12 Essential Books About Color

By Ingrid Fetell Lee
12 Essential Books About Color

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 gathering my book recommendations in a series called Joyful Library. And one of my favorite collections of books is 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, covering topics like: color theory, color mixing, color research and science, color combinations and palettes, and using color to decorate your home. 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.

Essential Books About Color

Living With Color

Rebecca Atwood

There are so many great books about color theory and history, but very few that give you a basic understanding of 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 recently-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 it’s 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.

Interaction of Color

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 seem almost identical if you place them 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. Get it here.

Color: A Natural History of the Palette

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 Aboriginal peoples 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.

An Atlas of Rare & Familiar Colour

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.

The Secret Lives of Color | Books About Color

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 about traditional and contemporary color, I find this a fun book to dip into for greater context around our colorful world. Available here.

Color Problems: A Practical Manual for the Lay Student

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. It’s also a great book to get a foundational understanding of color theory. Find it here.

Colour: Why the World Isn't Grey

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 here.



David Batchelor

If the term chromophobia caught your attention in chapter 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. Get it here.

Color Me Beautiful | Books About Color

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. That said, 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. Get the book here.

Werner's Nomenclature of Colours

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. Get it here.

The Color Collector's Handbook

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. Get the book here.

Color and Human Response

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. Get it here.

Do you have any favorites that I missed? Any books that share different approaches to understanding color? I’d love to hear about them!

May 12th, 2023


Lost your spark?

The Joy Jumpstart is a 7-day, self-guided program to help you break out of a rut and reconnect with what makes you feel truly alive.

    Discussion (17 Comments)

  1. Kimberley Bell on September 18, 2019

    Oh Ingrid two of my favorite things – books and color. I love this list. Thank you!

    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on September 18, 2019

      Wonderful! Mine too 🙂

  2. Karen j on September 18, 2019

    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

  3. Nicola Holden on September 19, 2019

    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.

  4. georgia Coleridge on September 19, 2019

    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 -@ambaliving photographed the most wonderful rainbow veg for it. Looking out for colour is utterly joyful.)

  5. Robin w. on September 19, 2019

    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 – – )


  6. Gina on September 19, 2019

    Great list Ingrid! I would add In Color by Tory Burch.

    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on October 11, 2019

      Great suggestion! Thanks, Gina.

  7. Elizabeth DOwey on September 22, 2019

    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.

  8. Elizabeth DOwey on September 23, 2019

    Can’t resist adding this link to this entire Medieval book of color.

    TraitĂ© des couleurs servant Ă  la peinture Ă  l’eau
    [Treatise of colors used in water color paint ]
    Auteur Boogert, A. (16..-17?)
    PĂ©coul, Auguste (1837-1916) [ancien possesseur]
    Date 1692


  9. Jennie Traill Schaeffer on September 23, 2019

    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!

    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on October 4, 2019

      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!

  10. Lou Prosperi on September 24, 2019

    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:


    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on October 11, 2019

      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!

  11. Shirley L Adams on February 4, 2020

    I would suggest some of the Tricia Guild books. You can get used ones in very good condition cheaply on Amazon. They are very colorful, beautiful books, and teach a lot of colors. She is behind Designers Guild and designs gorgeous fabrics.

    My favorite book for color of all time is “”Color in Spinning” by Deb Menz. She dyes her own roving and spins and plies multicolor yarns for amazing effects! She has interesting ideas about color, including major and minor chords, harmonies, and much more complicated. Her ideas apply to much more than spinning yarn. Unfortunately a used copy of her book on Amazon will cost $25 USD, but I find it the best of her books. It’s just amazing!

  12. ANNE FERGUSON on March 3, 2020

    Hi Ingrid,,,I own and tout your book ! What a wonderful source of Joy
    you are!
    I wanted you to know about Betty Edwards book, She authored DRAWING
    ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE BRAIN which is almost, if not, a handbook
    for artists.
    Also, she has written a book on COLOR,,,which is a course in itself.
    She is a wonderful teacher, as are YOU.

  13. Katie Robichaud on July 25, 2023

    You might also enjoy this book on color 🙂



Leave a Comment

What's killing your joy? Take this 3-minute quiz to find out.
Free Resource

Find more joy every day

Our free workbook has 5 simple strategies that will make life better right now.

You'll also receive periodic updates on new things from The Aesthetics of Joy. We respect your privacy. Unsubscribe at any time.