Understanding the Munsell Color System
The Genesis of Munsell's Color System
In the early 1900’s painter, teacher and inventor, Albert H. Munsell, created a system to accurately describe colors that, because of its flexibility, is still the most widely used color system in the world to date.
As a student of art in Boston, MA, he quickly distinguished himself and won several coveted scholarships to study abroad. As an artist, he was fascinated with colors and yearned for a practical theory with which to describe them. However, it wasn’t until he became a professor at the Normal Art School in Boston, that he began to search for “a rational way to describe color” in the attempt to make discussions about color less subjective and more precise. And while his original audience was made up of college students, he intended his system to be simple enough for a child to grasp.
“Color Anarchy is Replaced by a Systematic Color Description”
Munsell considered color names “foolish” and “misleading”. Instead he endeavored to classify colors based in part on decimal notation. His system began with the creation of a color sphere in 1898. This, along with its corresponding explanation, was later published as a book in 1905 as A Color Notation. To this day its still the standard in colorimetry.
His system is three dimensional and modeled on an orb. An axis running from north, representing white, to south, representing black, runs through the orb; between black and white is a scale of neutral gray Values. Around the equator of the orb runs a band of colors (Hues) and extending horizontally at each gray value is a gradation of color that begins with neutral gray and ends with full saturation (Chroma). These three dimensions of Hue, Value and Chroma granted Munsell the ability to define his original 100 colors accurately and precisely.
Munsell described Hue as “The quality by which we distinguish one color from another, as a red from a yellow, a green, a blue or a purple.” He specifically avoided terms such as “orange” or “pink.” In other words, the colors as we perceive them when they are refracted by a glass prism. These colors, or Hues, melt into each other by indistinguishable degrees but always in the same order. It was this reliability that Munsell exploited to begin making sense of Hue, the first dimension of color. Colors lost their names and instead where identified by letters such as B for blue and BG for blue-green, etc. Each simple and compound color was allotted 10 equally spaced notches on the circle that identified its exact placement. All primary colors are smack in the middle and have a value of 5 so primary blue would be identified as 5B. 2.5B would be blue tending toward blue-green and 7.5B would be blue tending toward purple-blue.
Munsell described Value as “the quality by which we distinguish a light color from a dark one.” His original 9 steps have been expanded from 0 (black) to 9 (white) for a total of 10 segments. Munsell assigned the letter N, for neutral, to gray tones. A mid gray tone would register 5 on his scale and so would be identified as 5N. However, the letter N doesn’t come into play when used in conjunction with Hue and Chroma. Instead, placement in Munsell’s formula denotes which dimension is being referred to; Value is always assigned after Hue. For example, 5YR 3/ would describe a mid Yellow-Red Hue at a Value level of 3.
Chroma is the strength or purity of the Hue that distinguishes a weak hue from one that’s more intense. It receives the last position, after the oblique slash, in Munsell’s numeric equation (i.e. 5YR/5/10 is a saturated orange). Chroma extends horizontally from the neutral Value’s axis. Munsell said that to try to imagine color without this third dimension is “as incomplete as would be a map of Switzerland with the mountains left out, or a harbor chart without indications of the depth of water.” To help visualize how Chroma works, Munsell drew The Color Tree. It was the combination of the The Color Tree and the orb that gives us the familiar distorted Sphere of Munsell’s graph today.
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Flexibility Leads to Mass Adoption
Munsell’s system, though based on only 100 variations of 10 Hues, is capable of expanding to accommodate any number of new discoveries in Chroma which can then be added onto the last position on the Chroma branch. Hues, Values and Chroma can also be further divided by decimals for even more flexibility. Obviously for industries such as fashion, interior design, graphic design and fine arts, this is immensely valuable. Also, once Munsell’s system has been comprehended, it’s then possible to move on to dialogues about color balance and harmony.
However, Munsell’s system is so precise and at the same time open-ended, that it has been adopted by a number of other industries such as; education, geology, pharmaceutical, archeology, environmental studies, government standards, food products and safety, just to name a few. Munsell’s charts in these areas serve the purpose of creating industry wide color standards that can help to ensure safety, avoid costly mistakes, and optimize perceived value when used in food for example.
Munsell’s system makes it possible for all concerned to recognize and name precisely which color is referred to when written in his formula. For those who use color in their profession, its an invaluable tool which gives everyone who "Speaks Munsell" an advantage. This was just a brief introduction to Munsell's system. There's actually quite a lot more to learn such as understanding color balance, ratios, complementaries and combinations. For a deeper understanding on how to use color now that you understand how to talk about it, I highly recommend the above books.