A Brief Introduction to the Munsell Color System

The Munsell Color System
by Steve Linberg.

At the beginning of the 20th century, painter and color scientist Albert Munsell decided to tackle what he saw as two significant problems with the way artists conceptualized, used and described color: the vagueness and imprecision of color descriptions (“bright red”, “cool green”, etc), and the inaccurate modeling of color space via the traditional flat color wheel. He created a 3-dimensional model that accurately represents color space in nature, and also provides a simple notation system for accurately describing any visible color.

Hue, Value and Chroma

Every visible color has three attributes, simply defined as:

Hue: the “name” of the color, such as red, blue, yellow, green, etc.
Value: the lightness or darkness of the color.
Chroma: the intensity of the color.

There are more precise scientific definitions of these terms, of course, but these suffice for an introduction.

Every color can be precisely described as a combination of these three attributes.

Furthermore, the three attributes of hue, value and chroma can be used to map every color into the 3-dimensional color space shown above. Value is shown on the vertical axis (black on the bottom, grays in the middle, white on top); chroma extends outward from the grayscale (or “neutral”) core; and hue is the color’s position on the outer ring. One of Munsell’s great achievements was creating a color space model and a color atlas where steps in every direction are the same size, so colors can be related to each other by hue, by value or by chroma independently. He also created a base-10 system for naming colors, using five primary hues (red, yellow, green, blue and purple) and five secondary, or intermediate, hues (yellow-red, green-yellow, blue-green, purple-blue, and red-purple), and subdividing each hue into 10 steps. Value also goes from 0 (pure black) to 10 (pure white), and chroma starts at 0 for gray or neutral, and increases as it moves away from the neutral core. There is no theoretical outer limit to chroma, but it depends on the pigments available for paint and other materials.


Naming Colors

Rather than color names like “dark red” or “cool green”, a Munsell color name describes its hue, value and chroma, in that order. This is an example of the breakdown of the color “10R 7/6,” which is a slightly orange red of light value and medium chroma:


While a color name like “dark red” is open to interpretation - indeed, it’s extremely unlikely that any two people would imagine the same exact color from a description like that - a color name like “10R 7/6” is both precise and descriptive. “10R” is the hue, meaning a red which leans toward orange rather than purple; 7 is the value, which is two steps above middle gray; 6 is the chroma, which is relatively strong in nature. (As it happens, 10R 7/6 is a color similar to the ruddy areas of caucasian skin, such as knuckles and flushed cheeks.)


Using Munsell Using the Munsell system for color offers some advantages over other color models and vocabularies:

1.Colors can be specified simply and accurately.

2.Colors can be communicated with no misunderstandings.

3.Colors can be measured and reproduced with confidence.

4.Color comprehension can be greatly enhanced by understanding and controlling the separate attributes of hue, value and chroma.

The Munsell system is sometimes misunderstood to be a painting method; it is not. It is a color ordering and notation system that is designed to be simple, clear, and accurate, and to be used by artists, though it is also used in the sciences and engineering.

The Munsell Color company, a division of the X-Rite Corporation, manufactures Munsell products such as the Munsell Book of Color, an atlas of color chips, spectrophotometers for measuring color, and related materials for teaching, learning and using Munsell. Visit the Munsell Color company website at: http://munsell.com To learn more Visit The Classical Lab to learn more about using the Munsell color system in painting and the fine arts. http://classicallab.com

Steve Linberg CTO The Classical Lab, LLC steve@classicallab.com