What Makes a Colour

Professor Albert Munsell (1858–1918), America’s greatest colourist, wrote that:

“Music is equipped with a system by which it defines each sound in terms of its pitch, intensity, and duration… So should color be supplied with an appropriate system, based on the hue, value, and chroma of our sensations, and not attempting to describe them by the indefinite and varying colors of natural objects.”

Munsell went on to invent a colour system that is now recognised as the standard colour notation. It is used globally in areas as varied as art, business, science, government and education.

The Munsell system allows every colour to be identified ‘three dimensionally’, according to three elements, hue, value and chroma.


Hue is the element by which we distinguish one colour from another, having black, white or grey mixed with it. The unique pure spectrum colours are red, yellow, blue, orange, violet and green.

Technically, colours that have been mixed from pure hues are hues. The colorDNA colour system uses the 12 hue categories of the colour wheel.


The value of a colour is the element by which we distinguish its lightness or darkness. If a colour is dark or heavy (it contains more black), then its value is low. If a colour is light (it contains more white), then its value is high.


Chroma is a measure of a colour’s purity, saturation or brilliance. The brighter and more vivid a colour is, the higher its chroma. The duller and more muted a colour is, the lower its chroma. A colour becomes less pure with the addition of white, black, or a combination of white and black.

The Munsell Three-Dimensional Colour Tree

The 3D Colour Tree is a tactile representation of Munsell’s colour system and demonstrates how hue, value and chroma work as a colour system.

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