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.

Key Concepts

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.

The three dimensions of color can be organized around three axes, resulting in a three dimensional "volume" or "space" that contains all the colors we can see.
The true shape of color space is asymmetrical because different hues have different maximum chromas at different values.
To keep things simple, think of color space as a kind of cylindrical building in which every color has a specific "address".

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.


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  1. This is SOOO helpful! I have been painting in egg tempera for years. So I’m used to making my own paint and understanding the different characteristics of my pigments. After doing that for long enough I think you do develop almost a “muscle memory” for how color space works. But it really helps to have it laid out so clearly!

  2. I had been studying the student Munsell books and online videos but you have explained this concept more clearly and completely than anything I’ve studied. You have made it so much easier to visualize. The building analogy is perfect as I can visualize the concept of floor for value relative to distance from elevator in center of bldg for chroma. Not sure yet how temperature fits this (my nemesis-do I change value or the temperature or both) but I am actually very aha! and excited to finally get this. This is a great course! Thanks for including Munsell system.

  3. Thank you for explaining the Munsell system such that I can reference it when asking myself questions about a color I am seeing and want to replicate! Very helpful!

  4. I have always been fascinated by the clarity of the Munsell system. Unfortunately for me i tend to get caught up the the technical specifics of color choice when i am painting, so it gets in the way of my spontaneous need to experiment with color. after a while the system becomes cumbersome so i abandon even trying to use it. Probably haven’t given it enough of a chance. So the question how to use Munsell and still feel loose and creative?

    1. Hi Frank,

      This is a common concern, but I think it comes from misunderstanding the variety of ways we can make color choices in painting.

      Sometimes, while working on a painting, we need to be specific and solve a color problem that has a very particular answer – a precise color mixture that will work for our intended purpose for which there are few adequate substitutes. A system like Munsell can help us make specific decisions about that color when needed because it allows us to be analytical and address the dimensions of hue, value, and chroma separately.

      But this is quite a different thing from what you cite as a “spontaneous need to experiment with color”. Making impulsive and spur-of-the-moment decisions about color has a place in painting, too, but in such cases – almost by definition – you’re not trying to deduce a particular answer to a specific problem. Instead, you’re going to see what works on more of a gut level. A color notation system probably won’t be of much use when painting in that way, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still valuable.

      I like to think of the Munsell system the way a musician might think about learning to read/write sheet music. There are plenty of musicians who don’t read music at all and play purely improvisationally. But it’s hard to argue that learning to read music itself is somehow a liability – there’s nothing about it that would prevent someone from playing-by-ear when they want to. Musical notation simply offers the option of being specific when needed but it doesn’t kill expressiveness per se. I think the Munsell system has a similar role to play in painting.

      Hope that helps.

      1. I understand completely. It’s easier to move from fundamental to improvisation then the other way around. 

        Thank you. Your courses are terrific. 

        Frank Monte


  5. David,
    I’m so happy to know you work with Munsell colors. I have experiment mixing colors by paying close attention to values and chroma using the Munsell book. It is by far the best way to match colors. Thank you for the video, great job.