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

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. If you need some help to judge a certain color then use the Munsell Wall chart.

colorswatchThis 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-colorMost 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, its application and exercises, as well as colour theory in general:

Munsell Color equipment for your atelier

What you need at your easel is a color chart which helps you mixing a specific color – if it is a skin color or the local color of an object. You need to be able to hold a predefined color swatch next to an object or dab paint on it.

The original Munsell Book of Color is very pricey but has over 1600 standardized color chips, the New Munsell Student Color Set has too few chips to be helpful in your atelier at home but is an affordable introduction to the concept of the Munsell system. You can download photos of the big Munsell Book here.

HUE VALUE CHROMA Munsell Color Charts for Artists

Professional color charts are expensive and serve a purpose that you do not need for your art. The reason for the high price is that they are standardized through the complete production – every color chart or color fan deck has exactly the same colors when hold side by side. This ensures the consistent production of colored products.

Let‘s say a company whose corporate color is a certain reddish tint wants to produce USB sticks in exactly this reddish color as a giveaway. The company tells the manufacturer that they need the plastic cover of the stick in Pantone 485 and the manufacturer can produce the USB stick in exactly this color since they have a color chart which tells them what Pantone 485 looks like.

As an artist you do not need to communicate colors for reproduction with others. It is not neccessary for you as an artist if a particular color is called Pantone 485, CMYK so and so or RAl so and so. You just want to hit THIS particular color perception.
So with your desktop inkjet printer you can print color charts without the need to have them matching with printouts by other printers. As long as your printer can print true color photos it can most likely print each swatch of the color chart – provided your printer is properly maintained and has full cartridges.

Additional information:
This product is intented to serve artists as a tool for learning and applying color in the fields of art. It contains color charts with a reasonable spectrum/gammut to work with – based on Albert Munsell‘s color notation system Hue, Value and Chroma.
The range of printable color swatches – the „Gammut“ – depends on different factors: printer, paper, inks. At all three ends of a color‘s property (Hue, Value, Chroma) the results may vary. Though the big Munsell Color Book by XRite has chromas of up to 16 for some hues the chromas on these Color Charts is limited to 14.

Many printers for home use utilize four inks: Yellow, Magenta, Cyan and Black. There are also printers which use additional inks – the possible printable Gammut is greater than with those printers which only use four inks. These printers are usually more expensive.

If you do not have an inkjet printer you can go to your copy shop and have the desired pages printed out for you.