Hue, Value & Chroma – Munsell Color System for Artists explained

Understanding color

The eye is the organ that can perceive the visible parts of electromagnetic waves. It perceives waves which have wavelengths between 380 nanometer and 780 nanometer. Between these wavelengths we can see every color – starting with violet at the low wavelengths up to red at the high wavelengths with every color in between.
It becomes clear that a real color model cannot be circular but straight. But since the two ends of the visible spectrum are very similar, most color models are circular. Violet and red merge into each other just like the other colors do.

The Munsell color system

Munsell-01

For learning to see and mix colors on your palette there is no need to learn about other color systems than Munsell. The Munsell color system is the most logical color system – forget about other color systems. Munsell defines colors by Hue (red, yellow, blue, green, blue-green, yellow-red ect.), Value (the lightness of a color; starting at 0 for a perfect black up to 10 for a perfect white – both can`t be represented by tube paints – and grey shades in between), and Chroma (purity of a color; the lower the chroma the more it tends to a neutral grey).

The right hand side of the picture above is an example of only one hue – 5R. There are more hues in the Munsell Color notation System than in the image above – each of the 10 hues (Yellow, Green Yellow, Green, Blue Green, Blue, Blue Purple, Purple, Red Purple, Red, Yellow Red) is divided in four increments (2.5, 5, 7.5 & 10) which makes 40 in total. Use this handy online-tool Virtual Munsell Color Wheel to get an impression on the hue, value & chroma principle.

Watch this 4 Minute video for a short introduction into the Munsell Color System:

Exercises for judging colors

Now that you know about the three different properties of color try to judge colors that you see by these three properties.

This color definetly is neither blue nor green. Is it red? Yes a little bit. Is it also yellow? A little bit too. So it must be a yellow-red or simply orange. But it is not a pure yellow-red. The chroma is neither neutral/grey nor full strenght. It’s lightness is about half dark and half light – so it’s about value 5 or so.

In fact this color is 2.5YR 6/6 in the Munsell Notation System which means a yellow-orange hue of 2.5, a value of 6 with a chroma of 6.

In case to match this particular color mix a pile of yellow and red (for example Cadium Yellow and Cadmium Red) to a strong chromatic orange. Now come the Munsell neutrals in handy. How to mix neutrals and store mixtures in bulk can be read here).

Take your Value 6 Neutral and mix the orange in. Not too much at first to judge the needed portion for going another step to more chroma. Our original orange mix also has a value of about 6 so the lightness of the neutral-orange mix won’t change. Now you can move closer to your target color by playing with yellow, red or neutral.

Keep in mind that trying to mix a screen color with paint is impossible. The reason is the difference between color perception. Screen color is additive color and pigment color is subtractive color.

Natural colors – “for black and for white, for yellow and red ones”

Leon-Bazile-Perrault_Skin-color

Most of the colors that we see in nature are low chroma colors (read this excellent analysis on the blog “Muddy Colors”). Most skin tones fall into a small range between the reds and yellow-reds at less than chroma 4. Take a look at the painting by Léon Bazile Perrault on the left.

Luckily these colors can easily achieved with earth colors like Yellow Ochre, raw and burnt Sienna as well as raw and burnt Umber plus White and Black. The painter Anders Zorn used only a few colours and was nevertheless known for his lively portraits.

Mark Carder also uses only few colors for his lifelike paintings. Watch his video on his approach to color mixing by clicking here.

Further information about the Munsell Color System:

Munsell color theory for Artists:

Workshops/Exercises

Video instructions

Color mixing principles

Paul Foxton (www.learning-to-see.co.uk) talks in this video about general color mixing principles and how to get the realistic look. This video is from this great post “A Blue Lemon: Why Understanding Colour is the Key to Realism“. Read how Paul painted a realistic appearing blue lemon by controlling color with Munsell.

Make sure to check out his website where he gives inspiration and practical advice for aspiring realist artists. He also offers courses on color mixing.

Introduction to Munsell

Paul Foxton explains in this video the attributes hue, value and chroma of any color as described in the Munsell color notation system.
Some general advice and how Paul learned about color mixing after Munsell in the post “Colour is Easier to Learn Than You Think: Here’s How“.

Neutrals

Only by mastering values an artist is capable of greating a realistic looking image. Watch how Paul Foxton paints a still life with simple shaped objects just in tones of grey and how he makes a realistic representation of the still life – just without color.

A two part video: Mixing neutrals Exercise – Making a value scale Part 1Part 2 (YouTube) Matching a Munsell neutral chip (Vimeo)

Matching a specific color

See how a specific given color (5GY) is mixed. First comes the value of the color then the hue and eventually the chroma will be adjusted in the mixing process.

Read in the post “Three Simple Steps to Mixing Any Colour You Need” how Paul is mixing a skin tone from start to finish with detailed step by step explanation.

Matching colors

Watch this quick demonstration of how to mix the color of a lemon.

Printable Munsell Color Charts

Hue | Value | Chroma – Munsell Color Charts for Artists – eBook

Print your own Munsell Color Reference Charts at home on your desktop inkjet printer!

Instant download after purchase!