Tuesday, December 6, 2016

300+ Years of Color Theory: A Grammar of Color

This book is included in a reading list on the history of Color Theory. Find the home-page for the series here.


The color system invented by Albert H. Munsell is much more than a way to study the relationship between colors, his is a color notation system capable of being used for exact color matching. In fact, the Munsell system is still in use today across multiple disciplines (like agriculture, archeology, interior design, and industrial manufacturing), and you can read all about it at the Munsell website.

This is an interesting book—the original edition of A Grammar of Color was published after Munsell’s death in 1918. The original 1921 volume was published by the Strathmore Paper Company, featured an introduction written by Munsell himself, and included additional text and illustrations by American graphic artist T. M. Cleland. Flip through a digital copy of the 1921 book here.

The copy I have is based on this 1921 edition, but does not include all the extra printed color examples in the original volume, and has been updated and edited by FaberBirren.
Where most of the previous Color Theorists in this reading list were best known as scientists (Newton, Chevreul, Rood and Ostwald), Munsell was truly at first and artist.

I don’t know if this story is true, but here’s what I’ve heard about how Munsell was inspired to create his color notation system. Munsell was a painter in the late 1800’s, and like many of his contemporaries would paint landscapes “en plein air.” He would take his canvases back home to continue work in the evening by artificial lighting in his studio. He’d quickly take note that colors he thought matched when he was painting indoors at night were really off when looking at them in the natural sunlight outdoors the next day. He began to think there should be a better way to consistently match colors, not only to help painters, but to do away with some of the randomness of trying to assign specific names to colors.

Ostwald’s system included black and white value in the center, hue around the equator, and tints/tones/shades filling in the solid, with all of the hues living in an equal position around the equator.

Munsell’s system also includes black and white value in the center, but the hues fall in line with the scale of gray along the center pole to match the value. Tint/tone/shade then fill in to create an asymmetrical solid, often referred to as a color tree, with each branch out from the center representing a different hue. The notations in the system are made up of three parts, and are written as such: 5P 5/10. The first number/letter set of the notation refers to the specific hue (5 Purple). The second number refers to the value, and the last number to the chroma.



Pull out one hue branch from the solid, and you’ll better see how the tints, tones and shades of one hue are organized.


While many other color systems are based in 3 primaries (red, yellow, blue or red, green, blue or cyan, yellow, magenta for example), Munsell’s system is based on the 6 colors noted in the visual spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet). If you look at this system as a wheel, it would look like this.


As an artist, Munsell was concerned with ideals of color harmony in his work, and created many guidelines and rules for finding color harmony within his system. In this edition of A Grammar of Color, T. M. Cleland does a fantastic job explaining all of these harmonies with simple ideas and clear illustrations. From classic harmonies like complementary, triad, and analogous, Munsell had some very interesting theories about balance of colors within his system.

I would definitely recommend reading this book, either the online version of the 1921 edition linked above, or a used copy of the Birren edition.

Up next in the reading list, a book from Faber Birren about color, compiled from his exhaustive research on the subject. I’ve been looking forward to reading The Story of Color, and I think it will make for a good read over the holidays.


Here’s wishing all of you lots of color and light this holiday season!   

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