Three great books on color for artists.

In the beginning of the career I've often heard a comment “You've got the colors wrong” or just “Bad colors”. The problem was that more often than not my interest for “What exactly is wrong?” couldn't be satisfied by a distinct answer. Sometimes though, depending on a person, I would receive an explanation about the particular image and a related problem, but what I was hungry for was a more complete picture of how colors work and how to work with colors in images.

Books on color are many. And sadly enough, a lot of them barely scratch the surface or rather suggest a catalog of pre-cooked solutions printed on the very expensive paper. Thus I would like to share today those few which really made it for me – the books I keep recommending whenever someone asks what to read on color.

Johannes Itten - The Art of Color cover image
The first one is The Art of Color by Johannes Itten. If you are to have only one book on the subject – make it this one. Itten – one of those Bauhaus guys who were inventing the abstract visual language during the first half of the previous century – is pretty much responsible for formulating the rules and aesthetics associated with color in Western art and culture today. Plus, being a teacher, he managed to pack this whole system into a quite thin book, filled with usefulness. It covers different types of color contrasts and harmonies and complementaries among the other things. Most important – he provides not solutions, but approaches, and does it in a quite unbiased, objective way. I also found it helpful to reread The Art of Color once in few years – not just to refresh (Itten communicates the principles very clearly), but rather to check if I can get to the new stage of understanding as my perception keeps evolving.

Photoshop: The Classic Guide to Color Correction by Dan Margulis, cover image
Covers differ
for different editions
Second book treats color in a totally different way – it teaches to manipulate it digitally. I mostly hate step-by-step tutorial books and this is not the one for sure. Professional Photoshop: The Classic Guide to Color Correction by Dan Margulis is a bible for digital color correction, way beyond Photoshop (the principles described can be applied to any graphics application, and in fact I use them mostly in compositing packages rather). Margulis dives into the practical aspects of raster images' anatomy and walks you through colorspaces (including CMYK, RGB, HSV and Lab) on a deep level, yet understandably. He dedicates the whole chapter to sharpening alone and surely lets you master black and white points and color balancing. And then he tells you that stuff was easy and keeps going deeper. It is a lot about the visual goals of color correction and how to get there. Applicable in any area from DTP to film grading – Professional Photoshop is just a brilliant book which makes difference between “adjusting the sliders” and “knowing what you're doing”. It did cost me a little fortune to acquire a copy during the student years and I never had a glimpse of regret.

If It's Purple, Someone's Gonna Die by Patti Bellantoni, book cover image
The last book – If It's Purple, Someone's Gonna Die by Patti Bellantoni - approaches the topic from yet another perspective. She studies color as a mean of storytelling, explaining its emotional – pretty much physiological – impact and semantics. The book is build around movie case studies and reveals the ways of reading the meaning of the images through color and adding it there. One-of-a-kind work in a lot of ways, my colorist friend refers to it as a “coffee table book” (and no – it's not huge and heavy).

Of course there are more of helpful resources on the color around – chances are I'll be returning to the subject later, but so far just hoping you'd find these three books useful.

Next time I'll try to touch upon typography basics.