Friday, February 26, 2010

The Color Wheel, Part 5

Many contemporary realist painters use the system that Albert Munsell developed about a century ago. Munsell’s color system was adopted by Frank Reilly at the Art Student’s League in New York. From him and his students it passed on through several generations of teaching to contemporary academic realists, such as Jacob Collins and Graydon Parrish.

Munsell’s system divides the spectral hues into ten even steps. In deference to Munsell, I’ve painted the wheel with the reds on the left.

Instead of dividing the pie into threes and twelves, the structure is based on multiples of five, so I’ve represented it as two overlapping star shapes. Division by ten makes sense. We’re used to base ten in money and the metric system.

Students of the Munsell system become accustomed to the ten basic hues: yellow (Y), green-yellow (G-Y), green (G), blue-green (B-G), blue (B), purple-blue (P-B), purple (P), red-purple (R-P), red (R), and yellow-red (Y-R).

This is a much more useful wheel than the traditional artist’s color wheel because the spacing is better, and it allows for exact numerical descriptions of color notes.

The Munsell system is a big topic, which I hope to explore in a future post. A great benefit to the system (as some of you mentioned in the comments after Part 3) is that it permits exact 3-D mapping of hue, value, and chroma, allowing you to navigate precisely through the color space.

But for now, let’s just recognize the Munsell wheel as a different and effective way to lay out the 2-D hue and chroma relationships.

Thanks to Charley Parker of Lines and Colors for the post about this series, and check out Charley's post about the history of the color wheel.

Reviewing the posts in this series:
Part 1: Wrapping the Spectrum
Part 2: Primaries and Secondaries
Part 3: Complements, Afterimages, and Chroma
Part 4: Problems with the Traditional Wheel
Part 5: The Munsell System
Part 6: Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow
Part 7: The Yurmby Wheel


Jason Juta said...

Thanks for this series, I'm always interested in learning about colour. I've been wishing for ages that there was a way for a 3d Munsell palette to be constructed in programs like photoshop - digital painting software is the ideal place to have a manipulatable 3d palette!

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

"This is a much more useful wheel than the traditional artist’s color wheel because the spacing is better, and it allows for exact numerical descriptions of color notes."

A traditional artists color wheel also allows for exact numerical descriptions of color; its just that Munsell offers fractions in units of ten that are easier to comprehend. There is a trade-off for the Munsell simplification however; color space has been contracted in the warm areas and expanded in the cool the wheels. Munsell does not represent true uniform color space. I think it needs to be acknowledged. I'll bow out of the discussion now.

Paolo Rivera said...

James, I'm really enjoying this series. Thanks!

Jason, I don't know about Munsell, but they're developing an all-purpose 3d palette plug-in at ColoRotate.

Etc, Etc, my favorite thing about the Munsell system is that the divisions, regardless of their number, are based upon human perception. This means that the difference between any 2 steps in any of the 3 dimensions represents an equal perceptual change. Admittedly, this results in a very odd shape (non-spherical) when mapped accordingly, but it is, in fact, truer to our mental construct.

Shane White said...

I've been searching for an in-road to figure out how exactly the system works. The stuff I've read before was just confusing. It's application in terms of illustration a mystery...which will hopefully be dispelled here.

Now if I could just figure out how Tom Lovell saw color I'd be a happy man.


James Gurney said...

Thanks, everybody, and good points. What I'm leaving out in this huge oversimplification is the vertical dimension of value and Munsell's fascinating contributions to the understanding of peak chroma. But the 10-step breakdown of the wheel is a cool idea (and it got me to relearn how to construct a star with a compass)!

Craig Elliott said...

I love the Munsell system, it is the only way I have found to get true complements across the "pie" of the wheel and it makes it easy to build split complements and triads.

So useful. And you painted such a nice one here!

Craig Elliott Gallery

Charles Valsechi said...

Great posts on color. Curious if you could recommend some personal favorite books on drawing and or painting? or simply art in general.

Be said...

Thanks James, i'm really enjoying this series of posts.

I found a web site about this color wheel, apparently more accurate and practical for artist. The color oppositions are chosen according to the fact that they mix to a dark neutral, not browns.

All main pigments are associated with a pigment#, instead of only a name, witch is not specific enough. This makes sense. No serious painter buy his tubes by names! From brand to brand, it varies too much. If we are to discuss color wheels intended for artists, i think that
we should start associating color names with pigment numbers.

Also, according to the author of the web site, it seems that having both transparent and opaque colors on the wheel are important to get the "right" mix of complementary colors.I don't really know what to think about that.

Check it out here:

By the way, it's really amazing you reading all the comments and taking so much time gathering informations. Thank you, all of this is so helpful!

Don Cox said...

"the divisions, regardless of their number, are based upon human perception. This means that the difference between any 2 steps in any of the 3 dimensions represents an equal perceptual change."

Almost equal. David McAdam and his colleagues spent years trying to make the steps more equal, and this led to the OSA-UCS system.

David Briggs said...

Great to see, James! Your posts and upcoming book are bound to make a huge dent in the incredibly prevalent lack of modern colour knowledge among painters today.

Perhaps it's just my monitor but the hues in the lower half of your circle look shifted towards the red to me, especially 5PB, which should be about the hue of Cobalt Blue, but seems too purple. The hues in the upper half look about right, though. Do the hues in your original artwork match those in the Munsell Book?

David Briggs

Unknown said...

The Munsell system is what my instructor teaches. He tales it one step further in improvement (the stamp of approvement for the "improvement" came from Munsell himself) by adding the "dominance" of each mixture when doing the charts. I plan on working on them soon. I'm spending most of my time there building in clay to learn form.

Anonymous said...

I've noticed my comment has aroused criticism in another forum, particularly,

"Who says true color space is uniform?....if you look at the electromagnetic spectrum, you see a narrow band of yellow and great big swathes of the other colors."

What matters is human color perception. All scientific testing that I am aware of agrees that short, medium, and long cone receptivities peak at fairly uniform levels:
Assuming the validity of the tests, I dont think it's unwarranted to also assume that perceived color space is uniform. Unless you can prove otherwise, of course.

Anonymous said...

Weird to see "The Munsell" system here. I first encountered it in soil science, and I still have a stained notebook of paint chips, used to determine the color of soil samples. There are similar Munsell systems for things like plant tissue colors. Until I read this, I never realized that Munsell was anything but a scientist.

Ted B. said...

I tend to think Munsell in using paint ...though in my mind I reverse the rotation of the traditional Munsell wheel so that Red and Yellow are in the upper-right quadrant like in your YURMBY Wheel or the Digital HSV color wheels. For my own notes and references I tend to place Red at the 3-o'clock position since that's HSV hue angle-0 and most CADD programs place 0-degrees at that same position. Conceptually Red at 3-o'clock or Yellow at Noon doesn't affect the relationships within the wheel.

That the Musell primes are irregularly-separated compared the YURMBY and HSV primaries are evenly-spaced at 60/120-degrees doesn't interfere conceptully.