Introduction to Munsell Color

An Introduction to Munsell Color

Introduction to Munsell Color

Interested in learning how to master color?  Find out why Munsell Color Charts can drastically help you as an artist not only understand color better but gain predictable results when mixing your paints!

Munsell vs. Other Color Spaces

The Munsell Color System can be described as a color space.  So what is a color space?  You’ve probably heard the term “color space” mentioned before and you most certainly have encountered some of the many popular color spaces that are being used by individuals in various industries such as the graphic arts, engineering, theatre arts, and many more.

Before we can dive into the Munsell color charts we need to understand color spaces in general.

A color space is a model that organizes color into a predictable and manageable fashion.  A color space is a essentially a system for organizing color.  Color spaces typically use words, letters, and/or numbers to help categorize colors into some sort of… well yes space!  Color spaces typically attempt to solve that age-old problem of “what do mean by green?  Is it green like an apple? Or green like this…and so on”. Color Spaces quantify color to some degree.

Some of the more widely popularized color spaces are:

You can definitely nerd out on all of these color models but you’ll quickly find that almost all of them are not too helpful for painters (or any artists working with pigments).

Pantone has established itself as THEE industry standard for graphic designers and the fashion industry too but the Pantone system of organization, or lack there of, will leave your head spinning and your painter’s palette no better than it was before.  Their color swatches are organized in a way similar to those big swatch decks you’d find in a hardware store’s latex paint section.

Most other color spaces including CIE, NCS and RGB spaces are legitimate but again will do little to help you understand how to be a better artist.  NCS is arguably the closest to Munsell but let’s forget about all of them for now and move forward..

The Munsell Color Space on the other hand, will not only teach you how to mix accurate color, but will also train your eye to see and match any color necessary for painting.

Although the Munsell Color System is not specifically a paint mixing tool it will help you learn how to mix and match your paints like never before.

It’s uses to a painter are immense and often go unnoticed until you start working with the Munsell color charts routinely!  It will take time but a thorough understanding of the Munsell color space will give you a full command and an appreciation of practical uses for pigment mixing.  Munsell is based on the way we see but measured with scientific instruments!

Let’s get started:


Hue Value Chroma

As an artist looking to accurately represent colors in a painting, you should be concerned with the 3 visual properties of color:

  • Hue
  • Value
  • Chroma

If you can identify a color’s hue, value and chroma  you can mix any color you desire.

And as such this is precisely how the Munsell color space is organized.  Because color has 3 properties It’s logical to represent every possible color as a 3-dimensional model.  This is sometimes why the Munsell color space is sometimes referred to a “color globe” or “color sphere”.

Actually, Albert Munsell’s earliest designs of his color model did fit into a perfect sphere, but later on he realized that due to various degrees of human color sensitivity and the availability of pigments, inks, and dyes (colorants) it makes more sense for the Munsell Globe to become oblong and extend past the bounds of the sphere in some areas and to shrink inside the globe’s perfect circular boundary in others.  One of his earliest designs can be seen below:

Original Munsell Sphere

Later on in this article we’ll cover Munsell Hues, Munsell Values and Munsell Chromas in greater detail.


Munsell Color Circle vs. Traditional Color Wheel

The color wheel as you probably learned it in grade school is similar, but has some important differences to the Munsell Hue Circle.  The Munsell Hue Circle represents the various hues that we, humans “see”.  Seeing is just our brain’s response to combinations of visible-light waves but that’s another story for another time!

Any scientist working in the field of vision, color etc. can quickly point out how the traditional color wheel made from the supposed Primary Colors: Red / Yellow / Blue is extremely flawed.

old color wheel
This is the traditional color wheel- it should be discarded

If one where to pick 3 “primaries” and build a color wheel from it one would be better suited picking: Cyan / Magenta / Yellow but even this is limiting and the concept of a primary color is flawed to begin with ….again I’ve digressed… back to Munsell.

One of the great things about the Munsell Hue Circle is that it restructures the visible spectrum of colors into a more logical arrangement ensuring each hue occupies a more relevant amount of space on the wheel according to how we experience color.  Therein lies usefulness of a the Munsell color space for painters!

The traditional color wheel is way too biased towards certain hues, notoriously giving “orange” colors way more space on the wheel then they should have and compressing other areas of the wheel.  Let’s just forget about that old mess of a wheel and move forward to something that will actually help us understand color and mix accurate colors!


The Munsell Hue Circle

The Munsell Hue Circle is broken up into 5 major sections:

  • Red
  • Yellow
  • Green
  • Blue
  • Purple

This is fantastic because right away we can toss away our ideas about having 3 primary colors.  I know it’s hard to do but just forget that old way of thinking for now.

In between these 5 major colors exist the following Munsell Hues:

  • Yellow-Red
  • Green-Yellow
  • Blue-Green
  • Purple-Blue
  • Red-Purplemunsell hue wheel


So Where is the Color Orange?

Every color you have known in the past exists on the Munsell color wheel, it’s just a matter of locating it in the Munsell color charts and learning the Munsell term for it.

You’ll quickly discover that what you previously thought of as “orange” is now called Yellow-Red in Munsell terms.  This might sound silly at first but you’ll get used to it and come to appreciate the logical nature of the Munsell Hue Circle.

Consequently you’ll have to possibly drop some of your life-long assumptions about what “blue” is and what “red” is or any color for that matter. If you’ve ever found yourself trying to discuss what you meant by “red” then you will come to love the Munsell color system.

You see, this idea of communicating exactly what we mean by verbalizing a color was the main impetus for Albert Munsell’s work in the field of color quantification in the first place.  Albert Munsell set out to create a system that logically arranged color that could be quantified so that when you name a color everyone knows exactly what color you are talking about.  He also wanted his color space to serve as a model for understanding color, an educational tool!

So how does one describe a color in Munsell terms?


Reading Munsell Notations

A munsell notation is the standard way to describe a specific color so that everyone knows the precise color being described.

A munsell notation is described in this order:

Hue Value / Chroma

A specific example of a Munsell Notation would read like this:

5.0 Red  5/12

But the hue is sometimes abbreviated and written like this:

5R 5/12

Which of course means that the color being described has:

  • A hue equal to 5.0 Red
  • A value equal to 5
  • A chroma equal to 12

Now the great thing is, once you communicate this Munsell Notation to somebody else all they have to do is look up the notation in their Munsell Book of Color and they know precisely the color you are talking about!

How cool is that?


Neutral colors are written like this:

“N” Value/

So a value 5 color that is completely neutral would contain a chroma equal to 0 and it’s notation written like:

N 5/

Notice there is no need to indicate the hue or the chroma when denoting neutrals.

Munsell N-series explanation

Now that we know how to read and write a Munsell Notation, let’s discuss colors three components, hue, value, chroma in greater detail and how it pertains to the color space specifically!


Munsell Hues

A hue in the Munsell color space is given a number ( 1- 10 ) followed by one of the 10 color names that can be found in the Munsell Hue Circle.  The 10 Munsell hues go in this order:

  • Red
  • Yellow-Red
  • Yellow
  • Green-Yellow
  • Green-
  • Blue-Green
  • Blue
  • Purple-Blue
  • Purple
  • Red-Purple

This division of the visible spectrum makes more sense then the traditional color wheel with Red, Yellow, Blue taking equilateral positions around the circle. When Albert Munsell first designed his color space he use both scientific measurements and human perception to decide how to logically break up the hues and the rest of the space as well.  This is yet one more reason why this color system is so helpful for painters whom need to mix real paints for real people. 

The Munsell color sphere is not just based on math/science alone but considers how we perceive and experience color (the psychological aspect of color).  Our brains have different sensitivity levels to different hues and the Munsell color charts deal with this nicely.

In short the Munsell color space represents a reasonably accurate scientific model of color yet compensating for human visual perception as well.  It is without a doubt the most useful color tool for painters.

The Munsell hue circle is broken up into 100 sections.  If you do the math we have the 10 colors listed above and each color is broken up into 10 sections (1-10). You won’t find all ten sections in the Munsell Book of Color however, you’ll be issued 4 sections of each hue.

For example if you turn to the Blue pages of a Munsell Book of Color you will see hue pages:

  • 2.5 Blue
  • 5.0 Blue
  • 7.5 Blue
  • 10.0 Blue

We refer to each of these pages as a Hue Page because each page contains only one hue.  Each hue page contains all of the possible values and chromas for that hue.

Munsell Book Blue Pages


Munsell Values

Munsell values begin at 0 (black) and go up to 10 (white).  If you work out the math on that you are left with 11 value steps with value #5 in the middle.

What’s important to realize is that 0 and 10 represent theoretical bounds and cannot be achieved.  So while I referred to 0 above as being black it really is a “theoretical black” or and “absolute black”.  So in practice a really dark ivory black paint will have a value of approximately 0.5 and a titanium white will have a value of approximately 9.5.  Of course conditions and brands will vary and this again why using a color charting system such as Munsell is so helpful; you can measure any color and see for yourself!


Munsell Value Explanation

Of course you are free to mix up paint to any value, not just whole numbers… say a value of 5.5 or 7.25 but you’ll find that the eleven whole steps provides an incredible range of value from which to work from on any given work of art.


Munsell Chroma

You can think of chroma as the intensity of a color.  A completely neutral color would contain a chroma equal to 0.  A more intense, purer color would be assigned a higher chroma level.

Chroma lesson with stars

A cadmium red for instance is a high-chroma red and would register at about a chroma equal to 14 and even higher depending on the specific paint.

Chroma visually measures a given color’s intensity in “visual steps” away from a neutral gray of equivalent value.

How high can chroma go?  Unlike the lower and upper limits of value (0-10 respectively) chroma doesn’t have an upper limit.  The lowest chroma is 0 which is a perfect neutral color so there is a lower bound. However, the color space was designed with expansion in mind leaving room for higher chroma colors?

Why is there no upper chroma limit?

New pigments, inks, and dyes are constantly being discovered over time.  To think that today we have already discovered all the known colorants is short sided.  It wasn’t too long ago artists where using crushed iron-oxides for all their yellows and reds and that’s all they had available.  Keep in mind, most of these “earth colors” are less then a 10-chroma and some much lower than that!  So considering the history of colorants, there is always room to grow!

Munsell Chroma Explanation

Currently the Munsell color book is made with color swatches that go up to nearly a chroma = 18 (less for older publications) for most hue pages and you’ll find that even by today’s standards these high chroma colors are very intense and you will rarely use a color this high in chroma for realistic paintings.


Hue Page Profiles

The first thing you’ll notice about each hue page is that they are all different.  None of them fit into a perfect grid of equal height and width. The outer-limit chroma profile for each hue page is drastically different.

Munsell Hue Page Graphic

This may seem a bit weird at first but you’ll quickly learn that this is a necessity if we are to adequately divide color up into logical steps as we experience it, not just mathematically.

Each hue page profiles the possible limits of colorants both natural and manmade.  In other words each hue page displays on its rightmost edge the highest chromas for colors that can be assembled into a stable color swatch via pigments and or dyes.  Due to a combination of our human visual perception and the physical limits of known colorants this leads us to having an irregular profile to the rightmost edge of each hue page.

This aspect of color is already intuitive to you.  Let me explain:

Yellow naturally appears lighter in value than blue and for this reason the chroma profile for yellow looks different then the chroma profile of blue.

But why would the chromas extend further for some rows?

It’s actually quite simple.  First remember that a row on a Munsell hue page are all colors that have the same hue and value, they only differ in chroma.

Let’s take yellow for an example.  If a yellow appears purest around a value = 8 then we will be able to decipher more chroma steps between the purest yellow and a gray of equal value.  That is one of the reasons the yellow extends so far out near the 8th row.

Munsell Chart 2.5Y

But when we look at very dark yellows near value 3, for example, there are far fewer steps we can perceive.


Paint Examples

Now that you have a good theoretical idea of the Munsell color space, let’s use some real world examples with some actual paint.

When working within the Munsell color space you can forget about colors being “warm” or “cool”.  These vague terms only lead to confusion.  Remember, we can define any color with a Munsell Notation!

Let’s look at a sample of Raw Sienna oil paint.

Raw Sienna Munsell Notation

This tube of paint has a Munsell Notation equal to a 7.5YR 4/6.  We know exactly where it exists in the color space.

Notice I didn’t try to describe a color as being light or dark, or compare it to another color.  We have a perfect system for communicating color to not only myself but other artists as well.  This is powerful stuff.

Boy this sure beats guesswork and vague terminology.


Let’s look at one more quick example, this time with a tube of Cerulean Blue paint:

Cerulean Blue Munsell Notation

It turns out that the cerulean blue paint I choose appears to be a Munsell 5PB 4/12.  That means it’s a 5.0 Purple-Blue and has a value equal to 4 and a chroma equal to 12.


Cerulean Blue 5PB value-4 chroma-12

Getting Started with Munsell

To get started working with Munsell you’ll need to invest in the color charts.  While financially, a large investment up front it really is an invaluable tool for painters looking to seriously improve the color aspects of their artwork.

A Munsell Book of Color or the “Big Book” as it’s sometimes referred to is expensive, but how valuable is your time and how serious are you about your artwork?  I just consider it another piece of equipment.  But I convinced myself long ago that my time is often more valuable then my money (to a point of course).  The official Big Book contains real color swatches that are removable.  It also comes in a glossy version that enables you to wipe oil paint right on the color chip to determine matches!

There is also a “knock-off” version that contains Munsell color charts, it’s made by Paul Centore, a mathematician in Connecticut, U.S.  His ink-jet printed version of the Munsell color space contains much of the color swatches and comes at a fraction of the cost.  The color swatches are not removable however.

While the Official big book of Color is ideal, Paul Centore’s printed book is far better then not using any Munsell charts at all.




  1. Andrés González says:

    hi, thank you for the info, very interesting.

    1. John Morfis says:

      I’m glad you like it! It’s a bit tricky at first but it sinks in after a while.

  2. Alki Liasis says:

    Hi, i was wondering where i can purchase paper or card based on Munsel values e.g 7.5 purple blue blue 4/9

    1. John Morfis says:

      I have no idea, but once you have the Munsell Chips you can just place them on the material/color in question to see how close it is to the target chip.

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