Is The Munsell Color Matching System The Best System For Painters?

THE SHORT ANSWER IS NO.

Color Matching is the key here; a few Realist painters adhere to the Munsell system to match colors.

Practitioners of Munsell use his ten basic hues: Yellow (Y), Yellow Green (G-Y), Green (G), Blue-Green (B-G), Blue (B), Purple-Blue (P-B), Purple (P), Red-Purple (R-P), Red (R), and Yellow-Red (Y-R). Lighting and darkening with white and black.

Munsell divides the color wheel into five, ten, or twenty hues, (expanded to forty in 1940). The result provides an excellent system for the optical organization of color. It provides a scientific objective approach to color as opposed to a subjective Artistic one.

What is considered the first true artist color wheel was developed by Moses Harris in 1766. Moses invented the CMYK/RGB color wheel. One can clearly the CMY; Cyan, (Prussian Blue), Magenta, Yellow, and the RGB; Reddish Orange, Green, and Bluish Violet.

Harris’s RGB consists of a Reddish Orange, Green, and Violet Blue. All of these vintage color wheels use the verbiage Red, Yellow, and Blue but the pigments they had available then are nothing like the ones we have today.
The hues Harris refers to as Reds were Madders, Oranges were Vermilion and Prussian Blue (cyan). (Synthetic Ultramarine was not invented yet)

These are the Moses Harris Reds, Yellows, and Blues. Note the Magenta Wild English Poppies.

The dyes used in the pigments came from the what is depicted in the colored plate. The Blue Flower is the Centuarea cyanus or Cornflower and produced the Blue Violet in the RGB. Yellows from Butterflies and Greens from insects.

This really makes the point that the RYB color wheels we use today are nothing like the originals from which they where derived. When they refer to these vintage color wheels and using Red, Yellow, and Blue primaries they should be referring to them as using Magenta, Yellow, and Cyan.

Much of the information was lifted from https://designblog.rietveldacademie.nl/?p=26674 you will find a very in-depth discussion of this topic on that blog.

If Magenta, Yellow, and Cyan are the correct Primaries and not Red, Yellow, and Blue where did we go wrong?

It started with Michel Eugène Chevreul the Granddaddy of Red and Green complementaries. In 1864 Chevreul became director of the Gobelin tapestry works, task with updating their color array.. The result was his 48 segment Optical Color Wheel.

Optical is the key distinction here because these colors were meant to be combined by ones eyes not pigments. Mixing complementary pigments together from color wheels never ends well.

Optical Color Wheels Mixing Color Wheels Are Two Different Animals

Here is a modern version of the Moses Harris Prismatic Color Wheel. It is made up of six primaries: (Yellow, Red-Orange), (Magenta, Violet-Blue), (Cyan, and Green); it combines the minus or subtractive CMY with the plus or additive RGB. The painter requires six primaries instead of Munsell’s five because they need a warm and cool of each hue to account for color bias.

If one tries to mix complementaries with the Munsell color wheel or any color wheel for that matter the result is ‘merde de canard.’

Notable books we recommend on color are James Gurney’s ‘COLOR and LIGHT’ and Todd Casey’s recently published ‘The OIL PAINTERS COLOR HANDBOOK‘ they are both excellent books with two different focuses.

James Gurney’s color theory mirrors that of J. A. H. Hatt. In Hatt’s book ‘The Colorist’ he states on the cover “This Book Is Designed To Correct The Commonly Held Theory That Red, Yellow, And Blue Are The Primary Colors, And To Supply The Much Needed Easy Method Of Determining Color Harmony.”

Note that the Minus Colors and Plus Colors are equal distances apart they have been corrected from the Visual Color Wheel to create a pigment oriented Mixing Color Wheel.

Todd has developed a palette based partly on Michael Aviano’s Red, Yellow, and Blue primary color wheel. It illustrates that he does not mix complementaries and that his neutrals are convenience hues.

It becomes an individual decision which color wheel one uses as long as one is not trying to mix complementaries to create neutrals, which is never recommended.

Is The Munsell Color Matching System The Best System For Painters? THE LONG ANSWER IS NO AS WELL.

With the money one saves by not taking the and in-person two-week Munsell course for several thousand dollars and buying the grossly overpriced Munsell book for a couple of grand one can buy hundreds of tubes of paint.

Learning to mix color only takes eight hours on-line or in-person with a qualified instructor.

One should obtain hand-painted color charts from Artist-Grade paint manufacturers and use them as a guide; their Chemist’s have already done the heavy lifting. Many of the single pigment hues and mixes already have Munsell notations and all of the tints, tones, and shades are much more vivid than those produced with the Munsell shading system.

Munsell mainly adds black and white to change the chroma and value of a hue.

Paint manufacturers mix hues with other hues to make them lighter or darker. It make a yellow darker they mix it with a darker yellow with the same bias. It does not take a genius to figure out which colors are going to be more vibrant.

Munsell is not really a color mixing system it is a color matching system. To mix color the essential things for artists to understand are Color Bias and Simultaneous Contrast.

Understanding a Colors Bias is critical in learning how to mix color. For example, one does not get a bright Green mixing Blue and Yellow; the most brilliant greens combine Green Shade Blues with Green Shade Yellows. Colors have to relate or lean toward each other on the color wheel.

The American Impressionist painter Frank Vincent DuMond (1865 -1951) developed the Prismatic Palette which largely solves the problem of Color Bias via temperature. The Prismatic Palette has a warm and cool of each primary. My palette array has a warm and cool of six primaries plus a corresponding earth modifier; giving me eighteen as a starting point.

Use your hand-painted color charts to judge a color’s bias. (which way it leans.) Good charts show a graduation from masstone to undertone; the undertone is where one sees the color bias.

Paul Centore has done a great job with Munsell notations for all the major pastel brands which come in hundreds of colors and hits all of the Munsell color notes. Making Munsell more useful for pastelist then oil painters. His book is also affordable and he has lots of free information on line.

About 20 years ago, we used Paul Centore’s information to divide up all of our pastel sets into the 40-plus Munsell Hue Classifications. Once completed, it was awe-inspiring, but in the end, it proved useless because following a ‘System’ is not in my wheelhouse.

The link below contains a wealth of information about Munsell.

Note Colorwell.org is still putting the Munsell Notations together for different brands, unfortunately it may have abandoned for lack of interest.

It appears that the use of the Munsell System by artists has been grossly exaggerated. The nature of Art is subjective, intuitive and inventive, which goes against the grain of Systems and Formulae which are objective and empirical.

Simply put, Munsell provides a recipe for color and Artists’ do not follow recipes.

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