Color Theory Essentials: Must-Read Books for Artists

Understanding the art of color is essential for any artist or designer. 

There’s a whole science behind color theory. Having a handle on it can make a vast impact on your work!

Hopefully, you’ll already be familiar with the color wheel. But if you want to dive deeper into color theory, there are some outstanding books to get you started.

As an artist myself, I find color theory to be fascinating. Learning more about color helped me to become a better artist.

As soon as I had read a few books about color, my compositions improved significantly.

But color theory isn’t only important for artists. Web, graphic, and product designers should understand the science of color.

Color plays a vital role in any product, whether digital or physical.

If you want to create appealing products or artwork, you need to see and learn colors. The best place to start is with a color psychology book.

The fantastic thing about books about colors is the images and graphics. They put things into context and give you a deeper understanding of color.

Seeing the colors in use makes it much more practical and powerful.

That’s why I’ve put together this comprehensive list of the best color theory books around. Every artist should have a firm grasp on how to see color and paint it.

Both beginners and professional artists will find some helpful titles on my list. I’ve also collected the best books for designers too.

Whether you want a basic understanding of the color mixing book or an advanced color theory textbook, read on to find the right title for you!

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Best Books on Color Theory

Here’s my roundup of the best books on color theory for designers, graphic designers and artists! Let’s dive in.

  • Interaction of Color: 50th Anniversary Edition
  • Color: A Natural History of the Palette
  • The Secret Lives of Color
  • Secret Language of Color
  • An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour
  • A Dictionary Of Color Combinations
  • Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours
  • Color Problems: A Practical Manual for the Lay Student of Color
  • The Anatomy of Color

Interaction of Color: 50th Anniversary Edition

Best Books on Color Theory for Artists - Interaction of Color: 50th Anniversary Edition

(Image credit: Yale University Press, New Haven and London)

Interaction of Color is regarded as a classic color theory book. Josef Albers wrote this book over 50 years ago, but it’s stood the test of time.

It’s a comprehensive exploration of color that’s dense but rewarding. As you work your way through, you’ll develop a keen understanding of how color works.

150 color plates and color theory paintings illustrate this book. These visuals convey ideas in a way that text alone can’t do. 

Plus, there are visual exercises throughout to test your understanding. As you go through each exercise, you’ll gradually build your knowledge of the topic.

You’ll learn about everything from optical illusions to color relativity and boundaries. This classic continues to inspire and enlighten today.

Interaction of Color is a must-have book for any student or wannabe artist. If you’re interested in color, you need this book on your shelf! 

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Color: A Natural History of the Palette

Best Books on Color Theory for Artists - Color: A Natural History of the Palette

(Image credit: Random House Trade Paperbacks)

If you want to understand the history and origin of colors, pick up this book today. It’s a fascinating study of where different palettes come from. 

You’ll learn the significance of various shades across history. If you want to know where specific pigments are found, this book spills all the secrets. 

Author Victoria Finlay traveled around the world to learn more about the history of dyes. You’ll be carried to faraway places like China and India through the pages of this book.

But you’ll also discover a treasure trove of information about color, dyes, and pigments.

This book reads less like a textbook. It’s a travelogue combined with a book of color. If you want to avoid dry tomes, you’ll appreciate this book even more.

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The Secret Lives of Color

Best Books on Color Theory for Artists - The Secret Lives of Color

(Image credit: Penguin Books)

This intriguing book delves into the history, etymology, and quirks of 75 colors. Author Kassia St Clair talks about the colors like they are old friends with curious tales to tell.

It’s an excellent book for anyone from professional artists to interested laypeople. The tone is fun and engaging – this is not a book just for scholars.

There are plenty of anecdotes and stories to keep you turning the pages. But there’s plenty of weight analysis to deepen your understanding of color.

You can read this book like a textbook or a novel, depending on your preference! 

There are many full-color illustrations and diagrams within. These add real depth and context to the text.

When you open it up, you’ll find chapters on each broad color, including white, green, blue, red, and more. And within, these colors are broken down into various hues in a light-hearted yet riveting way.

The Secret Lives of Color is one of the best books for artists who don’t want a heavy read/

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Secret Language of Color

Best Books on Color Theory for Artists - Secret Language of Color

(Image credit: lack Dog and Leventhal)

Have you ever wondered why we see the colors we see? If this question has crossed your mind, Secret Language of Color is the book you need to read next!

Joann Eckstut explains the science of color in an accessible way. There are chapters on the physics and chemistry of color, but it’s written in a way that allows you to understand. 

It doesn’t feel like a science textbook. Instead, you’ll be amazed by why colors are the way they are. 

Within these pages, you’ll come to understand how light and color interact. It’s an essential read that will guide you to mastering the art of mixing colors.

It’s not all about science, either. Psychology is entwined with color – how we see it and what different hues mean to us. 

If you want to understand how the colors you choose affect your art, don’t miss this insightful book. It will open your eyes to all aspects of color. 

Photos and graphics scattered throughout the pages add a welcome visual element. These additions are both stunning and informative.

Without a doubt, it’s one of the best books on color theory for artists.

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An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour

Best Books on Color Theory for Artists - An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour

(Image credit: Atelier Editions)

If you’ve never been to the Forbes Pigment Collection at Harvard Art Museum, you’re missing out. But there’s a new way to experience this incredible collection.

Harvard has published this gorgeous guide to the collection of rare pigments. It’s packed full of beautiful visuals of the vials, beakers, and bottles that line the aisles.

The Forbes Pigment Collection dates back to the early 20th century. It was created by Edwards Forbes himself. Dozens of collectors have contributed to it over the years.

That makes it the biggest collection of rare pigments in the world. So, if you love colors, you need to get hold of this book!

Not only does it contain incredible photographs that will draw you back again and again. Information about the provenance, composition, and application of the pigment accompanies each image. 

This atlas makes an inspiring and informative book. It’s worth buying it for the color history contained within its pages. But it’s the visuals that will keep you coming back for more!

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A Dictionary Of Color Combinations

Best Books on Color Theory for Artists - A Dictionary Of Color Combinations

(Image credit: Seigensha Art Publishing)

If you’ve ever struggled to pair colors, this book is for you! Renowned artist Sanzo Wada collected more than 300 color combinations within this masterpiece. 

Originally, Wada put together a 6-book collection on color theory. This pithy book is based on that collection but in a much more accessible format. 

And although Wada was writing in the 1930s, he was ahead of his time in many ways. These color combinations are as useful today as they were then.

The practical advice within makes it one of the best books on color theory for graphic designers. 

If you’re struggling to choose the colors for your latest project, you can look up some of the suggestions here. Browse through until you find the perfect combination!

It’s just as useful for product designers, web designers, and artists. You can refer to this book, time and time again. 

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Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours

Best Books on Color Theory for Artists - Werner's Nomenclature of Colours

(Image credit: Smithsonian Books)

This is one of the oldest books on my list, but don’t underestimate it for this reason. Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours holds a revered place among books on color.

Scientists and explorers referred to this book to describe the discoveries they made. 

Darwin himself used Werner’s Nomenclature as his reference book during his explorations. That fact alone should be enough to encourage you to pick up this book! 

When you open this book, you’ll see pages upon pages of color swatches. They have been painstakingly reproduced from the originals.

If you’ve ever struggled to name a specific shade, this book will help! This book is also a fantastic insight into color theory through the ages.

And while it’s an artifact of a bygone era, the color descriptions are delightful to read. 

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Color Problems: A Practical Manual for the Lay Student of Color

Best Books on Color Theory for Artists - Color Problems: A Practical Manual for the Lay Student of Color

(Image credit: Sacred Bones)

Emily Noyes Vanderpoel was one of the forerunners of color theory in the 1800s. 

As a talented painter, she developed a deep love and understanding of colors. Vanderpoel used clever grids to illustrate the relationships between colors.

This book contains impressive color plates reproduced in all their vibrancy and color. They are surprisingly modern and useful, even though it was first published in 1901.

You’ll also learn about:

  • Color theories
  • Color qualities
  • Color harmonies and contrasts
  • And suggestions for color combinations

Vanderpoel shared color suggestions for interior design, fashion, and floristry. But you can equally apply them to anything from websites to physical products. 

Color Problems continues to be a helpful book for anyone who works with color.

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The Anatomy of Color

Best Books on Color Theory for Artists - The Anatomy of Color

(Image credit: Thames & Hudson)

Last but not least is The Anatomy of Color by Patrick Baty. This book is where art meets history. Baty has created an enlightening guide to colors throughout the ages.

It’s a detailed exploration of how and why colors have developed over time. 

By learning how pigments were made, you’ll understand why some colors became popular. 

Ever wondered why different art movements favored specific shades? This book provides answers!

Baty also discusses color in interior design through the ages. Hundreds of illustrations and reproductions show how things have changed over time.

This book would make the perfect gift for any art lover, historian, or artist.  It deserves a place among the best books on color theory for its depth and insight.

Plus, you’ll love looking through the 1,000+ images in full color and glorious detail!

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The Wrap Up

Every artist and designer needs a solid understanding of color theory. With these books, you’ll soon know your way around the history, science, and art of color.

So, take your pick your book so that you can dive into all things color theory.

You’ll see an instant improvement in your work. Plus, you’ll appreciate colors a lot more when you know about their origin, history, and impact on psychology.

If you found these reviews helpful, sign up for the Proactive Creative newsletter! I’ll keep you up to date with the best resources for creatives.

Let me know in the comments which book you will choose first! Or do you have a favorite book that I missed? I would love to know – share it below!

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Outmane is the founder of Proactive Creative. He is an artist/designer.

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