In Association with Hooker and Perron Books

Colour Theory Books Colour Theory:
A Renaissance Topic

by Carin Perron
Colour theory has always been a major interest of mine. What fascinates me the most about it, besides the subject itself, is its interdisciplinary nature. It straddles art, art history, chemistry, physics, physiology, psychology, medicine, language, and numerous interrelationships between them.
The best all-around books on colour I can recommend are Johannes Itten's The Art of Color and Faber Birren's Principles of Color.These books are both broad and deep, and have many colour illustrations to show the authors' meanings more clearly. Both Birren and Itten are acknowledged masters in the teaching of colour theory, and I find their work exciting.

Other books by Faber Birren:

The Lüscher Color Test, (PB, Out of Print).    More
If you buy only one book on colour theory, among all the books in the world, this one is it.
The Art of Color, the subjective experience and objective rationale of color, by Johannes Itten (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1973).
The Elements of Color A smaller book containing the bare essentials of Itten is Faber Birren's The Elements of Color: A Treatise on the Color System of Johannes Itten Based on His Book the Art of Color. A useful guide, and often the colour text in many art and design courses, The Elements of Color can whet the appetite for a deeper look at colour.
Albers' Interaction of Color is considered the masterwork of one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, brilliantly showing the optical phenomenon of "simultaneous contrast", as described by Chevreul and Itten, including the way that one color can appear as two and how disparate colors can appear alike in varying settings. Years ago, I saw a copy of the original "book," which was really a series of serigraphs (silkscreen prints done by Albers' students) in a case, showing all the exercises and examples. Interaction of Color was also produced as a CD-ROM edition. If you're exploring this concept, remember that not only do colours affect each other physically when laid side by side -- Joseph Albers' Interaction of Colour has examples of such extremes as grey turning yellow when placed atop violet), but the combinations of colours affect each other's meaning psychologically (Luscher is good for this, but Itten also has things to say about colour interaction).

Color and Human Response: Aspects of Light and Color Bearing on the Reactions of Living Things and the Welfare of Human Beings, (PB).
Faber Birren's broad-ranging expertise encompasses not only a theoretical and human-centered (even mystical) understanding, but also a very pragmatic approach to the use of colour, which he has applied as a colour consultant to industry.

Artists' Pigments: A Handbook of Their History & Characteristics by Elisabeth W. Fitzhugh (Editor)
This National Gallery of Art, U. S. A. Publication discusses the history of various pigments, many of them no longer in general use, but important art-historically, such as Egyptian Blue; troublesome, fugitive, or unstable colours, such as Indigo, Woad, and Vandyke Brown, the poisonous Orpiment, Realgar, and Emerald or Scheele's Green, and those still in common use, such as Madder, Alizarin, Gamboge, Prussian Blue, Chromium Oxide Green, and Titanium Dioxide White.
Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution (PB), Brent Berlin and Paul Kay. This book discusses the use of words for colour in many different languages. Their research covered speakers of twenty unrelated languages, augmented by information from written sources, for a total of 98 languages. It is ground-breaking because, although each language uses words for colours to mean different things, the authors demonstrate that while the boundaries of colour vary from language to language, the central, focal colour is comparable across languages. They also classify languages by the development of colour terms, which follows a strict pattern of development, the more primitive divisions each including more "colours" than languages with a greater number of colour terms. The HB edition is also available, though harder to find.

Colour is such an interesting subject, I find it unforgiveable when writers make it dull (as some of the writers on colour physics and measurement often do)! However, even the dullest technical book has often given me some small nugget of insight, so my advice is always this: read broadly, even if you don't see the immediate relevance. Sometimes two or three things from different books will come together for you.

If you get really hot and heavy into the physics of colour (yikes!), there are a lot of books out there, most of them quite unreadable, and full of puzzling graphs. One of the most readable and complete ones I have seen is:

Color Measurement, Themes and Variations (PB), by David L. MacAdam (Springer Series in Optical Sciences, volume 27). The main thing you want to get out of this one is the CIE Chromaticity graph, which you will learn to recognize in a lot of books. It looks kind of like a bell curve tilted to one side, and maps the wavelengths of light. Different organizations and committees alter this graph for their own purposes. This book mentions the "color-order systems" of Ostwald and Munsell, but Faber Birren's book, Principles of Color, deals with this topic more thoroughly.

Special Order and Out-of-Print Books

I have found several books, over the years, to be exceptional books on colour theory. If you do wish to purchase any of these books, the given links will take you to's out-of-print book service. will update you on your order in 1-2 weeks, and let you know what is available. They will not search for particular editions of a book, only for the title, but they will give you the option of accepting the copy they have located for you. You can also search for these titles at Amazon's zShops or their auction site.

If cannot locate a book you are looking for, you can search for the title yourself on the Internet, using any major search engine. Personally, I found two of the following out-of-print books, Colors from the Earth, and Color in Art: A Tribute to Arthur Pope at, a network of independent booksellers. If you cannot find these books anywhere else, they may be available at your local library, and if not in their collection, your library may be able to obtain a copy for you on interlibrary loan, which can give you access to books in public and University libraries throughout a large area.

On colour psychology, Max Lüscher is the acknowledged expert here (do you kind of get the idea the Germans have colour theory sewn up?...with the exception of Chevreul, of course). He has created a deep psychological test based on colour choices in a controlled setting, and has also worked as a consultant for industry regarding psychologically appropriate uses of colour. His book is called:

The Lüscher Color Test, (PB, Out of Print) by Dr. Max Lüscher. I have found this book sheds light on a lot of the other psychology/perception stuff you find elsewhere. For the HB, which is a bit harder to find, order here: Luscher Color Test; Library Binding (Out of Print). Unfortunately, both the HB and PB editions are currently out of print. The above links will allow you to make a request for this book. A word regarding buying this book second-hand: I would not recommend buying a copy without the colour cards in the back.

Principles of Color : A Review of Past Traditions and Modern Theories of Color Harmony, by Faber Birren (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1969) [Special Order]. Birren reviews the work of the major colour theorists, so you can use this as a springboard for reading books on specific theories and models of colour. Birren has also written many other books on various aspects of colour.

The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors, by M.E. Chevreul [Special Order], is an important book, both historically and theoretically. Chevreul, when he took over the Gobelins dye and tapestry works, found a number of problems in the weaving were really colour problems, mainly to do with how colours affected each other when juxtaposed. This is a very important work on simultaneous contrast, and also deals, necessary, with that kind of colour mixture that is neither additive, like light, nor subtractive, like pigment, but is called "medial," and has to do with colour mixtures in the eye.

For insights on colour vision and perception, I highly recommend:
Colour and Colour Theories (Classics in Psychology), by Dr. Christine Ladd-Franklin [Special Order] or, for special edition with library binding.
Dr. Ladd-Franklin developed her own theory of colour vision with none of the weaknesses of either the Young-Helmholz or the Hering theories, and squares with the witness of perception (for example, a man colour blind in one eye who wrote about his perceptions, and who is ignored by the other theorists, because what he saw was not what they predicted, fits perfectly with Ladd-Franklin). To understand this book, you need to understand something about the way coloured light mixes. This is different from the way pigments mix, but since many readers will be thinking of applications for the web, coloured light mixing (additive colour) will be more relevant to you than coloured pigment mixing (subtractive colour).

For a more practical book on techniques for taking advantage of colour perception:

Color Perception in Art [PB, Special Order], by Faber Birren. This book, along with Johannes Itten's book, and the first book I mentioned by Birren, can give you lots of ideas about how to get the results you want in the brain of the viewer.

For a discussion of the way lights and pigments function, the following book is serviceable:

Lights and pigments : colour principles for artists, by Roy Osborne; Unknown Binding (HB, Out of Print); there is also a PB edition.

A rather obscure book, but one with something new to add is the following:

Color in Art: a tribute to Arthur Pope, James M. Carpenter (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, 1974) (PB, Out of Print). Arthur Pope's colour solid has two interesting features: he takes into account the fact that each colour, at its brightest and purest, is naturally a different value (lightness or darkness), so pure yellow is the lightest, pure violet the darkest. Lots of theorists gloss over this. He also divides his solid at yellow, not red, which I think is more satisfactory, for many reasons. This is worth looking at, if you can get it on interlibrary loan somewhere. While I cannot find it in any current listings, there is one book by Pope which may give some illumination on his ideas on art: The Language of Drawing and Painting, although this one is also out of print, it appears to be more "gettable."

Further along the idea of the effect colour has on people medically, and not just psychologically, is the following:

The Ancient Art of Color Therapy: Updated, Including Gem Therapy, Auras, and Amulets , by Linda Clark (HB, Out of Print). Some of the things in this book veer into the realm of psychic traditions and practices, but they are recorded relatively objectively, and the medical discussions are enlightening, even if one would hope for further studies to be done on what is essentially a folk-medicine tradition. I find this dovetails quite well with the psychology of colour. Use this link for the PB edition.

Regarding Art History, we go back to Faber Birren again, with the following title:

History of Color in Painting by Faber Birren (HB, Out of Print). This book discusses the colour palettes of various eras of artists with great specificity. This book is also out of print.

The following books are very useful to painters:

Artists' Pigments c. 1600-1835, by R.D. Harley (HB, Out of Print). This is the most complete book I have seen on the manufacture and use of artist's pigments, and clarifies many problems with nomenclature that are inevitable as people constantly call different things by the same name, and the same thing by different names. The illustrations from sample-books are also fascinating. While Harley's focus is on this specific period, there is much information about the pigments before this time.

The Materials and Techniques of Painting, with a Supplement on Color Theory, by Kurt Wehlte (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1975) (HB, Out of Print). An exceedingly thorough study of painting materials, including pigments and colour theory, by a theorist with practical experience in painting and teaching. The author was held captive by the Russians in the second world war, and made to test oil paints made with the oil of a special variety of sunflower seed. He heard, twenty years later, that the samples were still bright as the day he painted them. Use the following link for the PB edition.

Controlled Painting: A sound approach to realistic painting in oil and acrylics, by Frank Covino (PB, Out of Print). This book puts into practice some of the colour scales from light to dark first found in Faber Birren. Another edition of this book.

Colors from the Earth,
The Artist's Guide to Collecting, Preparing, and Using Them

by Anne Wall Thomas (HB, Out of Print)
This book, in a few short pages (96 pp.) covers what earth colours a person can find, their history, their modern use, their preparation as pigments, and how they can be used in oils, egg tempera, pastels, and printing inks. The directions have clear instruction with photos, and there is a useful glossary at the back. This is the only book I have ever seen that directly addresses the question of an artist wanting to make and use their own earth colours.

This should keep anyone going for quite some time. I have been reading books on colour for many years, so I have tried to hit the highlights in this list. Have fun!