300+ Years of Color Theory: The Reading List

I learned about color theory back when I was in art school. We all completed lots of color theory assignments in paint as part of our "art 101" classes. It's very different to have the freedom to mix up almost any color from paints—and then to be restricted to working only with the colored fabrics you can find (or hand-dye). This sparked my interest to retrace my color theory steps to find out how using color applies to your work when you don't have the ability to create your own colors. Can you still apply basics of color theory to using found color?

Going back to my beginnings, I re-read Johannes Itten’s The Art of Color because it was our basic textbook for using color in art school. This book has been like the Color Theory “Bible” to me. It includes all the basic principles I learned about mixing colors when studying painting and fabric dying. Itten does refer to some other Color Theorists in his book and when I began reading some of these other authors, I discovered that many of the ideas and theories in Itten’s book were not original, but go way, way back in time.

So, with all this in mind, I’ve decided to start a new reading project! I aim to read (and re-read) all of the most influential books published on Color Theory over the past 300+ years. Not only to see where we’ve been, but to better understand how we’ve arrived where we are with Color Theory, and get a glimpse of what’s next.

This is your formal invitation to join me if you’d like! While I can’t make a hard-and-fast reading schedule (because life just happens), I do plan on posting a short schedule of which book I am reading, and which one or two are next on the list. I’m also planning a short write-up of each book here at my blog, to highlight the most important points in each book and most importantly to follow the trail of breadcrumbs from our current view of Color Theory back to the beginnings.

The 15 or so books that will be the focus of this Color Theory reading list are some of the most important, having greatly influenced artists and even entire artistic movements, and have all had a part in weaving together our modern view on color.

Some of these books are completely free online, some are still readily available for purchase, some are still available to read at your library, and a few are very unfortunately out of print. Without further hesitation, let's get reading!

300+ Years of Color Theory Reading List

Books that have been read are hyperlinked, click over to learn more!

1. Opticks by Sir Isaac Newton, first published in 1704

2. COLORITTO by J. C. Le Blon, first published in c. 1720

3. The Natural System of Colors by Moses Harris, published in 1772

4. Theory of Colors by Wolfgang von Goethe, first published in 1810

5. The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors, and Their Applications to The Arts by M. E. Chevreul, first published in 1839

6. The Principles of Light and Color by Edwin D. Babbitt, first published in 1878

7. Modern Chromatics by Ogden N. Rood, first published in 1879

8. Color Problems by Emily Noyes Vanderpoel, first published in 1901

9. The Color Primer by Wilhelm Ostwald, first published in 1916

10. A Grammar of Color by Albert H. Munsell, first published in 1921

11. Monument to Color by Faber Birren, published in 1938

12. The Story of Color: From Ancient Mysticism to Modern Science by Faber Birren, published in 1941

13. Basic Color: An Interpretation of the Ostwald Color System by Egbert Jacobson, published in 1948

14. The Art of Color by Johannes Itten, originally published in 1961

15. Interaction of Color by Josef Albers, originally published in 1963

16. Principles of Color by Faber Birren, originally published in 1969

17. Theory and Practice of Color by Frans Gerritsen, originally published in 1975


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