If there’s one thing that took my painting to the next level it was understanding and using the Munsell color system. I’d known about it for a long time but hadn’t really studied it in detail. To be honest I’d looked at it and thought ‘oh that looks far too complicated for my needs’. Reader, I was wrong. If I’d used this way of thinking about color years ago I would be far more advanced in watercolor painting than I am. There are a number of different color standards out there but Munsell is definitely the best one to study for painting.
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My Color Was All Wrong
Just before I really got into Munsell I’d been flailing around trying to work out why my color wasn’t working in my paintings. I knew something was wrong and I kind of knew what it was but I didn’t know how to fix it. My problem was that color wasn’t really working in my paintings. They were all coming out really garish and the colors weren’t working in harmony. I tried various things – really trying to get the values right, graying down all my colors so they were more muted, really trying to simplify shapes. A lot of ‘really trying’ but not a lot of ‘really working’.
Munsell to the Rescue
I knew my color wasn’t working and I knew that I wasn’t really seeing color as value. But I’d missed a big part of color and that’s where Munsell came to the rescue.
Munsell is Increasingly Popular Amongst Artists
A growing number of people are using or starting to use Munsell. Off the top of my head these include Kathy Speranza, Graydon Parrish, Anthony Waichulis, and Richard Murdock. But I want to give a shout-out to Paul Foxton. He introduced me to Munsell through his website and his fabulous YouTube videos. Especially if you’re an oil painter I highly recommend you check him out.
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What we’ll cover about the Munsell System
In this post we’ll be learning about color as defined by the Munsell color system. This breaks down colors into three components – hue, value, and chroma. We’ll be defining each one and seeing how they look on a color wheel and in individual Munsell color charts. We’ll then look at how we can use this to really sharpen our perception of color. This, rather than the application of paint to paper, was the thing that is transformational about Munsell.
History of Munsell Color
I won’t go into detail about how the Munsell color theory came about. There are some great pages elsewhere that can tell you much more than I can. They also have a set of Munsell color project stories about how different people have used Munsell.
What is the Munsell System?
Munsell gives us a straightforward, reproducible and easily learned way to think about color. It breaks color into three components and we can classify any color according to those components. This Munsell color notation lets us define almost any color we want. To see how this notation system works let’s start with the first (and easiest) component.
Munsell System First Component – Hue
In the Munsell color system hue is the first component. At its simplest this is the name of the color. Red, Yellow, Blue, Purple etc. There’s a slight wrinkle in the way Munsell denotes these that can feel a little weird to begin with. Instead of saying red – in Munsell it is R. Yellow is Y, green is G, blue is B and purple is P.
So far so good. The intermediate hues which we might call orange, yellowy green, pink etc are denoted as follows:
Orange YR (Yellow Red)
Yellowish green GY (Green yellow)
Greenish blue BG (Blue green)
Purplish blue PB (purple blue)
Pinkish purple RP (red purple)
It takes a while to get used to this (especially the orange = YR) but becomes second nature pretty quickly. If we put them all in order we get
I keep this Munsell color order in my head. The hues flow naturally from one to another so it’s good to memorize it. Let’s have a look at these main hues on a wheel.
Munsell Color Wheel – 10 Hues
You’ll notice that this differs from the traditional painters wheel. The traditional painters wheel is organized around the ‘primaries’ (red yellow blue) and the secondaries (orange, green,purple) and has the primaries opposite the secondaries.
Each Hue is Divided into Four
Now these main hues aren’t really enough for us to describe the colors we see. So Munsell color theory breaks each of these main hues into 4 and gives them numbers.
Each hue ranges from 2.5 to 10 and the hue changes slightly from each number to the next. So we end up with 40 different hues. Now, this seems like a lot. But in practice you really only need to remember the 10 main ones and just estimate whereabouts in that hue we are. For instance consider this color :
We can immediately see it’s an orange so we’re in the YR hue. But is it a reddish orange (and so maybe 2.5YR) or is it a yellowish orange (in which case we’d be maybe 7.5YR or 10YR)? That’s pretty easy to estimate so we can work out which part of the wheel we’re in quite quickly. In this case it’s leaning slightly more towards yellow than orange so we’re likely to be 7.5YR or 10YR (it is actually 7.5YR)
Painting From Nature is Concentrated in a Small Part of the Hue Wheel
In practice when painting (especially painting from nature) we spend a lot of time in a fairly small part of the wheel. The reds, oranges, yellows and greenish yellows and parts of blue are where we spend 90% of our time. If you’re painting flowers or a lot of manufactured things then we can venture into the turquoises (BG) and purples (P and RP).
So how do all of these hues look on the wheel?
Munsell Color Wheel – 40 Hues
Isn’t that pretty?
Munsell Color System Second Component – Value
So we have our hues but of course we don’t just work with these very bright colors. In the Munsell Color System value is the next component. That is to say how light or dark the color is.
Munsell Value Scale – Dark = 0, Light = 10
Munsell measures value in 11 steps where black = 0 and white = 10. For our colors that means we’ll have values ranging from 1 to 9. This is what they look like in gray.
We can change all our hues to have different values. Here’s what the color wheel looks like if we darken (value 4) or lighten (value 8) our hues.
Pretty cool yes?
Munsell Color System Final Component – Chroma
Now this bit can take a bit of time to get your head around. We can’t describe all the colors we see just by hue and value. There’s one vital piece missing and it makes a very important difference.
If you look at all the wheels we’ve seen so far the colors are all very bright. Even on the dark wheel they have a lot of intensity to them. But a lot (and it’s a LOT) of the color we see around us isn’t that bright. Let’s bring out an example:
Scene with low chroma colors
Look at the sunlit beach, the beautiful blue sky, the intense blue sea. Surely all the colors in this will be as bright as we can make them? But no. I’ve isolated a few areas and extracted the colors. They’re pretty muted. In fact the brightest color in the whole thing is the sky (top right swatch) and even that isn’t close to maximum intensity. And this is a pretty intense scene! Imagine what a grey overcast day would do to colors.
Munsell uses Chroma to Describe How Saturated or Intense a Color is.
Hmm. So we need a way of describing how intense or saturated our color is. And Munsell quantifies this and calls this chroma. Chroma in color can be low or high. A low chroma color (chroma 2) is very desaturated and grayed out. A high chroma color (e.g. 12 and above) is very bright and saturated. And chroma 0 colors have no color at all and are completely gray. The chroma of color is easy to overlook but Munsell makes it easy to consider. Let’s see some more examples!
Sand is Not Bright Yellow!
Sand and sea chroma strips
For the bottom three colors in the beach scene I’ve taken the strip of colors at the same value from the relevant Munsell card. Each of these strips has colors at different chromas but the same value. In each case the colors are way down the chroma scale. Two are chroma 2 and the other is chroma 4. And yet they look pretty vibrant in the photo! We obviously need to pay attention to chroma.
Munsell Notation System
We have our three components of color but how do we represent them? The hue we represent by the number and the hue letter or letters. This means things like 10R, 2.5YR, 5PB. The value and chroma follow afterwards separated by a slash. So a high chroma mid-value orange could be something like 2.5YR 5/12. A low chroma low value blue would be something like 5PB 2/4. It takes a bit of getting used to how this color notation works but it’s so useful to be able to precisely define colors that it’s worth it.
Now let’s say we have a bright red color (5R) at a value 5. If it’s a bright color (i.e. high chroma) it might have a chroma 12 say. If it’s a dull color it might have a chroma 2. But both these colors have the same value. We can keep the value the same and change the chroma. Let’s see some examples and check:
Munsell chroma strip for 10R value 6
Black and white version of Munsell chroma strip 10R value 5
This can be a bit weird to get straight. It’s easy to think ‘oh I’m making this color grayer then it must be darker’. Not necessarily! We can absolutely keep the value the same and reduce the chroma. And a lot of time we need to if we want convincing color. Let’s see some charts to see how this works.
Full Munsell Color Chart – 5R
This is the full range of values and chromas for one of our hues 5R. I know it looks like a lot of information but these get very familiar very quickly. We have chroma going left to right (high chroma on the right) and value going up and down (high value at the top).
Munsell Color System – Munsell Chart 5R
Now the first thing you notice about this is that it’s not rectangular! The highest chromas are in the middle and there are fewer high chroma colors as we go higher or lower in value. This is typical – high and low values have maximum chromas around 2 or 4. And the shape of these charts is not the same for each hue! Some colors have their highest chromas at a high value. For instance here is the 5Y chart:
Full Munsell Hue Chart – 5Y
Munsell Color System – Munsell Chart 5Y
Wow. So the brightest yellow we can get has the highest value! And as it gets darker it goes green!!! Yellow is a weird one I admit. Mostly the charts have their highest chroma around a mid value.
If we look at a few more charts we’ll notice something else. The highest chroma we can get varies between the hues. If we look at purple for instance we can get really high chromas but a blue only reaches an 8! Seems counterintuitive as blue and purple are pretty close on the color wheel but there it is!
Munsell chart 5BMunsell chart 5P
Recap of the Three Components of Color
So for any color we come across we can define it in terms of 3 components – hue, value, chroma. We could do it in any order – hue, chroma, value or chroma, value, hue – but it’s generally easiest to go hue, value, chroma.
Hue – the name of the color Value – how light or dark the color is Chroma – how saturated or gray the color is
The conversion from screen colors (rgb) to Munsell notation is freely available online. The ChromaMagic team has generated a pdf from these that is available to download. If you sign up for these you’ll also gain access to the fantastic ChromaMagic Munsell tool described below.
ChromaMagic – Munsell Color System Online
ChromaMagic Munsell Tool
It can be really useful as a learning tool and a checking tool to see which Munsell chips match different parts of a photo. The ChromaMagic tool is free to use and lets you upload your own photo to see the diffrerent Munsell notations. See here for signups and access.
Munsell Color System Book
The gold standard for Munsell colors is the Munsell color book (or the Munsell book of color). It is fabulous, contains 40 color charts with removable chips, and costs an eye-watering amount of money. I managed to buy mine second hand from ebay. The person selling it was a Canadian gemologist who was retiring and I was happy to take it off his hands. If you’re feeling flush then this is definitely the thing to get.
However, if you’re just getting into Munsell or just want to try it and see if you like it (you will!) there are other options. None of these are perfect but they will get you on your way.
Munsell Student Book
This is a great little book and has lots of exercises and history and stuff which is well worth going through. But the main reason for buying this is it has a set of Munsell charts for a subset of the hues. It has charts and chips for all the 5 hues (5Y,5YR,5Y,5GY,5G,5BG,5B,5PB,5P).
However, for these charts to be really useful you need some intermediate hues as well. I find that if you have the 5 hues and the 10 hues you can get a pretty good match to most colors. The 5 charts in the student book aren’t quite enough to work with. But it will get you a long way and definitely be useful. Again older versions sometimes come up on ebay and can be pretty cheap.
Paul Centore Book
Paul has done a lot of work producing a number of products that are very useful to us Munsellites. His value scale is well worth getting even if you have no interest in Munsell color. He’s also worked at getting the best printed version of Munsell color charts and has produced a binder of all 40 charts. The caveat is that printing will never get you perfect matches to paint colors.
The big Munsell color book has painted chips and they are guaranteed to be accurate. I’ve compared Paul’s chips to the Munsell book chips and they’re very close. And for the price it’s a really good option. The only thing is you can’t remove the chips like you can in the big book and the student book. You could laminate the pages and cut out the chips by hand but that may be overkill.
Munsell Color Tree
Now I don’t own one of these but I have seen one at a workshop. It looks very cool but it does only have the 5 hues (5R, 5Y etc). I would suggest the student book or the Paul Centore book would be more useful. I will probably end up getting one though 🙂
Print Your Own Chips
I wouldn’t recommend this and there’s a catch-22 here. You need to cailbrate your printer to get anywhere near usable accuracy. I tested a page just with the default printer settings and the hue was off by a couple of charts which is huge. After calibrating (my printer is an Epson 7750) I got very close (as close as the Centore book) but here’s the thing. You need the real chips to compare to to make sure your printer is doing the right thing. And if you have the real chips then you don’t need the printed version.
How to Work with Munsell
Okay enough of the theory and charts and stuff. How do we actually use this to make our paintings better? This is the way I look at it and the way I use it. I use Munsell to analyze what I see and improve my color perception. When I start a new painting I identify a set of colors that will make up the painting, work out their Munsell colors and mix up swatches for each color. This may sound like a lot of work but even with a fairly complicated painting I don’t mix up too many colors. It’s usually around 6 or 7.
How to Identify a Color
If you’re working from a screen with a photo I would recommend using the online ChromaMagic tool. I prefer to work from a printout but either one will work. Of course photos don’t make the best paintings but for learning they’re the best method. If you’re working from life there are a lot more variables in play but practicing the process with printed or screen references will transfer over to real scenes.
gray color isolator
If you’re working with a printout and chips a color isolator is a handy tool. This is just a piece of value 5 card with a 1/2 inch square cut out. When placed over a section of a photo the gray surround isolates the region from its surroundings. This removes the effect of any surrounding colors and makes it easier for us to judge the color.
How to Practice Seeing Color Accurately
Take your reference and either load it up into ChromaMagic or print it out and have your isolator and chips handy. Follow the 4 steps for a variety of regions on your reference. You’ll soon find that some colors are much easier to match than others.
Pick a spot on your reference.
First estimate the hue.
Estimate the value.
Estimate the chroma
Check your estimates!!! This is the bit that really improves your skills. Once you’ve made your guess check it with your chips or ChromaMagic. You’ll probably be off and maybe quite a lot off when you first start. But the immediate feedback will improve your guesses really quickly. It’s the ability to guess and check in quick succession that hones your skills. You can use your own references for this but I’ve put together a set of exercises that will take you through a range of the hues, values and chromas.
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