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 the basics of color theory to using found color?

Going back to basics, I re-read Johannes Itten’s Art of Color, 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 back.

So, with all this in mind, I’m starting a new reading project! I aim to read (or re-read) 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! While I can’t make a hard-and-fast reading schedule (because life just happens), I do plan on posting 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.

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 unfortunately out of print. Let's get reading!

300+ Years of Color Theory Reading List

Click to read my very short synopsis of each book!

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 1766

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

5. Chromatics: The Analogy and Theory of Colours by George Field, published in 1817

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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