We recently received this question from a visualization major…
We use the New Munsell Student Color Set in our color theory course. In the chapter about color harmony, Munsell shows us a few 3-dimensional theories to create a balanced color palette, but unlike the other types of harmonious color balance, no examples are provided. Have these theories, such as the conical spiral, been made into compositions and palettes before? We asked Theresa-Marie Rhyne, an expert in the field, to give the answer.
When Albert Henry Munsell set out to create his color space in 1898, he was seeking a
system that had a meaningful notation of color that stepped beyond the use of color
names that he determined to be misleading. He organized colors by defining the
concepts of hue, value and chroma for an individual color, In Figure #1, we show a
diagram of the Hue, Value and Chroma attributes, adapted from Munsell’s original work.
Visualizing Color Attributes
It was Munsell’s hope that a three dimensional sphere could be developed from these
three attributes that would allow for cross sections that could be used in various ways
such as color harmony explorations. Munsell was able to create visually uniform
distances between colors due to his extensive testing of the human visual response to
color. Unfortunately, his studies indicated that it was not possible to create a three
dimensional color sphere due to unequal numbers of chroma values among hues. As
shown in Figure #2, one hue might have a total of 18 chroma values, while another
might have 6. As a result, Munsell abandoned the three dimensional sphere concept for
a Munsell Color Tree concept.
The Conical Spiral & Color Harmony
It is possible to use computer graphics rendering methods to create a three dimensional
conical spiral that connects the elements of the Munsell Color Tree into a surface. The
three dimensional conical spiral could certainly be sliced and diced to suggest color
relationships like color harmony. However, the original Munsell Color Order System
does not have defined mathematical relationships to specify the conical spiral surface
and thus support the accuracy of the color relationships. Since the Munsell Color Order
System is over one hundred years old, there is no doubt that someone has evolved their
own three dimensional conical spiral that is sliced and diced to present color
Thank you for the terrific question, Sincerely, Theresa-Marie Rhyne
About the Author
Theresa-Marie Rhyne is an expert in the field of computer-generated visualization and a consultant who specializes in applying artistic color theories to visualization and digital media.
She has consulted with the Stanford University Visualization Group on a color suggestion prototype system, the Center for Visualization at the University of California at Davis and the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute at the University of Utah on applying color theory to ensemble data visualization. She is the author of the book: “Applying Color Theory to Digital Media and Visualization” from CRC Press.