Close this search box.

Munsell Part 1 –
Looking on

The Munsell Book of Colour & The Brown Coffee Pot

I am so pleased you are looking at my latest Blog. 

For those of you who don’t paint, I hope seeing this will fire your interest and deepen your questioning enjoyment of looking at paintings.

For those of you who do paint – where are you in this extraordinary place of painting with its mythical Muse?

I am dividing the subject into two parts. This Part 1 is setting the scene. Part 2 is the practical one – it’ll follow soon – and is very full of colour.

The Book – Gloss Chips and All

I first saw the Munsell Book when I was studying in Florence.  One of the other students had a copy and was using it for their still life project.  I have to confess I rather ‘took against’ it as we were receiving such intense and fascinating instruction that one needed no other point of reference during this time.

“Don’t mix methods”

This was one of the pieces of advice we were given.  It is one of those phrases that seemed to float in the air like specks of dust, not because they were of little value but because they glittered illusively with potential meaning and importance but were not part of the direction we were being given at that particular time while working on a particular piece of work.


Angel colour mixing – grew gradually from: 

  • The study of monochrome values (one year) 
  • to grisaille and very limited ‘palettes’ with one palette used for i calchi / the gesso casts and another for the life model (another year and a half) 
  • Still life projects when we choose new specific colours to paint the objects and arrangements we had chosen.
A very reduced palette
a few extra good additions

Does this give an idea of the slowness with which progress was taken?

I had hoped for this – the reality is wonderful but also . . . well difficult.

But it is the slowness I want to try to emphasise as it gave habits as well as great understanding. And most of all a place to return to when too many things are getting out of hand.

When it comes to working on one’s own there are many pitfalls and many mistakes to make. Seeing what the problems are and finding ways of solving them is a challenge. 

One of the main ones is being in a hurry.

Keeping on working when you need to stop for a while can be another.

Asking emotional questions – yet another. We don’t have paint tubes of happiness, or sadness or canvases that ask . . .

“Do you like me?”

Just good old values and shapes

Making progress creating forms

A Grisaille Still Life in progress

Why get the Munsell Book?

As you can see in this photograph the Book is made up as a ring binder. There are 40 pages containing close to 1600 small chips inserted into small envelopes and arranged with remarkable subtle ranges of variations. For use, the individual chips can be removed and returned easily as they are marked with a letter and figure notation on the reverse . There are a lot of facts and figures – suffice to say that leafing through the pages you will find every colour you will need.

Some of the neutrals

Working in my studio on my own, I was finding myself searching for the right colours in each painting.  I keep to the Angel palette which I find familiar and trust with its range of harmonious earth colours.  These run along the top of my palette.  To the left, come the joyful cadmiums and other welcome additions, greens, blues, yellows as needed.

With each painting I explore the colours I need to mix, and jot down the combinations in a small notebook – so I can re-mix easily and with some certainty


I never felt certain enough that the colours were just right. They appeared to be constantly shifting, which is natural. It is caused by the way we physically see the spectrum of light falling on things and bouncing off them.  


Which doesn’t help when you are trying to establish a few reliable colours for a particular ‘thing’.


Trying to get the colour right is fine in its place but as a constant question it is a distraction.  Always asking questions, never being sure . . . 


I had backed myself into a Corner – reached an impasse – a dead end – just wasn’t enjoying myself – I wasn’t loving to paint at all!


I am a founder member of Threads Artist Community.  Artist Paul Foxton originated and crafts this terrific Online Community wonderfully well with instructional webinars on blogging, painting skills and group calls.  He uses the Munsell system a lot, it is central to his practice and he clearly finds it an inspiration and invaluable tool.


I thought I may buy the book but it was always OUT OF STOCK.  So I didn’t.


Then one day earlier this summer I wrote to X-rite Pantone asking when the book would return IN STOCK . . . I hardly need to fill in the rest of this . . . the day I took the plunge . . .  the box arriving and in my studio . . .   the day I opened the box (keeping all the wrapping so I could return it) . . . I had two paintings to finish . . .  I finished them . . .  I began another . . . 


. . . I opened the book . . . .

See Part 2 for the hows, the ‘hammers and nails’, the brushes and palettes and . . . some paintings . . and the Brown Coffee Pot