Ordering Colour: Albert Henry Munsell (1858-1918)

Colour Tree of Munsell, further details not known. Image by Hannes Grobe, via Wikimedia Commons.

By the start of the twentieth century, several systems had been proposed for ordering and specifying colour, but none had won over many users. It was the painter and art teacher Albert Henry Munsell who proposed a novel colour system which became, and remains, popular in art, design, and manufacture. Munsell died a century ago today, on 28 June 1918, and this article commemorates his achievement, and explains a little of his system.

Munsell was born in Boston, MA, and graduated from the Massachusetts Normal School of Art. During his studies, he was inspired by Ogden Nicholas Rood’s book Modern Chromatics, and this drove his lasting interest in colour and systems for measuring and ordering it. His first experiment with colour took place in 1879, when he painted ordered colours on a pyramid and spun it on a string, to observe the colours mixing optically.

He travelled to Paris to study in the early 1880s, and on his return was appointed a lecturer at his alma mater, where he developed his interest in colour education. In 1898, he constructed a colour sphere, on which he painted what he termed ‘balanced colours’: when optically mixed by spinning the sphere, those different colours became the same neutral grey. This was the starting point for his colour ordering system.

Munsell looked at other ordering systems, concluding that Hering’s couldn’t be correct; he augmented it with a fifth basic colour for the hue scale, and realised that a painted sphere would be too constrained by the properties of the pigments then available. He extended the range of ordering models which he had examined to include those of Lambert, Runge, and others (illustrated in the previous article).

The lightness scale was a particular problem for Munsell, with its choice between logarithmic or square root scaling from the available evidence. He opted for painter’s terminology for this, calling it value. The third attribute, the intensity of colour, he named chroma, in 1901, a usage which has since become general.

Albert Henry Munsell (1858-1918), frontispiece from ‘A Color Notation’ (1905), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Munsell originally wanted to map his colour ordering in terms of slices of constant value (lightness) through a colour solid, but in 1902 he came up with the idea of a colour ‘tree’ formed using slices of constant hue, which became the basis for his first colour atlas.

Colour Tree of Munsell, further details not known. Image by Hannes Grobe, via Wikimedia Commons.

The final decision which he had to make was the order in which to present his colours. His initial plan had been to arrange them into complementary colours, but he changed that to perceptual uniformity in 1904, and the following year published the first edition of A Color Notation. That was followed in 1907 by the first Color Atlas of the Color-Solid, which was enlarged and renamed the Munsell Book of Color in 1929, just over a decade after his death.

Munsell Book of Color, different editions, showing removable pages with colour swatches. Image by Mark Fairchild, via Wikimedia Commons.
Munsell Colour Wheel. Image by Thenoizz, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Munsell Colour Wheel is at the heart of the system, with basic hues red (R), yellow (Y), green (G), blue (B), and purple (P). Intermediates are inserted between those as shown.

Munsell hues; value 6 / chroma 6. Image by Jacobolus, via Wikimedia Commons.

Here is an example set of Munsell hues, all shown at the same values of 6, and chromas of 6.

Munsell value (vertical) and chroma (horizontal); hue 5Y and 5PB. Image by Jacobolus, via Wikimedia Commons.

Munsell colour tables are here assembled for the two hues 5PB (purple-blue) and 5Y (yellow), which are diametrically opposed on the colour wheel, thus deemed complementary. The vertical scale shows values from 0 (black) to 10 (white), and chromas vary horizontally from 0 (grey) in the centre, to 12 (pure colour) at left and right. Not all colours can be represented here, of course.

The Munsell color system. Image © 2007, Jacob Rus, via Wikimedia Commons.

Assembling the three coordinates together results in this diagram. This shows the circle of ten hues, which are displayed with values of 5 and chromas of 6. The vertical value scale ranging from 0 to 10 is shown in neutral colours, from black to white. A wedge of constant 5PB hue is then shown at a fixed value of 5, the chromas ranging from 0 (grey) to 12 (pure colour).

Munsell made several important advances in his first colour ordering. He broke from most earlier orderings in not putting colours of the highest chroma on the same horizontal plane, and making the vertical axis that of value (lightness). In defining chroma, he established that colours of constant hue and value can vary. These remain fundamental to all modern colour ordering systems.

His system was extensively revised in the light of the then-novel CIE colour system, in 1943. As a result of this, the Munsell Color Company, which Munsell had founded shortly before his death, issued revisions known as the Munsell Renotations. Although not perfect, the Munsell Colour System remains one of the most widely-used colour ordering schemes.

Munsell was also an important influence in the education of children about colour, and pioneered the provision of high fidelity colour chips to artists and designers.

Pantone Inc., Pantone Swatches (2015), Image by Céréales Killer, processed by MagentaGreen, via Wikimedia Commons.

Contemporary designers are also very familiar with the Pantone System of swatches of standardised colours, as shown here, which have become standards in several sectors such as process colour printing. Pantone may have been inspired by the Munsell system, but is not recognised as a colour ordering system, unlike our inheritance from Albert Henry Munsell.


Rolf G Kuehni and Andreas Schwarz (2008) Color Ordered, A Survey of Color Order Systems from Antiquity to the Present, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 19 518968 1.