The Munsell Colour System

The Munsell colour system was invented by Albert H Munsell (1858-1918) as an accurate way to numerically define colours. It is used in many industries from printing to soil research, but more relevant to artists, oil painting. The system or ‘colour space’ as its also known is split into three categories used to triangulate an exact colour. These are Hue, Value and Chroma.

Hue – The hue is the name of the colour itself, red, yellow etc.

Value – The value is how light or how dark the colour is on a scale from black to white, there are 9 values plus black and white making 11 altogether.

Chroma – The chroma is the brilliance or ‘colourfulness’ of the colour. Saturation is also a word used interchangeably with chroma, but they are not exactly the same thing, although very similar. There is no exact upper limit to chroma, some colours, red for example has up to 20 chromatic levels in places, others much less and some even more! Below is a simplified diagram of how these three definitions of colour sit together in the three dimensional Munsell colour space.

The Munsell system also has a notation system. This element is used to accurately describe a colour and where it can be found in the colour space, this is especially handy for mixing up an exact hue for a painting over and over again.

The notation is a simple series of letters and numbers that correspond to the Hue, Value and Chroma respectively. For example 5R 4/16 refers to Red at value 4 with a chroma of 16. in paint this may look something like cadmium red.

The number preceding the Hue is a marker of its purity, the numbers go from 1-10 for each colour on hue wheel. 5 is the colour on its own not mixed, e.g. red, but 7.5R would be a red that is swinging towards Yellow-Red (orange) as explained in the diagram below.

Figure Painting

Once we understand how to read the Munsell notation, we can accurately describe a colour that we see to make more accurate paint mixes for figure painting.

Luca Indraccolo uses the Munsell colour space to help students mix skin tones in his portrait painting and figure painting workshops. Using the colour space to navigate the palette can take the guess work out of mixing colours for figure painting and gives the student a clear idea on how to approach a painting.

First, defining the Hue (yellow) then the relative value compared to others in the subject and finally comparing the relative chroma, the student can then approach the palette with confidence to begin mixing.

The diagram below shows how colours in a figure painting can be identified using the Munsell colour space. Caucasian skin tones under a cool north light or daylight bulb can be found in the area 5R to 7.5YR with a chroma around 4-8 (subject to change depending on the model).

Article and diagrams by Alex Heath

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