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Rational Color Theory

Rational Color Theory

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Demystifying color theory, Graydon Parrish introduces students to Albert Henry Munsell’s concepts.

By Louise B. Hafesh

This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of Magazine.

You don’t have to be an artist to experience frustration in trying to capture a particular color. The task is difficult enough when trying to match the color of a room’s walls. Attempting to get the colors right on a painting, with variations of value, hue and intensity, just adds to the complexity. Even experienced artists are sometimes left scratching their heads. That’s why Graydon Parrish’s workshops based on Albert Henry Munsell’s color theory are so valued by his students.

Parrish, a realist painter in the classical tradition, has for many years resolutely researched the color theories of painter Albert Henry Munsell (1858–1918), the creator of a color system based on rigorous studies of how we perceive color. Now in the forefront of adapting Munsell’s scientific concepts for use in painting, Parrish offers an annual workshop on the topic at the Grand Central Academy of Art in New York City. Last summer Parrish introduced 15 eager participants to the practical use of this unique, numeric system for accurately describing every color that exists.

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Munsell’s color theory is complicated, heady stuff, to say the least, but after three weeks of intensive study under Parrish’s guidance, each student had completed a complex series of color-mixing and painting exercises and came away with an arsenal of workable solutions for identifying color by its dimensions of value, hue and chroma.

Parrish set the tone on the first day by announcing that the workshop would be a collaboration: “We, as a class, represent a variety of levels and artistic experiences,” he explained, “so I would like to treat the next three weeks as a lab and encourage everyone to work at his own pace—but also to share with the class any new ideas uncovered as we progress.” With that in mind, he met privately with each student to determine his or her skill set, tailor a personal curriculum and designate homogeneous groups—ensuring that each artist would be adequately challenged.

Finding Value in the Mix

Stressing the importance of a clear understanding of color theory, Parrish explained, “Painting is only convincing to the extent that it can communicate. It’s important to be able to identify and duplicate values accurately because values contribute up to 80 percent of a painting’s effectiveness and will guarantee you a convincing illusion of truth.” The other two key elements he addressed were hue, which is the actual color or pigment (red, yellow, blue, etc.), and chroma, which refers to the intensity or saturation of a color. Intense or saturated color has a high chroma; grayed-down colors have a lower chroma.

“When mixing colors using the Munsell system, you begin by deciding on the correct value—the lightness or darkness of a color,” said Parrish, who demonstrated by creating a neutral gray progression to match printed color samples culled from the class’s working bible, Munsell Book of Color, a two-volume binder with 1,605 removable glossy chips.

Each student then made three pools of color: a blend of titanium white (W) and ivory black (B), W and burnt umber (BU) and W and raw umber (RU). Using color specification sheets and sample chips as guides, students mixed and matched these pigments in varying degrees to create a 9.5 value string ranging from dark or 0.5 (pure black) to 9.5 or light (pure white). This value string was transferred to a wooden paint stirrer for personal reference (A).

Color-Coding Made Simple

Parrish addressed the notations students would be using to identify and accurately log their individual recipes. “For charting value, the numbers range from zero (darkest) to 10 (lightest),” he pointed out. “Chroma uses a 16-step sequence that’s based on the amount of gray existent. And since adding gray to a color progressively neutralizes its hue, lower numbers indicate more gray; high chroma and higher numbers indicate less gray (B and C).”

By way of example, 7.5YR/2 is understood to be a combination yellow-red color with a value of 7.5 and a chroma of 2. Once this nomenclature and concept were understood, one could see light bulbs turning on as students began to comprehend the practical value of limiting guesswork when attempting to re-create color accurately in their works.

Graydon Parrish Matches a Fleshtone

Likening the Munsell method to a GPS system for finding the right color, Parrish then walked his class through a technique for ascertaining skin tones, using a student as model (D). “Many things in nature are, in fact, lower in chroma (intensity) than we think, particularly flesh, which is typically a very low-chroma orange,” he explained as he chose a paint chip that was reasonably close to his subject’s skin color. “Average fleshtone occupies a very narrow range on the color wheel, generally between 7.5 R and 7.5 YR chromas 2-6” (a red to yellow-red color with an intensity range between 2 and 6 on a scale of 16). “Luckily, common colors such as yellow ochre, burnt umber, black, white and permanent alizarin crimson fall within this gamut,” he continued. “For average flesh, those areas that aren’t red or tanned, one needs a yellow component, a red component and something to lower the chroma if it’s too high. Mixing each component to the desired value before adjusting the hue and chroma results in clean mixtures.” Students watched in awe as, in so demonstrating, Parrish produced a perfect skin-color match.

Plotting Color on the Munsell Wheel

“Many believe that color cannot be learned,” said Parrish as he set up the next assignment. “It’s nice to be intuitive, but it’s really nice to have a backup such as this system offers. It’s actually freeing to understand that through analysis, testing and practice, many aspects of color can be learned and even mastered.”

With that bit of good news, students spent the next few days creating a Munsell color wheel on a gray-toned 18×18 canvas. For this task, they plotted circles of basic hues: yellow, green, blue, red and purple; and intermediate ones such as: green-yellow, yellow-red, blue-green, purple-blue, red-purple (E).

Victoria Herrera, the class monitor and an advanced student at Grand Central Academy of Art, gave her take on this exercise, which she claimed helped her understand the limits of chroma in oil paint. “The color wheel relates common pigments such as yellow ochre, alizarin crimson and cobalt blue to their corresponding hues,” she said. “For example, many people think that tubed alizarin is a purple-red, when in fact it falls in the middle chroma range of what one might call primary red.” Above all, after making a color wheel, relationships become clearer and determining what to mix goes from guesswork to certainty.”

Tackling the Illusion of Three-Dimensions

After creating the color wheel, advanced students worked on specific assignments while the remainder of the class began painting spheres, a task that proved to be much harder than it looked, especially since the intent was to depict with two-dimensional paint a three-dimensional object in light. Dividing a gray-toned canvas into nine sections and setting up for each study a plastic ball painted to match a specific color chip, students mixed strings for value, color and chroma. Spheres in the first row were painted in neutrals, using local color in dark, medium and light values. Spheres in the second row were painted in flesh tones, using yellow-red in low, medium and high chroma. The spheres in the last row were painted in three different high-chroma hues (yellow, red and blue). (F, G, H, I)

“Moving gradually from one value to another molds form, and the only thing that turns form is value,” advised Parrish, as students wrestled with making painted spheres appear to be floating in space. “Painting spheres helps us to re-examine double curvature,” he said. “They represent extreme modeling of form, rendering a range from shadow to halftone to light.”

Emphasizing the rendering of geometric solids, particularly the sphere, Parrish explained that when one understands color both visually and conceptually—both flat and in three dimensions—one quickly realizes that there’s an unlimited number of ways to approach modeling and design. To that end, the class studied values and how they can be predicted, ways of creating neutrals, and the concept of chroma (intensity), a rarely understood aspect of color.

Taking Munsell to the Next Level

Advanced students worked on studies that had a demonstrable effect on resolving issues they’d identified within their own work. Artist Marge Grinnell was assigned to paint paper strips to match three colored chips based on the dominant locals (colors as seen in real life) of an apple. She and Victoria Herrera were studying light and shadow and their effects on value and chroma. “The objective,” says Parrish, “was for both students to notice color change and to take a complex subject and make it simple.” (J and K)

Having completed the course previously, Sam Worley was charged with painting an actual still life (L). His challenge was to use limited color range—one reference page in the Munsell book—altering only chroma and value of a yellow-red hue. The goal was to help Worley see how much variety he could get by painting in this restricted way. The exercise also offered him greater compositional control with color.

By the course’s end, the class members were no longer intimidated by color’s complexities. They were beginning to understand the concepts of the system and even test themselves with greater tasks. Summing up the weeks of hard work and study, Parrish says, “The Munsell process demystifies mixing color. Placing color in the realm of fact and reason makes color choices deliberate—and thus makes finding and correcting color mistakes easier. Art, after all, is hard enough without creating additional problems for ourselves.”

About Graydon Parrish

Exposed to academic figurative painting through his parents, who were avid collectors of American and European 19th-century art, Parrish knew early in life that he wanted to be an artist. He was accepted to the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas and thereafter began serious study in the ateliers of Michael Aviano and Richard Lack. After graduating from Amherst College in Massachusetts, Parrish took a position as an art-historical researcher for the catalogue raisonné on William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Introduced to the theories of Albert Munsell by his mentor Michael Aviano, Parrish has since shaped these color concepts to fit traditional painting methods. A realist painter, he has work in the New Britain Museum of American Art (Connecticut), the Tyler Museum of Art (Texas), the Austin Museum of Art (Texas) and private collections throughout the United States and Europe. Visit his website at

Louise B. Hafesh is an award-winning artist and writer, and a contributing editor for Magazine. You can see examples of her work at and

This article originally appeared in the April, 2011 issue of Magazine. Click here to order a subscription.

You might also enjoy viewing a preview of the ArtistsNetwork.TV video Creating Confident Color With Nita Leland.

Watch the video: Colour Theory: The Truth About The Colour Wheel (August 2022).