Color is a difficult thing to get your arms around. In fact I think one could spend a whole lifetime trying to understand this facet of art and become proficient in only a miniscule percentage of the approximately three million degrees of color difference that the untrained human visual cortex could distinguish easily. On the canvas, getting the right overall value of a particular hue such that the harmony of the whole remains preserved is rendered even more difficult given the reality that most oil paint companies make a maximum of about 60 unique hues of differing chromaticity. As I trudge through the long stairwell leading to my color nirvana, I have realized that there are two ways of approaching and understanding it. The approach is a bit dichotomous, but it seems to serve me well.

I use two different schemes when it comes to color, the theoretical and the practical.
My theoretical cap comes on when I want to think about a hue, its tint or shade and its relationship to other hues in the color continuum. The practical dominates when I am holed up in the basement busy with a painting.

A useful way to think about color and relationships is the visualization of the Munsell color cylinder. I tend not to use the traditional color wheel as it does a poor job of letting you visualize the colors when presented in a continuum that we see around us in nature (plus I think it has outlived its usefulness a long time ago – again just my view). Without going into too much detail (you would find details of the Munsell scheme in the ever useful 1966 essay (“Color, Paint and present day painting” in Artforum) by Walter Darby Bannard), here is a brief overview of the color cylinder.

The Munsell cylinder is an extrusion of a modified color wheel consisting of five principal hues (no primaries in Munsell) with the circumference of the cylinder marked off with specific divisions of these hues, their intermediates and visual complementaries.


A little schematic that I prepared to understand the scheme sometime back.

The long axis of the cylinder specifies the value of the hue (specifically the lightness or darkness of the hue with a value of 0 at the bottom denoting black and a value of 10 at the top of the cylinder denoting white). In order to denote the saturation or the degree of intensity of a hue in this space, Munsell makes use of a superellipsoidal surface to model this cylinder to accommodate for the fact that some colors could have higher orders of saturation than others. Hence what we end up with is an elegant continuously-variable-radius cylinder that enables us to precisely locate and visualize naturally perceived color.


A vertical slice from the cylinder. Note the reds becoming pinks as we travel up the value scale in the cylinder. Note that the reason for the ‘bulge’ in the ellipsoid is due to higher numerical values on the chroma axis around the middle – so indicative of the natural world. Illustration ripped from the Munsell book.

Of course, it is rare that theory approximates practice. The Munsell superellipsoid cylinder does a poor job of telling you how exactly it is that you mix colors to attain a particular value or how it is that you adjust degrees of intensity to attain required levels of chromaticity. Oil paint being a little bit of a finicky medium makes this problem especially confounding. Oftentimes, I get a nice ‘mud’ color whenever I try and creatively mix paints to achieve a certain desired effect on the canvas. I try and attain a level of insight by obtaining a tube of paint that closely approximates the final mixed color combination that I would like on the canvas with minimal mixing. Of course, like I mentioned earlier, there are only so many unique hues of tubes of paint that I can choose from to get to where I want.

Given the practical difficulties combined with the little time that I have for my painting, I use a little bit of a simplified color scheme in many of my paintings that consists of what I might call a ‘reduced palette set’. As of now, I have managed to stabilize upon two sets of reduced palettes that get me to where I want in the final illustration. A reduced palette set in my view is the deliberate use of a small number of colors that will help you comfortably achieve the desired values and intensities for the hues used for the painting. Bear in mind that this might be a bit formulaic, but each painter can get to where they need to and find ‘reduced palette sets’ that could enhance their individual styles.

I have experimented with two sets (it takes about a year to study all the nuances that come with a particular subset of colors, but it is well worth the effort).

The first set is the one that I use for high-contrast-high-value paintings. Used to develop moods of melancholy in the subjects sometimes, while at other times a serious dourness.


Sunil Gangadharan, ‘The inquiries never seem to subside’, Oil and gesso on masonite, 40″ X 48″, 2007 (painted from picture of a cancer patient getting ready to die)

The reduced palette set consists of the following:
– Raw Umber
– Burnt sienna
– Cadmium yellow deep
– Lemon yellow
– Yellow ochre
– Cadmium red deep
– Flake white
– Alizarin crimson

Most of the shades and tints can be comfortably achieved by minimal mixing with white or Mars black as the case for the value level appropriate for the area in the painting. Of course, blending the transitions between colors on the canvas also helps develop additional harmonies.

The second reduced palette set I have been working on (of late) is the one I developed for lower value paintings that help develop a mood of bathos and nostalgia.


Sunil Gangadharan, ‘Rasa’, Oil and gesso on masonite, 40″ X 48″, 2007 

The reduced palette set here is as follows:
– Ivory Black
– Titanium White
– Indian red
– Raw umber
– Burnt sienna

In a self portrait I had done recently, I decided to venture into the viridians and blues, but decided that I was not experienced enough to sally forth.

The reduced palette helps me put to the canvas what I can theoretically visualize using the Munsell color space described. For me, it is a happy marriage of practicality mixed with the necessary visualizations needed.

How do you visualize color? Do you use any similar color schemes in your paintings and photographs?