Old Color Spaces

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The Munsell System

Brief Bio

Albert H. Munsell lived from 1858-1918 in Boston, MA. He attended Massachusetts Normal Art School (now Massachusetts College of Art), where he later became a member of the faculty. Although the color system he began developing is widely used by scientists and artists alike, Munsell did not consider himself a scientist. He was a trained painter frustrated with the lack of color descriptions and a systematic color scheme. Munsell began developing his color system when he was a teaching aid for color composition students. As the system became more advanced, Munsell was able to share his color distinction system with well-respected scientists and engineers around Boston. He published “A Color Notation” in 1905, which described his system so far. Munsell wanted his system to be used in a broad sense, rather than only in science and art. His goal was to use it to teach concepts of color to primary school students. Unfortunately, Munsell’s health began to decline in 1914 and he passed away in Boston in 1918 at the age of 60. After his death, Dorothy Nickerson (who first worked as secretary to Munsell’s son) worked to adapt the Munsell Color System. The charts could finally be put to widespread use 30 years after Munsell died. (Landa)

The System

The Munsell system is now the most widely used and accepted color system. All other color systems that arise are compared to the Munsell System, which has come to be known as the standard color system. The system builds on the guiding principle of equal visual perception. This is the idea that we all perceive colors differently, but the system accounts for any small discrepancies based on comparison to a grayscale, assuming the eyes seek the balance of grayscale (Evans). The system is able to describe all possible colors in terms of three coordinates: 1. Munsell Hue: the quality of a color described at red, yellow, blue and so on 2. Munsell Value: the place where a color falls in terms of lightness when compared to a scale of grays from white to black 3. Munsell Chroma: the degree of difference between a color and a gray of the same value. The Munsell Book of Color is a compilation of color samples, usually arranged in pages of a book, or on a color “tree.” The Munsell Value is vertical in a display and the Munsell Chroma is horizontal. The scale of grays can be considered the “trunk” of the color tree, going from white on top to black on the bottom. (pictures) Each sample has a Munsell Notation, which tells us its position on the tree. The notation consists of three symbols that represent Munsell Hue, Munsell Value, and Munsell Chroma. (picture) The Munsell System is the most accepted color system because colors are not limited to the samples shown, whereas other color systems are. Any color that can be conceived will fit into the Munsell System. (Billmeyer and Saltzman)

Common Color Spaces

A color space is a three-dimensional concept, in that it considers hue, value, and chroma. The most commonly used color spaces are hue based. These include RGB (red, green, blue), RYB (red, yellow, blue), and CMY (cyan, magenta, yellow).

Color circles.png

The left circle was developed by Johannes Itten; it is a circle of the primary colors. The primary colors are still taught in art schools and classes today using this circle. The circle on the right is used today in computer graphics. The additive primary colors of this circle (red, green, and blue) produce white light when added together on a computer. The subtractive primaries (cyan, magenta, and yellow) are the complementary colors on the circle. When they’re added on the computer, they produce black, or the absence of color. When comparing the two circles, we can see that they contradict each other. The circle on the left suggests that red and green are complementary to each other, but in the circle on the right, they are both primary. This example shows that color can be subjective, “the perception of color is inexact, culturally influenced, and personal” (Evans).