Atlas of the Munsell Color System (1915)

Before publishing his Atlas in 1915, painter and art teacher Albert Henry Munsell (1858–1918) had spent decades seeking to compress the totality of human color experience into a simple and elegant three-dimensional graphical model. In 1879, after reading physicist Ogden Rood’s Modern Chromatics, he devised a pair of twirling triangular color pyramids joined at the base. In 1898, he painted a child’s globe in subtly shifting shades, only to find that the globe’s perfect symmetry could not sufficiently map the differences in strength — which he called “chroma” — between colors or “hues”. By 1905, in his A Color Notation, Munsell had moved to a tree as model, since its unequal length branches could accommodate different hues, chroma, and “value”, the third axis of his system, which ran vertically from the pure white crown of the tree to its pure black roots.

In the Atlas, the Color Tree and Color Sphere give way to cross-sectional charts by which the user is meant to imaginatively assemble a “realistic” system of alphanumeric notation. Each individual color square represents the intersection of hue, value, and chroma, denoted by a three-part code. Munsell’s system turned Vermilion into “5R4/10” — “5R” denoted the fifth step in the red scale (R as one of five color initials); “4” denoted the fourth step in the value scale, and “10” indicated that the color had the maximum chroma/strength. Vermilion’s complementary color, Viridian, was expressed as BG4/5.

Besides “Red”, “Yellow”, Green”, “Blue”, and “Purple” — Munsell’s five principal hues, which overturned the prevailing dogma of three “primary” colors (red/yellow/blue) — “Vermilion” and “Viridian” are the only two specific color names that appear in the Atlas. Indeed, Munsell’s motivation for creating his system lay largely in his animus against the mushrooming chromatic vocabulary impelled by the fin-de-siècle commercial expansion of colors employed in advertising, manufacturing, fashion, and home décor. “Baby blue, peacock blue, Nile green, apple green, lemon yellow, straw yellow, rose pink, heliotrope, royal purple, Magenta, Solferino, plum, and automobile”, protested Munsell, “are popular terms, conveying different ideas to different persons and utterly failing to define colors.” Munsell envisioned a system akin to musical notation, which conveyed a sound’s pitch, intensity, and duration “without dragging in loose allusions to the endlessly varying sounds of nature”.

Colour chart by MunsellScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Munsell was hardly alone in this initiative: Milton Bradley’s Color Wheel (1893) earned the toymaker a place on the Smithsonian Institution committee formed to devise a new system of color naming for scientific purposes; ornithologist Robert Ridgway sought a standardized system of color in his campaign to promote amateur natural history practice; drawing on Goethe’s color theories, Rudolf Steiner developed a spiritual scientific phenomenology of color; and painter Emily Noyes Vanderpoel created a color manual “to classify the study of color in individual eyes, in light, in history, and in nature”.

None of these color crusaders were as evangelical as Munsell, who closely chronicled his two-decade-long quest for an “objective” color terminology and grammar across six journal volumes. Presenting his system to hundreds of artists, educators, scientists, and businesspeople, Munsell constantly encountered the objection, “Why should the old Red-Yellow-Blue system be given up?” Munsell was adamant that this commonplace three-pigment theory was harmful to children, who were led to believe that red was the complement of green, yellow the complement of purple, and blue the complement of orange — all of which, he thought, were untrue. The spectrometer or photometer showed that each pigment reflects nearly the entire spectrum, a part of it in enough excess that the eye recognizes only this dominant hue. Munsell found the explosion of commercial color photography and printing disturbing due to its reliance on R-Y-B, complaining that “like the crash of a brass band, there sprang up great billboards in red, yellow, and blue, with their chromatic shrieks for Harvard Beer, Hunter’s Rye, and Gorton’s Codfish.”

Boston-bred Munsell’s chromatic snobbery exposes the main limitation of his and other attempts at color systematization, for perhaps more fundamentally than any other attribute of Nature, color will ever be a matter of “each to his own”, rather than the province of scientific certainty.

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