The Munsell system is central to The Classical Lab's product and service portfolio. We teach with it, develop products for it, and use it ourselves for all matters relating to color. Although its uses are as broad as those of color itself, our focus is on its application in arts and design.
This short document provides an overview of the Munsell system as we use and teach it.
What is the Munsell system?
The Munsell system (or just "Munsell" for short) is a color organization system created by artist and scientist Albert H. Munsell in the early 20th century. It is an organizing system for color, along with a language for describing color, that is extremely precise and simple.
Every color can be described according to three attributes: hue (think of color names like red, blue, or green), value (lightness to darkness), and chroma (intensity or vividness). Colors are described with the notation pattern "hue value/chroma", e.g. "5YR 6/14". This example describes a color with a hue of 5YR, a value of 6, and a chroma of 14.
(image from the Wikipedia article on Munsell)
The Munsell color wheel uses ten divisions for hues (so that hues can be easily specified with ordinary numbers). They are the five primary hues red (R), yellow (Y), green (G), blue (B) and purple (P), with their intermediate hues in between (e.g. yellow-red (YR), etc). Hues are also divided into steps indicated by a leading number between 0 and 10, such as "5R" or "10R", increasing from 0 to 10 in a clockwise direction. The use of a 10-color wheel with 10 divisions of hues means that hues can be specified to extreme levels of precision if desired, such as "7.826R"; however, in practice, the common hue numbers are 2.5, 5, 7.5 and 10.
Value ranges from 0 (perfect black) to 10 (perfect white). 0 and 10 are only achievable in theory, and cannot be made with pigment. Because of our imprecise traditions with color names, some low-value (dark) colors may be surprising in terms of their actual hues: what we think of as "olive green," for instance, is actually a dark yellow, and "brown" is generally a dark yellow-orange.
Chroma starts at 0 (for no chroma, meaning a white, gray or black color) and increases with the color's intensity. Because color space is not uniform, and because the human visual system has different sensitivities at different light levels, the maximum chroma for any given hue and value can vary significantly, so there is no fixed outer limit for chroma. Most human flesh is around chroma 3. A ripe orange might be chroma 10, and brilliant flowers might reach chromas 16 or even higher.
Using Munsell notations for color takes a little bit of practice, but the principles are very simple. A Munsell notation has all of the information you need about a color's appearance: our "5YR 6/14" example above can be easily visualized in the following manner: 5YR is an intermediate color between yellow and red (orange); value 6 is slightly above halfway on the 0 to 10 scale of value (so slightly lighter than a mid tone), and chroma 14 is extremely vivid, so this could be the color of a bright orange flower, or perhaps the feathers of a brightly-colored bird.
What are the benefits of using Munsell?
Samples of "yellow ochre" from different brands and manufacturers of oil paint
Describing color by its components of hue, value and chroma reduces color to its simplest possible expression. Furthermore, a Munsell notation can be easily visualized by its notation alone, as described above. The notation is rich with information about the color itself, it isn't just a name. "5B 2/10" means a middle blue (5B), very dark in value (2), and strong in chroma (10). Any color can be imagined in a similar manner.
A Munsell notation never changes or varies, and has no ambiguity. It is as precise as it is simple. "Paint the canvas red" could refer to thousands of distinctly different colors. Even specific-sounding names used by paint manufacturers, like "yellow ochre," can vary widely across brands and grades, and even changes in formulas over time. "Paint the canvas 10R 4/8" means exactly one thing, precise and simple.
Using Munsell makes mixing colors very simple. By isolating the individual components of hue, value and chroma, and matching them one at a time, it is easy to mix perfect color with very little waste. A side benefit of using Munsell for many artists is the cost savings in paint, and the real savings in time.
Much about art is difficult and time-consuming. Perfect color doesn't have to be one of them. Munsell makes it easy, accurate, and economical.
How do I get started using Munsell?
We recommend starting learning about Munsell with the New Munsell Student Color Set. It contains sample color chips and practical exercises to learn and begin using the system. It also includes one of the best and most readable texts on color theory that we have seen.
You can get immediate benefit from Munsell by doing these exercises and thinking about color in terms of hue, value and chroma. To get the most value from the Munsell system in traditional painting, you will need a reference of some sort to check the accuracy of your mixes. The Classical Lab recommends the Munsell Glossy Book of Color as the ultimate painter's reference for Munsell. (Available here soon.) We have found that the savings in paint and time alone make it an investment that quickly pays for itself. The Classical Lab is also working with Munsell Color of X-Rite, official manufacturers of Munsell products, to develop a line of Munsell reference products for painters that has a lower initial cost and is more economical to get started with.
If you have a computer with Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, our Munsell DG app for iPhone and iPad allows you to use the Munsell colors in Photoshop, using your device as a touchscreen Munsell color picker. This is a great way to begin learning the concepts of Munsell at a tiny fraction of the cost of the printed reference. (Please note, however, that a screen-based reference can't be used as a substitute for a printed reference, since light emitted from a screen is fundamentally different from pigment on a surface.) We are also preparing an extensive series of focused and inexpensive color references and tutorials for this app.
Finally, The Classical Lab offers studio courses in color, and will begin piloting a series of downloadable instructional videos drawn from the studio courses in late 2012. We also recommend joining the Rational Painting forum, which is a free forum for artists using Munsell, and where you can talk to other artists (as well as The Classical Lab staff) about color and art.