Color theory is a very important art fundamental because no matter how good your natural color sense is, no matter how confident you are in using, combining, and understanding colors, learning the basics of color theory — just like they teach in art school — can make an enormous difference.
Let’s look at the best color theory books available today!
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Top Books on Color Theory Compared
Here is a quick summary of my favorite books on color theory. You will find more books in the overview below, including textbooks, workbooks, field guides, books on color palettes, and some that approach color theory differently using stories and personal explorations!
By Patty Mollica
Table of Contents
- Overview: Best Books on Color Theory in 2022
- What is Color Theory?
- Why Should You Study Color Theory?
- What is the Best Way to Study Color Theory?
- FAQs – Best Books on Color Theory
Overview: Best Books on Color Theory in 2022
To make this easier, I divided my guide into several basic categories, with a few of the best books in each category.
Of course, you could easily find hundreds of books for each category, but these are the best of the best — easy to read and understandable, thoughtful and thorough, and often with a contagious sense of the joy of color that shines through as you’re reading.
The basic categories are:
- Classic Color Theory Books — time-honored textbooks on color theory, and the ones still used in the best art schools today
- Modern Color Theory Books — updated with new ideas and new discoveries, and often more applicable to digital art, computers, and technology
- Basic / Beginner Color Theory Books — for somebody just starting out, or for the most rudimentary refresher for more advanced artists/students — sometimes it is so valuable to go back to the basics
- Best Color Theory Books for Painters — good for understanding pigment and color mixing and also how to best use color in your paintings and other physical media
- Color Theory Workbooks — including the fundamentals but also allowing great opportunity to practice
- Color Theory Field Guides — for en Plein Air artists (something else you learn in art school) or for wandering around the city or country on inspired color quests
- Color Theory Reference Books — no matter what other books you choose, any of these will be an invaluable addition to your library
- A Different Approach — color theory from different perspectives and backgrounds, as well as new ideas and concepts about color
Classic Books on Color Theory
The true standard by which all other textbooks on color theory are judged, Josef Albers ‘ 50th-anniversary edition book is still the best book for learning complete color theory.
And probably still the most widely used textbook in the finest universities and art schools.
By Betty Edwards, the author of "The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain"
From the bestselling author of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards ’ amazing book on color theory is just as delightful and accessible.
And yet a deep and comprehensive study. It just doesn’t feel like it!
Computer & Digital Art Color Theory Books
A contemporary classic, this is the most highly praised new book on color theory and the most excellent, complete, and fascinating.
Steven Bleicher’s brilliant volume considers all classic and modern concepts and systems, offering a complete course in colors, and is especially good at applying them to technology and digital art.
Hint: This is an expensive book, and while it is well worth the money and one of the best art investments you could possibly make, you can also find good-used copies (my link will show you all options).
A basic overview of color theory, Rhyne’s book is perhaps best used in conjunction with one of the deeper and more thorough texts I’ve listed above.
But is unbeatable and indispensable in its practical approach to applying color theory to computer art.
Color Theory Books for Beginners
By Patty Mollica
Patty Mollica’s brief text on color theory is light, delightful, and amazingly accessible, yet it is surprisingly deep and complete.
For the absolute beginner or one who has never read anything about color theory, a great place to start — although you may want a more thorough treatment at some point.
By Eric Mantle
Not just color theory, but an overview of various aspects of art theory, including color, perspective, composition, light and shadow, and a lot more — a good way to learn and see color theory in a larger context and with incredibly helpful visual examples all the way through.
Color Theory Books for Painters
Another classic book that has never been bettered.
James Gurney’s invaluable volume not only explains and demonstrates how to use color most effectively and realistically in painting (and any media) but is also a fascinating and insightful essay on the relationship between color and light.
Not just for painters, of course, Ian Sidaway’s exhaustive volume offers a clear and useful explanation of how to create any color in physical media — oil, acrylic, watercolor, pastel, pencil, and more.
Color Theory Workbooks
No matter how much theory you absorb, you’ll still need some practice, and these fun and engaging books are the perfect choices.
By Sean Adams :: New revised edition
Great for commercial artists, this fresh book is not just about color theory but applying it to commercial art and design work and having enough confidence to effectively talk to clients about color choices and the effects of various colors and color schemes.
By Khristian Howell
Great for designers and crafters, this wonderful book is an incredibly fun and surprisingly adventurous journey through the world of color use and combinations and strengthens your relationship with and use of color.
Best for fine artists and painters, David Hornung’s popular volume is also really valuable for commercial artists.
It is incredibly rich in not just exercises but beautiful examples and illustrations as well.
Color Theory Field Guides
The most classic and beloved summary of color combinations, Wada’s dictionary is an ideal distillation of his original multi-volume work.
It is especially valuable for considering and understanding Eastern and Western color combinations and schemes.
An incredibly complete and beautifully printed field guide to color combinations, including some basic text about color theory, psychology, and use.
The CMYK references for the hundreds of included color palettes are worth the book’s price, especially for the working digital artist.
Color Reference and Color Pallete Books
The best overall visual guide for seeing color relationships and their effects.
This is an absolute must-have for any serious commercial or fine artist working in either physical or digital/electronic media, with over a thousand color palettes and both CMYK and RGB references for every color.
The original, larger version of the Pocket Book of Color Harmony listed above and a fairly standard volume in any commercial artist’s library, Eisman’s reference has beautiful and accurate color printing and a complete Pantone code reference for every color.
Including accurately printed paper examples and digital files (in ASE, TIF, and PNG) of 1,000 different color combinations, this nicely written and well-organized book also includes the most basic aspects of color theory.
It is incredibly useful to any digital artist.
Color Theory Books from a Different Angle
From the major German existentialist poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a beautifully written essay on color theory was completely removed from either established concepts and assumptions or scientific explanations.
The controversial Theory of Colors is a little crazy.
But it certainly allows for a new and wholly unprejudiced understanding of colors, their relationships, and their effects — truly unlike anything else in my guide!
By Stephen Quiller
Quiller’s fascinating workbook seems like many other color theory books.
But his odd and provocative use of color and his unique color wheel and color system allow any artist to re-think colors and color combinations and arrive at their own personal understanding and sense of style.
It also includes fascinating examples from art history and thorough explanations of color theory — a brilliant book.
A treasury of stories and examples of colors, art, and every aspect of human life — history, culture, politics, science, and more.
The book from Kassia St. Clair makes for the most interesting and entertaining read I’ve come across in a long time — and not just for color geeks like me, seeing as this beautiful volume has become an enormous international best seller.
Beyond the pure entertainment value, Kassia St. Clair also helps us understand colors, their meanings, and their effects in a very broad and complete way.
It is super-valuable for all artists and designers.
Similar to The Secret Lives of Color in approach and style, this slightly older book has already established itself as somewhat of a cult classic, and with scientific explanations of color and a thorough — and highly entertaining — exploration of color throughout history.
It can help you use color more effectively and successfully in your work and understand better what those colors mean and what effect they will have. A great read!
What is Color Theory?
The study of color theory is the study of almost every aspect of color, especially how color and colors relate to the work of artists, illustrators, animators, designers, crafters, and other creatives.
This can include:
- How to best use colors and color wheel
- How to best combine colors — complementary, analogous, clashing, etc
- How to make colors in physical or digital media
- How colors affect people — psychological effect, historical associations, etc
- Color and composition
- The relationship between light and color
- Color wheel, color charts, and color systems
- Different color (and design) schemes and their qualities — cool, warm, intimate, professional, calming, provocative, inspiring, etc.
This is just off the top of my head, and a good, complete treatment of color theory will cover this and much more, to the point that you will feel completely comfortable using colors and color wheel in your art or crafts.
Use them more freely and yet more effectively, understand what you are doing and make your art, crafts, illustrations, and designs more beautiful and effective.
Why Should You Study Color Theory?
One of the things I want to convey here is that anybody and everybody can gain from a good, proper education in color theory, and even if you didn’t go to art school, you could still give yourself that good, proper education.
Any artist, designer, or crafter will benefit greatly from a basic, or even exhaustive, course in color theory and will use colors much more effectively and naturally — this not only improves our work on many levels but also allows us as artists to drop into a more flowing space when we’re working.
Artists who already have a great natural or innate understanding of color, and are already using it most effectively in their work, also benefit immeasurably from the study of color theory because it not only helps them understand their own instincts and choices but hones them as well, and leads to even more confidence, even more choices (and new perspectives) and even more effective in the use of color.
Even people who have already learned color theory always benefit from the study of color theory to either update their knowledge base with a new theory — like, as one example, color theory as it relates to computer graphics or tech in general — or to refresh their knowledge simply and re-energize their relationship with and use of color.
So, suppose you’ve always been a little unsure or hesitant in your use of color. In that case, studying color theory can turn everything around for you, and if you are already comfortable and/or knowledgable, studying color theory can still make an enormous difference.
Either way, your work will improve, and your confidence and effectiveness will increase.
What is the Best Way to Study Color Theory?
This article is about the best books on color theory available today, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another great option — online courses.
As many of you may already know, I have created several great online courses — if I do say so myself 🙂 — and I feel especially confident in teaching color theory since I not only have a strong natural eye for color and its uses in art, design, and craft but also a fairly deep and thorough understanding of color theory.
Also, I love to teach, and enthusiasm makes my courses more effective and enjoyable.
Of course, there are lots of other teachers out there as well, and many of the courses are fantastic, but if you want to check out some of my online courses on color theory and usage, here are some links:
Learn to use the full potential of color and light in your artworks!
Knowing how to use Color and Light in your artworks is one of the best skills to learn as an artist because it will help you take your artworks from good to great.
But some people are just book-learners, and even those who may be learning from a teacher — in person or online — will still want to have one or a few excellent books on color theory for their reference library.
They reference them for specific information, understanding, curiosity, inspiration, and ideas.
So, no matter your background or situation, if you are an artist, illustrator, animator, interior designer, or crafter, you will find that getting and having a few books on color theory will be incredibly useful and valuable.
FAQs – Best Books on Color Theory
The best way to learn color theory is through art school, online courses, and books. You can learn more in my course Color and Light Masterclass. Or from popular books on color theory such as Josef Elber’s Interaction of Color or Contemporary Color by Steven Bleicher.
The three basic color theories are 1. color wheel, 2. color harmony, and 3. context of how colors are used in relation to each other. You can learn more in my course Color and Light Masterclass.
The seven color schemes are complementary, split complementary, analogous, monochromatic, triadic, tetradic or rectangle, and square. You can learn more in my course Color and Light Masterclass.
I hope my guide helped you get your new books on color theory and you will have a lot of fun studying and applying color and light in your artwork!
Visit my blog – Art Side of Life – for other buyer’s guides, online courses, articles and lots of other resources.
Other articles in the Art Books series:
- Best Pose Reference Websites, Apps, and Books
- Best Drawing Books
- Best Art History Books
- Best Perspective Books and Online Courses
- Self Taught Artist Guide
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