Language helps you to organize and make sense of the world. It gives you a way of communicating with others using words that represent something or mirror an experience. In most cultures one or two words is all it takes to describe most of the things you see. However, in order to organize color characteristics and communicate what you see to others, color needs to be identified: hue, value and chroma.
American color theorist Albert Munsell (1858-1918) was the first to use these terms to describe colors. Hue, value and chroma may sound scientific, but they are just technical terms for the way you talk about color everyday. For example, if you’ve ever described a color as light blue gray or deep dark green, you’ve expressed all three of these attributes of color.
Color Characteristics: HUE
Hue is the attribute of a wavelength of light that a person is able to see. Hue and color are often used synonymously, but hue refers more specifically to the colors of the visual spectrum — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. These hues, along with the six intermediate hues of red-orange, yellow-orange, blue-green, blue-violet, and red-violet, are the pure colors that circle the color wheel. These twelve hues can be blended to produce an untold number of colors.
Add black and white to the mix and you produce an even greater variety of colors. Blending black with a pure hue darkens it; conversely adding white lightens it. This changes the amount of light emanating from the color and also changes the color’s value.
Color Characteristics: VALUE
Value is the attribute that defines the lightness or darkness of a color in terms of how close it is to white or black. The lighter the color, the higher its value. For example, navy blue emits less light and has a lower value than sky blue. It is the change in value that gives you the ability to see objects as three-dimensional. Value also guides your perception of space. There are greater value differences between objects closer to you than those that are at a distance. As objects get further away they also appear to have lower chroma.
Color Characteristics: CHROMA
Chroma is the attribute that expresses the brightness or purity of a color. You may not be familiar with the word chroma, because it is often expressed as intensity or saturation. However, intensity and saturation are not exactly the same. Saturation measures the purity of a color in relation to grey. Intensity defines the brightness or dullness of a color. The human eye does not easily perceive the differences between intensity and saturation, thus the terms are often used interchangeably.
In its purest form a hue is at maximum chroma. The closer colors are to their pure hue the higher their chroma. High chroma colors are described as clear, pure, brilliant, bright, rich, bold, or vivid. Colors that are less intense or saturated are described as toned-down, soft, muted, subtle, misty, dull, drab or dusty.
Frequently we use color names as shorthand for describing the hue, value and chroma. For example cherry, tomato, raspberry, garnet, and ruby describe a variety of reds. Using color names can communicate the attributes of color in a general way, but are not precise because they can mean different things to different people.
When color must be communicated accurately, as is the case in manufacturing or printing, a system of specifications and notations is needed. Munsell created color standards based on visually uniform steps of hue, value and chroma. The ideas behind his simple and logical system may be even more important today than when he created it; as color uses and choices expand, so does the need to precisely communicate the attributes of color.