a somewhat confusing book as it changes both cover and title between the USA and the UK. All the books listed below are the same - except the editions are different as are the countries they are published in

Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color
Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color

Author: Philip Ball

Paperback: 382 pages

Publisher: University of Chicago Press (April 15, 2003)

 

Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Colour

Rated an average of 4.1 out of 5 stars 21 customer reviews

RECOMMENDED - This is probably one of the best books about the development of colour for artists - if you really want to understand a lot more how art materials derived from pigments and dyes have come about in the past and present and how they affected art as a result. It's not a light read but it is comprehensive.

This book charts in detail

  • how discoveries in science and technology have affected the course of art history.
  • how developments in terms of art movements are directly linked to changes in the availability of pigments, new discoveries, changes in technology and the availability of new colours for artists
  • how certain pigments work with others and how well (or not) they react to binders.

This is also a book by a very reputable and popular Science Writer - the author is a physicist and a chemist and used to be an Editor of Nature. If you don't like science then this is not a book for you.

He is also NOT an Art Historian and his views about artists and art history may grate at times for some people.

Color: A Natural History of the Palette
Color: A Natural History of the Palette

Author: Victoria Finlay

Paperback: 448 pages

Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks (December 30, 2003)

 

Color: A Natural History of the Palette

RECOMMENDED: Rated an average of 4.4 out of 5 stars based on 216 customer ratings + 121 customer reviews

This is a very popular book which sets out to tell the story of colour in a more accessible way. It's not highly academic or scientific but is packed full of information about the history and stories associated with different colours and making colour

The Brilliant History of Color in Art
The Brilliant History of Color in Art

Author: Victoria Finlay

Hardcover: 128 pages

Publisher: J. Paul Getty Museum; 1 edition (November 1, 2014)

 

The Brilliant History of Color in Art - by Victoria Finlay

DUE TO BE PUBLISHED: 1 November 2014

This is a new book for young adults by Victoria Finlay which is being published by the Getty Museum in LA.

Victoria has a talent for making information about colour accessible and no doubt this book will be as popular as her first book

The Brilliant History of Color in Art

Learn About Colour Theory

There are certain books which are referenced again and again and that's because they are standard texts on colour theory.

Below I've listed most of the acknowledged ACADEMIC STANDARDS in colour theory. They're books which deserve to be reviewed by any serious student of colour in art

Color and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction
Color and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction

Paperback: 335 pages

Publisher: University of California Press; 1st edition (August 3, 1999)

 

Color and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction

RECOMMENDED: Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars (4 customer reviews)

This is a scholarly award-winning book which provides a survey and an analysis of colour in Western Culture - starting with the ancient Greeks and ending in the late 20th century.

John Gage is a color historian. This book provides an overview of the history of how we see and think about colour - and the different theories about colour which are located in the contemporary culture of their time.

It comprises

  • 14 essays on different topics related to colour.
  • 223 plates - but not all are in colour - more's the pity.

Interaction of Color: 50th Anniversary Edition
Interaction of Color: 50th Anniversary Edition

Author: Josef Albers

Paperback: 208 pages

Publisher: Yale University Press; Anv edition (June 28, 2013)

 

Interaction of Color: 50th Anniversary Edition

Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars based on 87 customer ratings and 17 customer reviews

#2 in Books > Arts & Photography > Graphic Design > Techniques > Use of Color

This is one of the great "standards" of work around colour theory in art. Josef Albers's Interaction of Color is a masterwork in twentieth-century art education. However it is biased towards being more of an academic book rather than an easy read.

  • This book was first published in 1963 (as a limited edition).
  • More than 250,000 copies have been published, printed and sold over the last the last 50+ years.
  • This version is the 50th anniversary edition - which has a significantly expanded selection of nearly sixty color studies.

The idea is that this is a handbook and teaching aid for artists, instructors, and students. The book focuses on his theory in relation to:

  • color relativity, intensity, and temperature;
  • vibrating and vanishing boundaries; and
  • the illusions of transparency and reversed grounds.

The Elements of Color: A Treatise on the Color System of Johannes Itten Based on His Book the Art of Color
The Elements of Color: A Treatise on the Color System of Johannes Itten Based on His Book the Art of Color

Author: Johannes Itten

Hardcover: 95 pages

Publisher: John Wiley & Sons; 1 edition (January 31, 1970)

 

The Elements of Color

A Treatise on the Color System

Rated an average of 4.2 out of 5 stars based on 69 customer ratings and 34 customer reviews

This is a simplification and condensation of Johannes ltten's major work "The Elements of Color" - making it more accessible and easier to read.

Itten is a highly regarded Swiss teacher of colour in art. Having studied colour in Germany, Itten developed a course on colour for the Bauhaus school founded by the great German architect Walter Gropius. This was then translated into a book called "Design and Form, the basic course at the Bauhaus" - which became one of the landmarks of modern education in art.

This book is a more accessible form of that course and book. It includes a useful section which provides an overview of how the different art movements used colour in their art.

First published in 1963 when Itten was still alive, the book has been revised and updated by Itten's widow, Anneliese Itten, and includes new material from the basic course at the Bauhaus, as well as visual examples and descriptions of the refinements made by Itten in later course in Berlin and Zurich.

Theory of Colours (MIT Press)
Theory of Colours (MIT Press)

Author: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Paperback: 423 pages

Publisher: The M.I.T. Press; 1st edition (March 15, 1970)

 

Theory of Colours

Believe it or not this was written by the same Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who is also the author of Faust!

It provides a unique perspective on the nature of color.

It's not scientifically correct but it was very influential in its time and is important to know about for that reason. I've seen a more recent edition in the UK and I guess this is a book which is unlikely to ever go out of print!

Rated an average of 4.3 out of 5 stars based on 34 customer ratings and 15 customer reviews

The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors and Their Applications to the Arts

The 19th century scientist M.E. Chevreul wrote one of the greatest books about Colour. This is the English translation with a commentary by Faber Birren.

This is the book which had a dominant influence on many of the Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist painters. It was also highly influential in relation to Op Art!

The book covers color harmony, contrast effects, optical mixtures, and legibility and had a dominant influence. His ideas and principles influenced basic training in colour throughout the Western world. In turn this had an impact on many of the Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist painters and was also highly influential in relation to Op Art!

Modern scientific research has validated many of Chevrault's ideas about visual perception.

Rated 4.4 out of 5 stars by 7 customer ratings and 5 customer reviews

Learn How to Use Colour

This is the practical section which focuses on how different colours work in terms of art materials and actually using colours to make art

Making Color Sing, 25th Anniversary Edition: Practical Lessons in Color and Design
Making Color Sing, 25th Anniversary Edition: Practical Lessons in Color and Design

Author: Jeanne Dobie

Paperback: 160 pages

Publisher: Watson-Guptill; 25 Anv Rep edition (January 11, 2011)

 

Making Color Sing

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED 25th Anniversary Edition:

Practical Lessons in Color and Design - by Jeanne Dobie

  • #2 in Books > Textbooks > Humanities > Visual Arts > Painting

Rated an average of

  • 4.6 out of 5 stars by 85 customer ratings and 44 customer reviews (this edition)
  • 4.8 out of 5 stars by 58 customer reviews (original edition)

Everybody who has ever read this this best-selling book seems to recommend it. The fact that any art instruction book gets to 25 years in print and is still selling strongly tells you all you need to know about how many recommendations this book gets via word of mouth.

Perhaps one of the things that people remember this book for is how Jeanne is great both on the topic of colour mixing and how colours works in space and with other colours.

She also explains the power of what she calls the 'mouse' colours when creating paintings - the quieter more neutral but still coloured greys created from secondary and tertiary colours.

Confident Color: An Artist's Guide To Harmony, Contrast And Unity
Confident Color: An Artist's Guide To Harmony, Contrast And Unity

Author: Nita Leland

Spiral-bound: 160 pages

Publisher: North Light Books; Spiral bound edition (October 21, 2008)

 

Confident Color: An Artist's Guide To Harmony, Contrast And Unity - by Nita Leland

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Reviews: 4.7 out of 5 stars (29 customer reviews)

Nita Leland is a very popular tutor who is passionate about colour. The reviews and ratings for this book reflect how good she is at conveying all the essentials you need to know about colour - plus exercises to develop your knowledge and skill

This book features:

  • Artwork from more than 50 contributing artists that illustrates many personal approaches to color
  • 85 "Try It" activities that will help to develop your awareness of the colors and combinations that resonate with you
  • Step-by-step demonstrations that show how 7 different artists choose palettes and make color decisions as they paint a range of subjects

Color Choices: Making Color Sense Out of Color Theory
Color Choices: Making Color Sense Out of Color Theory

Author: Stephen Quiller

Paperback: 144 pages

Publisher: Watson-Guptill; New edition edition (February 1, 2002)

 

Color Choices: Making Color Sense Out of Color Theory

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Rated an average of 4.6 out of 5 stars based on 198 customer ratings and 93 customer reviews

This book is essentially about a systematic approach to making colour make sense and developing your own sense of colour. It's one of the best books on using a colour wheel.

In the book Stephen Quiller explains how to use his own "Quiller Wheel," (a special foldout wheel featuring 68 precisely placed colors) to understand relationships between different colors, mix colours and develop their own unique color blends.

He also explains how to develop five structured color schemes. Plus it has a very useful section at the end which reviews the Master Colorists

Color for Painters: A Guide to Traditions and Practice
Color for Painters: A Guide to Traditions and Practice

Author: AL GURY is the chair of the painting department at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and the author of Alla Prima: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Direct Painting. He has exhibited his own work at numerous galleries across the country.

 

Color for Painters

A Guide to Traditions and Practice

Average Customer review rating: 4.6 out of 5 stars (based on 37 customer ratings and 14 customer reviews)

This book is intended to be a practical manual rather than an exhaustive academic text. It contains simple explanations of how colour works in paintings and ways of organising our experiences of colour.

Al Jury has taught art for more than 30 years at at America's first fine arts institution, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Color by Betty Edwards: A Course in Mastering the Art of Mixing Colors
Color by Betty Edwards: A Course in Mastering the Art of Mixing Colors

Author: Betty Edwards

Paperback: 224 pages

Publisher: Tarcher (September 23, 2004)

 

Color

A Course in Mastering the Art of Mixing Colors

RECOMMENDED - This Betty Edwards book is a must-have primer for beginners for people wanting to learn more about colour by an author who focuses on making art theory and practice accessible.

Rated:

  • USA - 4.4 out of 5 stars See all reviews (88 customer reviews)
  • UK - 5 out of 8 reviews gave it 5 stars

This guide published in 2004 is by the best-selling author of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. It distills the enormous existing knowledge about colour theory into a practical method of working with colour to produce harmonious combinations.

More books about how to use Colour - taking theory and putting it into practice

Includes three books which are highly recommended

Color in Contemporary Painting: Integrating Practice and Theory
Color in Contemporary Painting: Integrating Practice and Theory

Paperback: 224 pages

Publisher: Watson-Guptill;

New edition edition (March 1, 1997)

 

This book is more than 20 years old but is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED by me.
Rated an average of
4.5 out of 5 stars based on 13 customer reviews

Charles Le Clair, author of The Art of Watercolor, takes an in-depth look at the many ways colour can be used in various types of painting. The book outlines various colour theories on the basis that in order to become adept and spontaneous at using colour one must understand the various principles on which effective use of colour are based

The main emphasis of the book is the way contemporary artists actually use colour - with examples of work by Milton Avery, Janet Fish, Richard Diebenkorn, Hans Hofman, Helen Frankenthaler, Jasper Johns, Wolf Kahn, Robert Rauschenberg, Harriet Shorr, Frank Stella, Wayne Thiebaud, and other artists whose style and subject matter cover a wide spectrum

Learning About Colour #2

These include some books I very much recommend

RECOMMENDED
Rated UK: 5.0 out of 5 stars (3 customer reviews)

Quiller provides a comprehensive analysis of colour palettes and mixing colours for painters and painting.

He starts with an analysis what a colour palette and how it can be organised with primary, secondary, and intermediate hues - focusing on 12 major colour notes. He then considers how greys and neutral colours can be created from complementary colours on the colour wheel and the difference between creating mud and neutralising colours.

His next topic is what he calls the Value-Intensity Foundation - with an exploration of what both value and intensity mean in practice and in compositions - and how one relates to the other. He focuses in particular on how to organise (compose) colours in a painting in terms of value and intensity.

He explores the concept of the mother colour, colour families and analogous colours and how colour can be used to signify atmosphere and mood.

The book finishes with a section which looks at the paintings of master colourists and while some are well known, I'm sure others may be new to readers of this book - and it's always good to expand one's knowledge of master painters.

I don't know any book about colour which comes with its very own colour wheel bound-in to the book. (This is removable).

However if you want to use this a lot it's probably better to get the laminated version (see below)

More of my art books about Colour

Makingamark Art Books about Colour have a major section in my art library. I've been fascinated by colour for a long time and these are just under half the books about colour that I own. See if you can pick out the ones I'm recommending.
Makingamark Art Books about Colour have a major section in my art library. I've been fascinated by colour for a long time and these are just under half the books about colour that I own. See if you can pick out the ones I'm recommending. | Source
Watercolor Artist's Guide to Exceptional Color
Watercolor Artist's Guide to Exceptional Color

Paperback: 128 pages

Publisher: Walter Foster (December 1, 2007)

 

Watercolor Artist's Guide to Exceptional Color - by Jan Hart

Average of 4.9 out of 5 stars See all reviews (30 customer reviews) | Like (27)

There are hundreds of watercolor paints on the market, with widely varying characteristics, appearances, and names. This easy-to-use book cuts through the confusion. In this informative, 128-page book, author Jan Hart covers pigment properties while providing helpful information on combining colors on the palette for optimal effect. The full-color book features an array of step-by-step painting demonstrations and a must-have glossary of pigment equivalencies for the most popular paint manufacturers.

More Colour for Watercolorists

Hilary Page's Guide to Watercolor Paints
Hilary Page's Guide to Watercolor Paints

Paperback: 178 pages

Publisher: Watson-Guptill; First Edition edition (February 1, 1997)

 

Hilary Page's Guide to Watercolor Paints

This is one of those books - a definitive guide to watercolour paints and pigments which is much valued by those who have used it. It's rated an average of 4.8 out of 5 stars based on 25 customer reviews

The problem is that it was published back in 1997 and the technology and the components of paints have changed since that time.

The solution - provided for free by Hilary is a FREE online update in relation to all paints in the book - available from her website

Plus lots of information in relation to the performance if different pigments and their toxicity etc remains unchanged. It's a useful book - but only if read in conjunction with the updates.

That said - it would be really nice to see an update in book form! My guess it that the next version will be an online digital product since this would make more sense.

Transparent Watercolor Wheel
Transparent Watercolor Wheel

Paperback: 144 pages

Publisher: Watson-Guptill (April 1, 2000)

Rated an average of 4.9 out of 5 stars by 13 customer reviews

 

Transparent Watercolor Wheel

This is a book for those who particularly like and want to know more about transparent watercolour paints and how to take the guesswork out of mixing their paints

I own this book and it's the only one I know which is heavily focused on transparent paint.

Colour wheels tend to organise everything with colours in neat and equal segments of the wheel - whereas in reality that's not the way they perform. Jim Kosvanec sorts out the different colours of paints into five groups according to their physical and behavioural characteristics and the documents these on a unique fold out wheel

  • transparent and non-staining
  • semi-transparent nonstaining
  • transparent staining
  • semi-opaque and opaque colours
  • blackened colours

He then helps you to understand the different properties of colours in the different groups and how they mix together.

See also http://www.kosvanec.com/controllingtranswc.html

© 2008 Katherine Tyrrell

Comments and Suggestions - Let me know what you think - but please do not spam

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    • mojoCNYartist profile image

      Dan 5 years ago from CNY

      Nice list of books. I think every arts degree should teach students colour theory....I think it's vital to know if you're an artist.

    • JohnMichael2 profile image

      JohnMichael2 5 years ago

      I enjoyed reading this and learning more about color

    • makingamark profile image
      Author

      Katherine Tyrrell 6 years ago from London

      @artgoodman lm: I have read a book about this - and I'm trying to rack my memory to remember the title!

    • artgoodman lm profile image

      artgoodman lm 6 years ago

      Great lens, very informative. Quick question for you though, what book would you recommend for color theory in advertising? I'm trying to get some color ideas that make people more likely to buy something. Thanks for sharing this great leans

    • makingamark profile image
      Author

      Katherine Tyrrell 7 years ago from London

      [in reply to ronika] It depends on the colours and the quantities used. Best to find out for yourself by 'doing'.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      While looking for more information on master colorist, I came upon this site. I a great resource for books on color and other art info.

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      if i used two colours together ,one light and the other a darker value, what effects i will end up with?

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