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 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
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.
Interaction of Color
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.
Color: A Natural History of the Palette
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
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
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.
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.
Colour: Why the World Isn’t Grey
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.
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.
Color Me Beautiful
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.
Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours
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.
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.
Color and Human Response
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!