The Three Dimensions of a Color According to the Munsell System

Updated on October 28, 2018
Robie Benve profile image

Robie is a self-taught artist who loves sharing what she's learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.

Albert Munsell developed a color identification and notation system that describes color using three dimensions: Hue, Value, and Chroma. All artists should know this.
Albert Munsell developed a color identification and notation system that describes color using three dimensions: Hue, Value, and Chroma. All artists should know this. | Source

How do you describe a color?

When talking about color, there are some terms that in current language are used as synonyms, however, in a more technical language have very different meanings.

In 1905, artist and teacher Albert H. Munsell experienced the confusion from using common color names to describe a color.

  • One person maroon is someone else’s burgundy.
  • Navy blue may be one of a number of different dark blue colors, as anyone who's tried matching a blue jacket with blue pants knows.

Albert Munsell devoted his life to developing a color identification and notation system that prevents confusion and makes communication easier. To describe a color, there are some attributes that can be specified in mathematical detail and clarify exactly what color you are referring to:

  • Hue,
  • Value,
  • Chroma.

The Three Dimensions of a Color

Dimension
Definition
Hue
Name of a color family
Value
Lightness or darkness of a color
Chroma
Strength or intensity of a color
The main attributes that define a color in all its endless variations are hue, value, and chroma.

Color Dimension 1: Hue

You can think of hues as the colors of the rainbow. If we arrange them in a circle, in a sequence from yellow, yellow-red, red, red-purple, …. We end up with a color wheel of the hues.

Each hue includes the different colors that vary in value (dark/light) and chroma (intensity) but are part of the same hue family.

For example, in the blue hue, you can find a wide range of blues. Of course, there will be pure blue, but also light blue and dark blue, intense (high chroma) blue, and dull (low chroma) blue, and all combinations in between.

All Hues Are Colors, Not All Colors Are Hues

While all the hues on the color wheel are also colors, some colors are not hues and are not included in the color wheel.

Think of brown for example. Brown is a color, but it does not appear on the color wheel because it’s not a hue. In fact, brown is a dull color under a hue. Depending on the kind of brown, it could be a dull red, orange, or even purple.

Color Dimension 2: Value and the Munsell Value Scale

Value is the degree of lightness or darkness of a color.

Munsell has divided the gap from black to white in ten equal steps, called the value scale.

Black has value zero, and pure white has value 10, the values in between are gradually lighter grays of values 2, 4, 6, and 8.

Every color can be associated with a specific value. You can see the real value of a color by squinting.

When squinting, your eyelashes filter, and somehow block, the colored light, letting you see the color-less grayish version of an object.

While you squint, you may hold a value scale in the line of vision next to the color you are evaluating. This way it’s easier to compare and determine the exact value.

Fig. 1 Structure of the Munsell color system in space. The 3-D Munsell Color System
Fig. 1 Structure of the Munsell color system in space. The 3-D Munsell Color System | Source

Color Dimension 3: Chroma

Chroma refers to the strength or intensity of a color. A high chroma color is pure from any presence of gray or white. For example, lemon yellow has a high chroma, while a banana yellow has lower chroma.

Colors with strong chroma are often referred to as bright or saturated, However, the term brightness is also used to describe the intensity of light and, therefore, indicates a combination of value (lightness) and chroma.

Croma is represented by the horizontal scale on Munsell’s color chart in Fig.1

A Representation of the Munsell Color Solid Cylindrical Coordinates. sRGB approximations of the 1943 Munsell color notations.
A Representation of the Munsell Color Solid Cylindrical Coordinates. sRGB approximations of the 1943 Munsell color notations. | Source

The Color Solid

Because each color has three dimensions, an arrangement of all colors takes a three-dimensional form. The gray scale serves as the center pole, with white at the top and black at the bottom.

  • The Munsell color solid cannot take the shape of a perfect sphere because hue families contain different numbers of steps in chroma.

A Visual Representation of the Munsell Color Tree of Hues

Munsell Notation

The Munsell notation of a color is written as a whole number, followed by a letter and a fraction.

  • Hue number and letter designation
  • Value number/chroma number

Example: 5R 4/14

  • 5 Red
  • Value 4
  • Chroma 14
  • This is a “pure” red, medium dark, and very strong.

Other Interesting Terms and Notes

  • A tint is usually intended as a lighter version of a color, obtained adding white to the color.
  • Shade: A darker version of a color is usually referred to as shade. Generically speaking, it can be obtained adding black to a hue, even though sometimes the mix may need adjustments because black may change the hue.
  • Pigments are particles of colored material that, when suspended in a liquid or a medium, become paint.
  • Black is a neutral color that has no chroma.

Several editions of the Munsell Book of Color, the color atlas of the Munsell color system sold by the Munsell Color Company, perched behind several of the book’s removable pages of color swatches.
Several editions of the Munsell Book of Color, the color atlas of the Munsell color system sold by the Munsell Color Company, perched behind several of the book’s removable pages of color swatches. | Source

The New Munsell Student Color Set

All these info on color, and much more, are included in a wonderful book that is actually a small three-ring binder with removable pages. It goes into detail into all kinds of knowledge about color.

Here are some of the topics covered, all on the subject of color:

  • Vocabulary
  • How light interacts and changes
  • Visible and invisible attributes
  • Warm and cool hues
  • Advancing and receding colors
  • Emotional response
  • Additive mixing
  • Subtractive mixing
  • Combining colors

An amazing book, not a light read, but a great source of information for anyone interested in color theory. If you buy a new copy, you get to manually assemble all the color charts using the provided color swatches. I missed that part of the fun, but I'm happy with the cheaper price tag of a used copy.

Questions & Answers

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      • profile image

        Tim Davenport 

        4 weeks ago

        fantastic article

      • profile image

        Jennifer Schultz 

        3 months ago

        I like the idea that we can see color in 3D, it never dawned on me that hues could be represented as a sphere or a tree. Thanks for the great info.

      • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

        Robie Benve 

        9 months ago from Ohio

        Thanks a lot Audrey! It's great to hear that I was able to write about color theory in a way that is enjoyable to read. It made my day!

      • vocalcoach profile image

        Audrey Hunt 

        9 months ago from Idyllwild Ca.

        Most informative and enjoyable to read. Thanks for sharing this.

      • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

        Robie Benve 

        9 months ago from Ohio

        Thank you Raghunadh, I tried to write in a way that it did not make it sound too complicated. I'm glad you had the impression it's an easy concept, that's great! I got so much information from the Munsell book, that I realized how much knowledge ans science there is behind "seeing color". I was almost afraid I would never be able to talk about it in simple terms again. ;) Thanks for your feedback.

      • profile image

        Raghunadh 

        9 months ago

        very easy to understanding the concept

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