Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Color Theory

If you are interested in color theory and enjoy jigsaw puzzles where all the shapes are the same, you might like The New Munsell (R) Student Color Set (2nd ed.).1 Robin Edmundson first introduced me to the wonders of The New Munsell (R) Student Color Set (2nd ed.) at a Bloomington Quilters Guild meeting where she lectured on color in the textile arts.2 To put it on the spectrum of books on color theory, The New Munsell (R) Student Color Set (2nd ed.) is more accessible than Josef Albers' Interaction of Color (though it is fun and I would definitely recommend it for advanced students of color or once you've got this Munsell (R) thing down pat). The New Munsell (R) Student Color Set (2nd ed.) is more technical than Deb Menz's Color Works: The Crafter's Guide to Color, another great resource recommended by Robin Edmundson.3 If you're not ready to dive in with two feet, if the sticker shock on the Munsell (R) is a bit much, or you want to keep your focus on fabric arts and not be distracted by references to painting or other studio arts, Deb Menz's Color Works might be the way to go. But if you think "color tetrads, duh," then maybe you need to move on to the Munsell (R) or the Albers.

The New Munsell (R) Student Color Set (2nd ed.) is one tool to help you understand color. Now, there's a certain approach to color that would look at this and scoff, "There are so many colors in the rainbow. Use every one!" Well, yes, but what if you use every one and still think it looks like poo? OR what if you're trying to play with color in a different way, perhaps pushing yourself beyond, "this looks pretty with that"? Not that "this looks pretty with that" isn't a perfectly viable approach to color. It certainly is. But if you're looking for a means of expanding your color vocabulary or you seek a more systematic approach to color, The New Munsell (R) Student Color Set (2nd ed.) might just be for you.

One of the most fun aspects of The New Munsell (R) Student Color Set (2nd ed.) is the charts. At the end of the first chapter one of the exercises is to apply the color chips to the color charts. Yes, your book comes incomplete. You get to fill in the blanks. Handily they provide little packets labeled by hue (see the first picture at the top of this post). Inside a packet is a tiny book of color chips in that hue (see picture at left). Now, The New Munsell (R) Student Color Set (2nd ed.) is designed for undergraduate art students, so the instructions are for the most part extremely detailed and need no supplement.

However, for those of us playing along at home, without a professor or classmates to double check our work or to suggest work-arounds, I thought I might provide a little more detail about the process I used to complete my color charts. The book recommends some pretty impressive adhesive options which are not readily available, so I tested an alternative: Scotch Restickable Glue Stick. I found it at Staples or some Staples analog. If you apply one coat, let that dry a little (maybe 30 seconds), then apply a second coat, let that dry a little (maybe 30 seconds), it basically turns anything paper into a Post-It Note. The restickability is important in this application because in later exercises you move the chips around, which would be hard if they were permanently stuck to a chart. But before you go transforming all of your color chips into Post-It chips, read on.

As instructed, I first completed my Hue Value/Chroma chart, which appears at left. This chart is handy on a number of levels, not the least of which is using the red row, which illustrates chroma, as a starting point when arranging the 5R (a.k.a. red) chart. Additionally, its handy color wheel helps you pick out which of the chips in any packet is the highest chroma hue. Finally, you can line your lowest chroma chips up along the value chips on the Hue Value/Chroma chart to figure out your first column, as shown on the left side of the third picture from the top.

To double check that your colors are in the correct order on your hue chart you can use the front and back pages, which are medium gray, to isolate each row and each column. By isolating a column you can check the value progression within that chroma and any chip from a different chroma would stand out. By isolating a row you can check the chroma progression within that value and any chip from a different value would stand out. And using the medium gray paper helps you to see the value of each chip compared to the adjacent chip rather than compared to a pure white background.

Before getting all glue crazy, label the back of your chips with the chart they belong to and whatever other information you have that might help you get it back where it belongs when it inevitably becomes misplaced. For example, in the picture to the left you can see the backs of all the chips from the 5R chart. Know how I can tell? In the bottom right corner I wrote "5R" on each and every one with a black ball point pen. The closest chip in the picture belongs in the sixth row in the second column of the 5R chart. Know how I can tell? In the top left corner I wrote "6/2" which in Munsell (R) notation means it has a value of six and a chroma of two. Once you've labeled all your chips for one chart, go ahead and apply your restickable adhesive of choice and apply them to the chart.

This is my completed 5R (a.k.a. red) chart. The New Munsell (R) Student Color Set (2nd ed.) doesn't specify the order in which you should complete the hue charts, but please allow me to make two suggestions. First, as I stated above, the Hue Value/Chroma chart is handy because its row illustrating chroma is the 4/ row of the Hue 5R chart. So if you do the 5R chart second after the Hue Value/Chroma chart you can just match your chips to that row and you've got one row in order and you know exactly which row it belongs in. This seems like no big deal, but it really is like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that are all the same size when you tip out 30 of these chips. So if you've got seven of those chips pinned down, the rest fall into place more easily. Second, I would recommend completing the hue charts in order around the color wheel. I found that, particularly in the lowest chroma column, the chips for the adjacent hues, like from red to red-purple, almost matched exactly, which reinforces the importance of labeling your chips, but also makes arranging the chips easier than if you hopped around the color wheel, say from red to blue-green.

Back to the Color Theory Index.

1. I linked to Amazon solely because they have lots of information and reviews about the book. Presently The New Munsell (R) Student Color Set (2nd ed.) appears to be out of stock. Moreover, I received my copy from Amazon and the 3-ring binder was broken. They were quite prompt with a replacement, but that binder was also broken in exactly the same way, so I suspect either Amazon is storing them poorly or Fairchild is manufacturing them poorly. This would be no big deal if it weren't for the fact that the size of the pages and the spacing of the holes for the binder rings appears to be unique to The New Munsell (R) Student Color Set, or at least very rare. I have resorted to placing each page into an 81/2x11" page protector and placing them in a standard 3-ring binder. This actually seems like a perfectly good plan for the sheets to which I have affixed color chips, so the chips won't wander far if they become unaffixed. But for the 73 pieces of paper which comprise the 138 pages of text and 4 pages of color plates, it seems to be a bit much.(back)

2. Robin Edmundson was a very good instructor and I highly recommend taking a class with her. She teaches in Bloomington at Yarns Unlimited and at the Waldron Arts Center. I actually signed up for her class at the Waldron last fall, but apparently I was the only one. That class was scheduled to meet for six sessions. Here's the class description:

Using color effectively in your art can be one of the most satisfying or frustrating parts of the creative process. Here is a chance to learn the basics of color theory and color harmonies and then apply it to projects right away. We will discuss color descriptors, simultaneous contrast, metamerism, primary colors, color mixing, proportion, and many ways to combine colors harmoniously. Participants will learn to use several different types of color tools and put together their own Color Notebook illustrating many color harmonies. Participants are encouraged to do a project of their own each week illustrating a color harmony of their choice. Materials: Color tools such as: color wheel, Itten's Color Star, Pantone, etc. 3 ring binder, plastic sheet protectors, paper, tape/glue stick, scissors. Old magazines and catalogs to cut up. Recommended text: The New Munsell Student Color Set (available from Fairchild Publications - 1.800.932.4724.
Her specialties are dying, spinning, and weaving, but she did great with a quilting audience, so if you're looking for a quilt guild program, you should definitely invite her.(back)

3. Robin Edmundson also recommended Johannes Itten's Color Star, which is a particular type of color wheel as far as I could tell, and Color by Accident by Ann Johnston, which focuses particularly on dyeing. I briefly perused both of these after the guild lecture and settled on Deb Menz's Color Works as my "if I can't persuade anyone to buy The New Munsell (R) Student Color Set (2nd ed.) for my birthday, this will do nicely" choice. But if you're into dyeing, I think Color by Accident might be preferable to Color Works.(back)

P.S. This post is dedicated to Bob, who gave me The New Munsell (R) Student Color Set despite its outrageous price tag. I love you, man.

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Rebecca said...

I know nothing about color theory, so this may be a dumb question. Why is the completed color chart left with empty spaces? It seems like you could certainly have colors that continue on all the rows (except maybe the bottom, which looks pretty much like black). Do those colors show up on another chart? Do the charts fit together?

Bob said...

So I've got another question for ya. Computer graphics (and 4-color printing) are based on the idea that you can get any color by getting the right mix of three colors. That seems to me to kinda be a trick: Instead of giving off the wavelength of light you want, you're giving off three different wavelengths that just happen to excite the receptors of the eye the same way as the wavelength you're imitating.

Now if you've only got three kinds of receptors in your eye, is this trick really exactly as good as the real thing? Would bugs or something with different kinds of eye receptors think we were all colorblind and crazy?

(I might be making this up, but I think you have approximately _four_ kinds of receptors: cones of three different varieties for color, and rods that are black-and-white.)

Thalia said...

As far as I remember from Back in the Day, we have a couple kinds of receptors... rods (black and white, great for contrast, crappy at night) and cones (color). The color processing we (people) do I think happens with two systems: red/green and blue/yellow. (So, most people who are colorblind are red/green colorblind, but still see blue and yellow hues.)

But I think you are right, Bob, Totally Awesome Gifting Brother, in that since these color cards are pigment based, rather than light-based, other animals may see them quite differently.

Thalia said...

I totally stated part of that backward... cones, crappy at night, rods, much better... but a lot of the photoreceptors in the fovea (our visual center of focus and best acuity) are cones... which means that seeing things at night may work better if you don't look *directly* at something.

Bob said...

Word to the indirect night vision thing -- one of the trippier features of amateur astronomy is that you can see stuff by not looking at it, and when you try to look at it, it "disappears".

Between that and the general late-night disorientation, it's a pretty trippy "science". :)

So, I just looked up on Wikipedia, and it turns out that there is a recently discovered sort of photoreceptor, other than rods and cones. So there's one other type, which is apparently very exciting because no one's discovered much new in eyes in a long time.

(This is distinct for tetrachromatism, which some fish and possibly some women have. Do a wiki search on "tetrachromacy", but you'll just want to go read all the neat details under "color blindness". Have I mentioned wikipedia is awesome?)