Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Munsell color system, value

  • The core of the color space is represented here as a central pillar. It is without chroma and represents values. Value is the degree of lightness or darkness in a note. At the bottom of the core is the darkest value and at its top, the lightest. Remember, last night I said that the notes become graver as they approach the core. Here is that core, rising through the diagram like a central pillar.
So the third characteristic of a color note is value. If I know three things about a color I can place it within the color space of the Munsell system. They are;
  • Hue, the name of the color, its color family.
  • Chroma, the intensity or saturation) of the color, ie. how intensely or gravely colored is it?
  • Value, the degree of lightness or darkness.
By applying these criteria I can identify and "name" any color. I can now write down a formula for a color ( not something I would do, but if I were in industry I might). I can repeatedly regenerate a certain color, say if I was formulating colors for a wallpaper or recording soil samples by color (something that it is actually used for) or specify a certain color without having to provide a color chip to be matched.

As a painter, that is not where its usefulness lies for me. There are artists who study the Munsell system and use it to build their color schemes, but I am not one of them.The reason the system is valuable to me is as a logic for matching the colors in nature before me, or effectively inventing a color that I need for some purpose. When I mix color on the palette I use the three criterion in the Munsell system to obtain my note. Here is how that sounds in my head;

  • What hue is it? Gee it is a yellow. Which yellow on my palette looks like the note in nature? Is it my warm yellow or the cool one? I guess it looks the most like my cadmium yellow, so I will lay out a dollop of that on my palette.
  • It looks as if the note in nature is greener than that so I will add a little blue. Ultramarine looks like it will do. So I add little ultramarine. Then I look back at the note in nature and ask myself "how is the note in nature different than what I have? Perhaps it is a little too colored? I need to drop the chroma a little.
  • I drop the chroma by adding a little red (or gray). I would choose a warm or a cool red depending on whether the note in nature is warmer or cooler than the one on my palette.
  • I decide to add a cool red so I throw a tiny bit of permanent alizarin into the note. That's a strong color so I have to do this very carefully or I will "blow the whole note out". That is overwhelm it with the powerful alizarin. I would then probably have to start over.
  • I look back at nature again and ask myself, "how is that note out there different from the note on my palette?" I decide that it is lighter in value, so I add a little white to my mixture. I look back at nature again and ask myself "have I got it?" If I can't discern a difference between the note on my palette and the note I am attempting to match, I am there.
This sounds like a lot of steps and questions, but I do it very rapidly, also the same notes appear in the landscape routinely and I know how I make them. I can almost do this without thinking now as it has become somewhat automatic. When I am teaching, people will ask me how I made a certain note and I will have no idea. I can mix it up again and it will probably be done the same way and then I can tell them.

I will cook up a demo for this mixing process soon, so you can see it done. It sounds a lot more complicated than it is. Mixing color accurately is a skill than can be learned, but needs to be in the painters set of learned abilities. With an adequate palette you should be able to mix any color you can see. There are some colors that are outside the range of traditional pigments that can only be matched with some of the most modern pigments, but you won't run into them often unless you paint in the clothing section of Sears. There are some odd colors that are hard to hit but most often a close approximation will convince the viewer, when you can't hit a note exactly .

There are however values in nature that you can't get, often the sky is so much brighter than your white paint straight out of the tube, that you can only give the "look" of that brightness. Again like with the oddball colors I mentioned before, that is usually enough. There are ways to make the sky look brighter than you can actually paint it, but that is another post.

3 comments: said...

Hi Stapleton. Yes, if I take Indian Yellow and add it to cadmium yellow, it becomes more yellow. I am not kidding. now maybe we are not talking about the same thing but when you add white to the Indian yellow/ cad yellow mixture, the mixture holds up as a more yellow yellow.

Cadmium yellow is not the same as pure yellow light, though it's the closest us painters have to that that light to paint with but it's still artificial and is made with a pigment not with light so it's not as elemental as one would think. It varies.

Anyway moving on...when I am mixing a difficult color, I also ask myself similar questions and if I answer myself out loud and I hear myself give the answers it seems much easier to get them right.

Todd Bonita said...

Color is difficult to teach...this is as clear as I've heard it, well done Stape.
In your example of you mixing color, you mention that in order to lessen the chroma of the green color you were observing in nature, you add red or gray. I get that if you add the opposite (complimentary) of green (which is Red), it makes it graver. When and / or why would you mix a grey instead of its complimentary? I sometimes do both but I'm honestly not clear as to when one method is better than the other..,I sort of just mix instinctively.

Aliye Cullu said...

Thank you, Stapleton. I learned the Munsell system in color theory class, and have used it to best of my ability as a plein-air painter. I appreciate your sharing your thought process while mixing paints. I like your work very much!
Happy painting~
Aliye Cullu