Josef Albers, Interaction of color, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975 (originally published in 1963 by Yale University). I turn to this little book over and over again. In it, Albers describes a hands-on program of discovery that he used to instruct art students in the mysterious ways of color. His cautious attitudes about reliance on frameworks, rules-of-thumb, and color theories serve to balance ideas found in other works identified here. At the same time, his respect for experiential learning and the clarity with which he describes exercises that lead to insight makes this an especially useful book for developing one’s own frameworks. He makes many fascinating observations on the basis of his experiences training artists. One that I found particularly intriguing was this: “If one is not able to distinguish the difference between a higher tone and a lower tone, one probably should not make music. If a parallel conclusion were to be applied to color, almost everyone would prove incompetent for its proper use. Very few are able to distinguish higher and lower light intensity between different hues [p. 12].”
David Batchelor, Chromophobia, London: Reaktion Books, 2000. This extended essay is a fascinating examination of our cultural attitudes about color. From Aristotle and Plato, for whom it was a mere drug, through Kant for whom it was at best an aggreeable way to add charm to a work of art, color has occupied a place secondary to form. A mere cosmetic, since ancient times it has occupied a place subservient to drawing; disegno versus colore: drawing versus colouring-in. Even among chromophiles, color has been seen as dangerous, associated with “a loss of consciousness, a kind of blindness.” To make sense of changes taking place in recent decades, the author looks to the writings of Baudelaire, Melville, Huxley, Wittgenstein and others, the architecture of LeCorusier, and films such as the Wizard of Oz and Pleasantville. In the digitalization of colour represented by the colour chart (as opposed to its more analogical representation, the color circle), Batchelor sees a new age for color. “The colour chart divorces colour from conventional colour theory and turns every colour into a readymade. It promises autonomy for colour; in fact, it offers three distinct but related types of autonomy: that of each colour from every other colour, that of colour from the dictates of colour theory and that of colour from the register of representation [p. 105].”
Brent Berlin and Paul Kay, Basic color terms: Their universality and evolution, Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1969. Berlin and Kay’s research provides support for the hypothesis that a relatively small set of patterns explain the way in which basic color terms are organized in all human languages. If the language has only two color terms they will invariably be terms for white and black. Of 98 languages they examined, 9 were like this. If they have three basic color terms the additional one is always a name for red. There were 21 such languages. If there are four terms, the fourth will be either green or yellow. When there is a fifth term, it is always the other of those two. The sixth term is always a term meaning blue and the seventh a term meaning brown. Languages with eight to eleven terms will add terms for purple, pink, orange, and grey.
Faber Birren, Principles of color, Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1987 (originally 1969). This small book uses the history of color circles, M. E. Chevreul’s pioneering work on color harmony and contrast, and Birren’s own color triangle to identify principles that can be used to meet emerging demands for color. Birren concludes that “Art in frames and art on pedestals is giving way to art that is more a part of life. There is now sculpture on the grand scale. There is painting and decoration that envelops space. There is an art of mobile color, Lumia, dramatic and emotional effects with color that involve the manipulation of lights, shadows, flowing abstract forms [p.78].” It is to support those demands that he has written this work.
Faber Birren, Color & human response, New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1978. This book examines the effects of color on viewers. It provides summaries of most of the theories of color combination that have been proposed, as well as a detailed discussion of personal color preference.
Faber Birren, Color perception in art, New York: Van Nosrand Reinhold, 1976. This book represents one of the most comprehensive and systematic collections of principles regarding color use yet compiled. Birren surveys art history, physics, physiological optics, and neural psychology to articulate principles of color use. He describes and illustrates how to use color choice, saturation, contrast, and constancy to achieve luster, iridescence, transparency, and illumination effects. It is a very practical work.
Faber Birren, Color psychology and color therapy, University Books, 1950. Birren learns from everyone. His books survey the ancient thinkers, the mystics, psychologists, physicists, artists, and others to summarize what is known about biological, visual, emotional, aesthetic, and psychic responses to color. Color research has been necessarily eclectic, as color theories have been found deficient. Birren brings together many of the results of the research, to provide some guidance about what effects are likely to result from various color choices and combinations. Of particular interest to imagists will be the chapter on associations and analogies in which Birren discusses color and sounds.
John Gage, Color and culture: Practice and meaning from antiquity to abstraction, Boston: Bulfinch Press, 1993. This is a sweeping survey of the theories of color, each placed in its historical context. The chapters on “The sound of color” and “Colour withouth theory: The role of abstraction” are likely to be of particular interest to lumianists and others using this list.
John Gage, Color and meaning: Art, science and symbolism, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. This book covers some of the same territory as Gage surveyed in Color and culture, but this time taking a more problem or theme oriented approach. I find this work the more useful of the two on a day in-day out basis. It provides a great deal of insight about particular colors and about relationships of sound and color, for example.
W. Garner, “The relationship between colour and music,” Leonardo, 11 (1978), 325-326. Is it possible to ‘translate’ an octave of sound into an octave of light? Garner considers the question and answers, no. A note produces harmonics; a color does not. The identities of notes in a chord are maintained; those in blended colors are not. Differences between various intervals in music are recognized as the same; in color mappings they are not. Notes of a chord are recognized simultaneously in the same place; in a color chord they must be placed separately. Notes are about time; hues are about space.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of colours, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1970 (originally published in 1840 by London: John Murray). In a 1969 introduction to Goethe’s classic work, Deane Judd suggests that the modern reader might benefit from reading the work in any of three ways. It can be read for his conjectures regarding the connections between color and philosophical ideas of his day. It can be read for the detail and accuracy of its observations. Though most of Goethe’s explanations have been judged incorrect, his observations are accurately reported. Finally, it can prepare its reader for unprejudiced consideration of new solutions to the problems that color poses. In following its logic, your thoughts become so divorced from the wavelength theory, that you begin to think about color theory without the usual prejudices, old or new.
C. L. Hardin and Luisa Maffi [Eds.], Color categories in thought and language, Cambridge University Press, 1997. In this book visual psychologists, anthropologists and linguists relate research related to the Berlin and Kay’s color naming theory. In addition to updating the research on color naming the book brings together some very stimulating research on the psychophysics, neuropsychology, and physiology of color.
Johannes Itten, The art of color: The subjective experience and objective rationale of color, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1973 (originally published in 1961). When I first began to explore various approaches to color and asked artists about a theory of color, the response was almost always the same. “Have you seen the works of Johannes Itten?” If there is a normative theory of color that has affected contemporary artists, this is where you will find it.
Thomas Jacobsen, “Kandinsky’s color-form correspondence and the Bauhaus colors: An empirical view,” Leonardo, 37 (2004), 135-136. Kandinsky suspected that there was a close, perhaps even intrinsic, correspondence between the most basic forms and the basic colors. Jacobsen revisited a survey that Kandinsky administered and found that for current student subjects, Kandinsky’s assignment were the least preferred. He suggests that preferences are due to a multitude of factors and the the prominence of the Bauhaus colors was idiosyncratic.
Patricia Sloane, The visual nature of color, New York: Design Press, 1989. If you read only one book on color, this should be it. Drawing on empirical results, centuries of philosophical discourse, and her own perceptive analytic capabilities, Sloane challenges many of the most treasured and oft-repeated ideas that inform most discussions of color. Of additive and subtractive color theories she wonders “how so ill-conceived an idea survived for so long.” Having examined a variety of color wheels to understand what they tell us about color complementarity she concludes that “the systems are all equally incorrect.” Her objective, though, seems not so much to demonstrate what is wrong with our thinking on these subjects as to move us to consider them anew. As she argues in her introduction, “In this post-humanist age, we need to become seriously interested in understanding what we see, an endeavor more noble, necessary, and interesting than understanding who we are.” More than any other, this book will change how you read every other book in this section.
Katherine Lubar, “Color intervals: Applying concepts of musical consonance and dissonance to color,” Leonardo, 37 (2004), 127-132. The author describes a personal exploration in which she attempted to bring together her knowledge of music theory and color theory. Using Itten’s color wheel as the basis she created color intevals defined by analogy to the intervals found in tonal music. She then examined the color intervals for their similarity to the effects found in the corresponding musical intervals (consonance or dissonance). Among the most important of Lubar’s observations are that “tonal value plays an important role in the interpretation of the intervals between color (p. 129)” and that “the closer an interval gets to the tritone [complementary color], the more interestingly/harmoniously it works as a color combination (p. 130).” The latter is, of course, a common observation of color theorists, but it is reassuring to see it emerge among the few observations the author is willing designate a “principle.” Katherine Lubar’s web site, contains images of many of her paintings as well as a version of the article.
Wucius Wong, Principles of color design, New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1987. This book has two things to recommend it. The section on design principles provides a concise presentation of some useful strategies for dealing with such things as gravity, contrast, rhythm, and center of interest. The color material gives a good feel for some of the principal effects of varying each of the three dimensions of color, and some strategies for developing color schemes.