12 Essential Books About Color

12 essential, must-read books about color. Check out Ingrid Fetell Lee's picks for books about color theory, history, and science, as well as practical guides to using color in design.

I’m often asked by readers of Joyful what books I recommend reading next. Some of you have mentioned that you’ve dug into the thick section of notes at the end of the book to compile a reading list. I love hearing this! I’m a notes-reader myself and I love that many of you have taken time to dig deeper into the ways we can find and create more joy around us.

To make it easier to find my go-to joyful resources, I’m starting a new regular series called Joyful Library, beginning with this post about color. Color is where I began in Joyful, and it can be both a fascinating and intimidating topic. So, here is a catalog of my essential books on color: the science, history, theory, and practice of it. Some of these are new, and others are books I come back to again and again. Whether you’re a devoted color-lover or a recovering chromophobe, I guarantee there’s a book in here to help you see color more deeply, appreciate its wonder, and feel more confident using it in your daily life.

Living With Color

Rebecca Atwood

There are so many great books about color theory and history, but very few that show you how to use color in your life. My friend Rebecca Atwood is a designer whose textile and wallpaper designs are the stuff dreams are made of. Her first book on pattern earned a permanent spot on my desk before I’d ever met her, so I was so excited when she told me she was working on a book about color. This just-released book walks you through a process for getting in touch with your own color preferences and helping you build a palette that will make anything from your home to your wardrobe feel joyfully your own. This is not one of those books of stunning, unachievable interiors. It’s beautiful alright, but packed with accessible inspiration that will show you exactly how to get started, even if your most adventurous color decision to date has been pairing oatmeal with ecru. Get it here.

12 essential, must-read books about color. Check out Ingrid Fetell Lee's picks for books about color theory, history, and science, as well as practical guides to using color in design.

Interaction of Color

Josef Albers

A classic by one of the masters of color theory that reveals the ways in which colors morph and shift depending on how they are arranged. Albers shows how one yellow can look drastically different when placed on a blue vs. a brown background. On the flip side, he shows how two different blues can be made to seem almost identical if placed on contrasting grounds. I find this book so indispensable I actually have two copies, the result of a day when I couldn’t find it and immediately went out and bought another. A must-have.

12 essential, must-read books about color. Check out Ingrid Fetell Lee's picks for books about color theory, history, and science, as well as practical guides to using color in design.

Color: A Natural History of the Palette

Victoria Finlay

If you’ve ever wondered where the ultramarine in your watercolor set comes from or how your favorite pink sweater got its hue, then this is the book for you. Finlay takes us around the world as she chases down the sources of the world’s oldest, rarest, and most elusive pigments, from the ochres used by Australian aborigines for 40,000 years to purest yellow sourced from the urine of cows in rural India, to the heated race to find the source of the Spanish government’s fiercely guarded secret red hue. (That last one is the cochineal beetle, still used to create the red pigment in lipstick even today!). Available here.

12 essential, must-read books about color. Check out Ingrid Fetell Lee's picks for books about color theory, history, and science, as well as practical guides to using color in design.

An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour

The Harvard Art Museum’s Forbes Pigment Collection

This is a relatively new addition to my collection, a souvenir from a recent field trip up to the Forbes Pigment Collection at Harvard, a working library that houses more than 2500 colors, many with surprising origin stories (don’t miss the shade of brown that comes from ground up Egyptian mummies!). This is a perfect pictorial companion to Finlay’s Color, (and in fact she wrote the forward), illustrating many of the pigments she describes. Just looking at the antique vials of colored powders sparks a feeling of amazement at the insatiable human appetite for rich and vibrant hues. Get it here.

12 essential, must-read books about color. Check out Ingrid Fetell Lee's picks for books about color theory, history, and science, as well as practical guides to using color in design.

The Secret Lives of Color

Kassia St. Clair

If colors were people, then St. Clair would be their biographer. This book is broken into overall sections based on groupings of hues (greens, blues, pinks, whites, etc.) and then further divided into brief profiles of very specific shades, from shocking pink to puce, verdigris to dragon’s blood, whitewash to madder. Peppered with historical intrigue, cultural curiosities, etymologies, and other tidbits, I find this a fun book to dip into for greater context around our colorful world. Available here.

12 essential, must-read books about color. Check out Ingrid Fetell Lee's picks for books about color theory, history, and science, as well as practical guides to using color in design.

Color Problems: A Practical Manual for the Lay Student

Emily Noyes Vanderpoel

This recently reissued book, complete with a thick set of gorgeous, full-color plates, suggests approaches to creating harmonious arrangements of color in applications ranging from interiors to fashion to floral arranging. Vanderpoel was ahead of her time in a number of ways, from her observation on the restorative power of nature’s greens to her way of representing color relationships in simple grids that anticipated the work of modernists color theorists like Albers and Itten by decades. When you are stuck on a color problem, Vanderpoel’s principles for color harmonies and detailed color studies are a gift. Find it here.

12 essential, must-read books about color. Check out Ingrid Fetell Lee's picks for books about color theory, history, and science, as well as practical guides to using color in design.

Colour: Why the World Isn’t Grey

Hazel Rossotti

This is my go-to book about the physics of color. This book explains why true blue is so rare in nature, why iridescent colors shimmer, and why fluorescent pigments are so bright. (Answer: they actually absorb energy from a part of the spectrum that is invisible to us, making them seem to reflect more light than is shining on them. Whoa!) It’s no longer in print, but you can get a secondhand copy on Abebooks or Amazon.

12 essential, must-read books about color. Check out Ingrid Fetell Lee's picks for books about color theory, history, and science, as well as practical guides to using color in design.

Chromophobia

David Batchelor

If this term caught your attention in ch 1 of Joyful (Energy), this slim book of philosophy and art history can give you a more thorough account of how the fear of color took root in Western society. Chromophilic artist Batchelor shows how color has been equated with childishness, femininity, primitive culture, exoticism, and superficiality, and therefore marginalized. I found this book a great help in understanding why our surroundings often lack color, and why many of us feel a need to hold ourselves back from expressing our love of color in our clothes and environments. Read an excerpt here.

12 essential, must-read books about color. Check out Ingrid Fetell Lee's picks for books about color theory, history, and science, as well as practical guides to using color in design.

Color Me Beautiful

Carole Jackson

Are you a spring or a winter? A cool summer or a deep autumn? I’m not sure this system is as bulletproof as Jackson makes it seem, and it has rightly been criticized for its limited (read: mostly white) palette of skin tones, which has been somewhat addressed in revised editions. Nevertheless, I’ve found it useful to know that there’s a set of colors that are more likely to make me look healthy and vibrant, and others that typically wash me out. After all, the first aesthetic of joy is energy, and if a color makes you look grey and sickly, it’s not very energizing. This system makes shopping a million times easier. If it’s something I’m going to wear next to my face, I rarely look at colors that are out of my “season” anymore. While I sometimes wish that I could wear a tangerine orange dress or a bright yellow sweater, most days I’m just relieved to know that I can walk into a store and eliminate three-quarters of what’s on the rack and just focus on what I know is going to look good. Take a quiz to see what season you are here.

12 essential, must-read books about color. Check out Ingrid Fetell Lee's picks for books about color theory, history, and science, as well as practical guides to using color in design.

Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours

Patrick Syme

This lovely turquoise (or is it Verditter blue?) bound book was once the standard used by scientists, naturalists, and artists to describe the colors they were seeing in nature. In fact, it was the book that Charles Darwin used to describe the colors he saw on his travels on the Beagle. Well before the Pantone system and the invention of the camera, there needed to be some way for scientists to talk about the colors of minerals, clouds, and feathers. Pigments often faded between the time that drawings or paintings were made and later viewed; words were more precise. There is some grousing online about the color swatches not being true to their originals. But I bought this book for the descriptions of the different hues. As a writer, the beautiful names and poetic descriptions make this book a keeper. Peek inside here.

12 essential, must-read books about color. Check out Ingrid Fetell Lee's picks for books about color theory, history, and science, as well as practical guides to using color in design.

The Color Collector’s Handbook

Leah Martha Rosenberg

Rosenberg is an artist and one of the cofounders of Color Factory, a participatory pop-up museum about every shade of the rainbow. This book is like a color journal, a way to tune your eye to notice the surprising places that different colors appear. Especially fun with kids, this book is a welcome companion for your next Color Hunt. Learn more here.

12 essential, must-read books about color. Check out Ingrid Fetell Lee's picks for books about color theory, history, and science, as well as practical guides to using color in design.

Color and Human Response

Faber Birren

Note: I recommend this book for historical interest, not for scientific study. Birren provides an intriguing summary of a variety of attempts to study color’s effects on human wellbeing. While a few of its general conclusions have since been supported (such as those about light therapy), the book is also littered with pseudoscience. There’s no hard evidence that green glasses can reduce tremors, for example, nor that brown rooms reduce our IQ. Because of the wild claims and flimsy evidence, this book is better viewed as a travelogue of humankind’s attempts to understand the purpose of color, as opposed to a real resource for the study of color psychology. The highlights of this book are descriptions of historical curiosities like Cecil Stokes’s Auroratone films, psychedelic compositions of light and music that were reputed to delight depressed patients. A fascination with color seems to be timeless, after all.

Do you have any favorites that I missed? I’d love to hear about them!

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14 Comments

  1. I was a 4th grade teacher. Two books I adored and used with my students were:

    Hailstones and Halibut Bones by Mary O’Neill and

    Color by Ruth Heller

  2. Nicola Holden

    This is a great list of books – thank you for sharing! Can I also recommend Karen Haller’s The Little Book of Colour which has just been launched here in the UK! All about the psychology of colour.

  3. Thank you Ingrid, as always, for so generously sharing.

    I also love The Anatomy of Colour by Patrick Baty, a history of paints and pigments from 1660- 1960.
    It is a huge book with 1100 pictures, 1000 of them in glorious colour!
    love Georgia x

    (PS I am also quite proud of my own book The Chakra Project, which explores the seven rainbow colours. My friend Amber Locke [email protected] photographed the most wonderful rainbow veg for it. Looking out for colour is utterly joyful.)

  4. Love this list – – have half these books and will run out and order the other half!!!

    If you are interested in personal color theory, run do not walk to go see John Kitchener, based in Atlanta (but sometimes in SF). There are loads of ‘system’s out there that categorize people into updated versions of that rather dated seasonal system of Color Me Beautiful – – but John evaluates each person individually for a unique and nuanced palette that doesn’t shove a person into a category. Comes from a well-trained art background, has done like 20,000 + people. There is just no one who does what he does. (I’m not paid to promote, just a huge fan! I work with color in the architectural design field and much of my understanding as it applies there comes from what I learned in this different context from taking my whole family to John – – )

    https://www.pscjohnkitchener.com/

  5. Elizabeth DOwey

    Colors of the World,
    A Geography of Color
    by Jean-Philippe Lenclos & Dominique Lenclos
    “a chromatic journey through the colors of vernacular architecture from the United States to the far corners of the globe”
    (whoever came up with this idea?? to travel the world looking at color!!) fabulous book, loads of photos and more.

  6. Jennie Traill Schaeffer

    Oooh, Finlay’s book is a real gem. Stumbled upon it many years ago and have been sharing anecdotes about color anthropology with my students. I’ve always been intrigued by color theory, Albers, and more, but have never taken a formal class – just tidbits picked up through art school, experimentation and seeing. Can’t wait to explore this list deeper. Thank you!

    • I agree – I loved Finlay’s book so much too! You know, even in a color theory class, it’s all experimentation and seeing anyway. So you’ve had the perfect color education in my book!

  7. One of the things I loved about JOYFUL was that it helped me understand why I love the Disney parks so much – they are FULL of the aesthetics of joy.

    This post and list reminded me of a book about Imagineering and the Disney parks that includes a chapter called “The Art of Color”.

    The book is called DESIGNING DISNEY: Imagineering and the Art of the Show. You can find it on Amazon here:

    https://smile.amazon.com/Designing-Disney-Walt-Imagineering-Book/dp/1423119150

    • Lou! I totally agree. Disney is full of the aesthetics of joy. I wanted to write more about it in JOYFUL but didn’t have enough space to fit it in. Thanks for sharing this resource. Looks like such an intriguing read!

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