In This Lesson:
Part of what makes the Munsell System useful for painting is that expressing color with 3 variables results in a color model that is 3-dimensional – a "color space" that can be navigated.
An added benefit of using the Munsell system is that the three variables of color — hue, value, and chroma — result in a gamut of colors that is three dimensional. In other words, we can think of all the colors we can mix with paint as occupying a kind of volume, or space, that can be navigated. We call this volume “color space”.
Color space is organized spatially in three distinct ways. On the vertical axis is value, with darker values toward the bottom, and lighter values toward the top. Hues are arranged around that axis, in a roughly circular configuration, similar to what we see on a color wheel. Chroma is arranged on the horizontal, perpendicular to the value axis, with weaker, lower chroma colors toward the inside, and stronger, higher chroma colors sitting near the outer edges.
The true shape of color space is asymmetrical. This is because different hues have different maximum chromas at different values, resulting in a space resembling a squished, lopsided sphere. But to keep things simple, let's think of color space as a kind of cylindrical building, in which all possible colors “live” in particular locations. Every color has a specific address inside color space.
Value, represented on a vertical axis, is like a support column running through the center of our building. This vertical axis is divided into 11 equal segments corresponding to the 11 steps on the Munsell value scale, with white at the top and black at the bottom. Each of these steps is like a different story on our imaginary building.
Hue is represented by the floors of the stories themselves, with the different hues arranged around the circumference of our circular building, as they are a color wheel. Each value, or story on our building, gets its own color wheel floor, and we can see that dark colors live near the bottom of the building, and light colors live near the top. Arranged around the outside, we can see that the Red family would live on the opposite side of the building from the Blue-Green family.
Chroma is represented by distance from the center of the building. The strong, high chroma colors live near the outside, while weak, low chroma colors live in the interior, right next to the central column. The column itself, in addition to representing value, also represents “zero chroma” or neutral gray.
Here's what a typical Munsell notation looks like: 5R 4/6. Those characters refer to the three variables of color, always in the same order: hue, value, and chroma. So, the example above refers to a color that is a 5 Red, of the 4th value, and the 6th chroma. Think of the notation as being like a postal code, referencing a specific address inside our color space high-rise.