View Full Version : Recommendations for Books on Color Theory?

12 December 2011, 05:55 AM
I know this forum has a great thread that links to a site on color theory, but is there a book(s) people could recommend on the subject?

01 January 2012, 10:10 PM
I know this forum has a great thread that links to a site on color theory, but is there a book(s) people could recommend on the subject?

Color and Light by James Gurney

02 February 2012, 06:31 PM
Thanks so much for the recommendation. I will try to score a copy of this asap.

However, looking through the book on amazon's thumb-thru, Gurney talks about the theory of warm colors advancing, and cool colors receding.

One of the resource links provided by this site on color theory scoffs at the concept. Of course, the author of that site uses a "warm" luminance of a cooler hue, and vice versa, but is Gurney's basic tenet of color theory consider valid? (That warm colors advance, cool recede?)

02 February 2012, 04:17 AM
but is Gurney's basic tenet of color theory consider valid? (That warm colors advance, cool recede?)

That is taught in art education in general, so it's not just Gurney.

Here's an excerpt from my workshop, where I talk about this rule and my thoughts on it:

I would argue that it's not necessarily that warm colors come forward and cool colors recede, but that it's really about color contrast; however, the human eye does seem to perceive warm colors as closer than cool colors in some cases. It may have something to do with our biology, but beyond that biological bias, I think that regardless if it's a warm foreground against a cool background or vice versa, the stronger the contrast, the more the foreground color will pop out. Other than the debatable biological bias, perhaps this general color rule has its roots in how humans observed the world for hundreds of years. In nature, we're used to seeing that in atmospheric perspective, anything further away often becomes less saturated, thus cooler in color temperature. The only time when the background is very saturated and warm is when it's sunset and the entire sky is orange and red and pink (or maybe you're looking at a large field of autumn colored leaves and warm colored flowers).

Atmospheric haze gives the illusion that the background is usually cooler than the foreground, and also the sky is usually either blue or grey--cool colors. In nature the most common colors we see are the greens of the trees and grass, and the desaturated browns of the mountains--all are relatively cooler compared to the warmth of the human skin tone, and humans are the most popular subjects in art history. Another factor could be that artificial lighting has a relatively short history, and for centuries we relied on flames as our only light source once the sun went down, thus all foregrounds at night appear very warm to us when we look at them with candles, torches, oil lamps, and fires, while backgrounds lit by the moonlight always look very cool in contrast. These different factors all probably contributed to this general color rule.

02 February 2012, 09:52 PM
(That warm colors advance, cool recede?)

Ultimately, any vivid saturated hue will grab the attention against a background of more muted tones or tints.

Warm colors attract our attention more than cool colors, as they are (through hard wiring) more physiologically arousing. Also, because the human eye is not a perfect optical system, warm colors (especially red) do actually appear closer than cool colors to many (if not most) observers due to a chromatic aberration phenomenon called Chromostereopsis.
When I’m tired and staring at a web page with different colored text on a black background, the red type pops forward with the same effect as seen while viewing a 3d movie. Neat effect, but when that happens I know it’s time to get off the computer. :eek:

Chromostereopsis links:

Edit: Strangely enough I see the blue disk, in the attached image, floating in front of the red ring more often then the typical reverse.

02 February 2012, 06:49 AM
The thing about chromostereopsis is that it is most apparent then dealing with very narrow set of parameters, with clean colors and very deliberate combinations. When applied to typical images like photos and paintings, where there are complex values and range hues and saturation, the effect is no longer apparent. In my workshop, we look at a bunch of artworks that consist mainly of warm and cool tones in contrast, and they really don't display any abnormal visual phenomenon. I think the application of chromestereopsis is perhaps more relevant to graphic/web design than typical images.

On a somewhat related note, I was playing around with that blue/red image you posted, and something very interesting happened (I'm sure there's an official name for this visual phenomenon).

I opened up the image in Photoshop, then opened up the Hue/Saturation control. I then grabbed the Saturation slider and quickly dragged it to the left (to desaturate the image). When doing that, my eyes clearly perceived the red turning into green and the blue turning into yellow for a second or so, and then my eyes would readjust and see them as monochromatic. If I change the two colors to outside green and inside yellow, and the quickly desaturate, the same thing would happen in reverse. I've seen optical illusions that make good use of this phenomenon, where you stare at an image with odd colors, then close your eyes or look away at a dark area, and ghosting of the after image you see will form a normal picture with natural colors.

Generally speaking, these fun optical effects are mostly for fun and aren't that relevant to most of the work a typical illustrator would do (unless he's trying to incorporate these optical effects into his work).

02 February 2012, 11:20 AM
Robert, I used the extreme ‘lowest common denominator’ example of chromostereopsis to prove the point that there is a bon a fide physiological basis in fact to the warm colors advance and cool colors recede theory bandied around in most color theory classes/books. I think the warm colors advancing thing is more metaphorical, based on our natural attraction to warm colors, when looking at an image (realistic or abstract). E.g., The word jumped out at me as I browsed the page—her face jumped out at me as I scanned the crowd.

As I mentioned in the first line of the first post, any saturated hue will ‘jump out’ at you when surrounded by more muted tones, regardless of significant value contrast (though contrast is an amplifier).

The complimentary color reversal you witness when desaturating the above image is called an ‘after image’ caused by retinal fatigue. The green you see should be cyan, as it is red’s compliment.

As far as the stereo effect, this morning, while wide awake on a cup of coffee, the red ring pops out of the linked image.
Really going OT here. Another thing I witness with the linked image is, when I close my eyes then slowly open them, the blue disk moves upward while the red ring stays put. I think this is effect caused by the differing refractive indices between long and short wavelength (warm and cool) hues.

03 March 2012, 08:16 AM
I'm itching to get my fingers on the James Gurney book, but my uni library doesnt have it. Any other recommendations??

04 April 2012, 10:20 PM
It's hard to recommend books if you are only using your Uni library. They should have a catalog where you can search for books on color theory. Then if they have any, I would go read them all if you are interested in the subject. If they don't have any, then I'd look into the inter-library loan system.

My undergraduate color theory class used Itten's The Elements of Color ( as the textbook and then once the class was over I foolishly didn't hang on to the book. *face palm* There have been many times over the years that I have wished I still had that book to use as a reference guide. It's very different from Gurney so I would still recommend finding a way to get your hands on Gurney's (It's not very expensive).
Anyways, there are a few images on flickr ( of the inside of Elements of Color that should give you a good idea of what the book is like.

04 April 2012, 02:21 AM
mybutterflyiris, yup went to the library and basically raided a bunch of books on color theory including a really small book titled "Colour" and one of Linda Holtzschue's books, Understanding Color, An Introduction for Designers.

Great book, still going through it.

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