Even though I am a substantially self-taught artist, people often ask me what art school is all about, or more specifically what exactly you learn in art school. And even for me, that’s an easy question!
You learn things like art technique, art history, the business of art, the art of turning basic principles to practical use, composition, perspective, color theory. And this last one — color theory, is why we’re here today, 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.
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I do have the utmost respect for art schools, and know just how excellent and valuable they are and how important the experience has been for so many people. But can you learn something as important as color theory on your own? I think so, and I’ve written this article to help you do just that.
We will try to find:
- The Best Color Theory Books for Artists and Designers
- The Best Color Theory Books for Interior Designers
- The Best Color Theory Books for Crafters
- The Best Books for Anybody Who Wants to Learn More about Color
- The Best Books for Refreshing Your Knowledge and Understanding of Color Theory
What is Color Theory?
The study of color theory is the study of pretty much every aspect of color, and especially how color and colors relate to the work of artists, illustrators, animators, designers, crafters and the like.
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 in 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 more effective.
Why Should You Study Color Theory?
One of the things I really 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 can 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 effectiveness 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 new theory — like, as one example, color theory as it relates to computer graphics or tech in general — or to simply refresh their knowledge and re—energize their relationship with and use of color.
So, if you’ve always been a little unsure or hesitant in your use of color, the study of color theory can literally 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 specifically about the very 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 myself have created a number of 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 just love to teach, and I think that enthusiasm makes my courses more effective and more enjoyable.
Of course, there are lots of other teachers out there as well, and many of the courses are absolutely 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 end up, in fact, referencing them all the time, for specific information, for understanding and for curiosity, and for inspiration and ideas.
So, no matter what your background or your 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.
What are the Best Books on Color Theory?
To make this easier, I am going to break this down into several basic categories, and offer a few of the best books in each category. Of course one could easily find hundreds of books for each of these categories, but these are the best of the best — easy to read and understandable, thoughtful and thorough, and often with an infectious sense of the joy of color that shines through as you’re reading.
The basic categories are:
- Classic Color Theory Books — time-honored texts 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 ample opportunity to practice
- Color Theory Field Guides — for en plen 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
The Best Classic Books on Color Theory
Josef Albers Interaction of Color: 50th Anniversary Edition
The true standard by which all other textbooks on color theory are judged, Josef Albers ‘ 50th anniversary edition book is still the very best book overall for learning complete color theory, and probably still the most widely used textbook in the finest universities and art schools.
Color: A Course in Mastering the Art of Mixing Colors by Betty Edwards
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!
The Best Modern Color Theory Books / Computer & Digital Art Color Theory Books
Contemporary Color: Theory and Use
A contemporary classic, this is the most highly praised — and the most excellent, complete and fascinating — new book on color theory. Steven Bleicher’s brilliant volume considers all classic and modern concepts and systems, offering a really 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 through Amazon (my link will show you all options).
Applying Color Theory to Digital Media and Visualization
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.
The Best Basic / Beginner Color Theory Books
Special Subjects: Basic Color Theory
Patty Mollica’s brief text on color theory is light, delightful and amazingly accessible, and yet 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 as well.
A Visual Guide to Classical Art Theory for Drawing and Painting Students
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.
The Best Color Theory Books for Painters
Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter
Another classic book that has never been bettered, James Gurney ’s invaluable volume not only explains and demonstrates how to use color in the most effective and realistic way in painting (and really any media), but is also a fascinating and insightful treatise on the relationship between color and light.
Color Mixing Bible
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.
The Best Color Theory Workbooks
No matter how much theory you absorb, you’re still going to need some practice, and these fun and engaging books are the perfect choices.
Color Design Workbook A Real World Guide to Using Color in Graphic Design
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 knowledge, and confidence, to effectively talk to clients about color choices and the effects of various colors and color schemes.
Color and Pattern 50 Playful Exercises for Exploring Pattern Design
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 really strengthens your relationship with and use of color.
Color Third Edition: A Workshop for Artists and Designers
Best for fine artists and painters, David Hornung’s popular volume is also really valuable for commercial artists, and is incredibly rich in not just exercises but beautiful examples and illustrations as well.
The Best Color Theory Field Guides
A Dictionary of Color Combinations
The most classic and beloved compendium of color combinations, Wada’s dictionary is an ideal distillation of his original multi-volume work, and is especially valuable for its consideration and understanding of both Eastern and Western color combinations and schemes.
The Pocket Complete Color Harmony
An incredibly complete and beautifully printed field guide to color combinations, which also includes some very basic text about color theory, psychology and use. The CMYK references for the hundreds of included color palettes are alone worth the book’s price, especially for the working digital artist.
The Best Color Reference / Color Pallete Books
Color Index XL
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 Complete Color Harmony
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.
Digital Color Index
Including both 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, and is incredibly useful to any digital artist.
A Different Approach: The Best Color Theory Books from Another Angle
Theory of Colours
From the major German existentialist poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a beautifully written treatise on color theory 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 effects — truly unlike anything else on our list!
Color Choices: Making Color Sense Out of Color Theory
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 for any artist to re-think colors and color combinations and arrive at their own personal understanding and sense of style. Also includes fascinating examples from art history and thorough explanations of color theory — a brilliant book.
The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair
A treasury of stories and examples of colors, in art, but also in 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 pure entertainment value, Kassia St. Clair also helps us understand colors, their meanings and effects, in a very broad and complete way, and is super-valuable for all artists and designers.
Secret Language of Color
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 not only use color more effectively and successfully in your work, but understand better what those colors mean and what effect they will have. A really great read!
Final Thoughts: Is the Study of Color Really Helpful?
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Even with everything we’ve talked about here, this is still a good and valid question. I mean, if you have a natural sense of color, color combination and color usage already, and your work really glows with color, why do you need to study what you already know?
Well, it’s been my own personal experience — and the experience of many of my students and of other artists I’ve discussed this with — that we don’t really know what we know. What I mean is that while we may have a good intuitive use of color, we may not clearly know why we are using certain colors in certain situations, precisely what effects they may have, even why they look good in certain places or in certain combinations.
And when I, and others, went into the study of color theory it was like a revelation, with so much of what we had been doing all along suddenly focusing and making perfect sense. Not only did that very intuitive flow that I’ve been so happy with for so long increase, strengthen and get even more free and flowing, it now came with a deep understanding, more and more confidence and better and better results.
And that’s why I also love teaching color theory and color usage. For people who aren’t quite there yet, and who have little or no confidence or effectiveness in the use of color, the study can truly transform their work, and those who are already color pros also feel enormous benefit — in confidence, effectiveness and even in their intimate relationship with their own work.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this article – Best Books for Learning Color Theory in 2021 – and I also would love for you to visit my blog – Art Side of Life – for other buyer’s guides, online courses, articles and lots of other resources.