Mixing gray. What visual pops up in your head when I say the color “gray?” Which emotions surface and what thoughts?
Do you think of dreary rainy days or perhaps, a somber view of city smog? Or maybe the scene of a dried up forest or an image of professionals in gray suits? These images are not typically thought to be uplifting or energizing.
Some people may even wonder if it is a color for artists to be concerned about. Or, they may ask, “Isn’t it just a simple mixture of white and black?” When you go to mix gray, what is your strategy? Why should you care?
When I teach about the color gray, I am referring to those yummy near grays you can find in many paintings. Those restful places in a painting that still convey a color but a grayed down or neutralized, such as: gray-green, gray-blue, etc. Since black never ventures upon my palette and I use white as little as possible, one way I mix grays (spelling it grey is okay!), is by using only three primary colors. Did you notice all of the colorful grays in my painting “Beckoned Away,” above?
Our eyes need unsaturated (duller) colors or life would be too stimulating. Too many saturated colors make us feel bombarded or overwhelmed. Look around you now and imagine if everything were a saturated/intense red, yellow, green or blue? Now notice how many things or areas contain unsaturated colors.
There are a few ways to go about mixing gray. Many of the color opposite pairs can result in a gray-like color. Author/artist Jean Dobie explains another way, which is my preferred approach, to mix grays because the grays are rich in color. Dobie uses only transparent primary colors as described in her book “Making Color Sing”.
Directions for Mixing Gray with Primary Colors:
- Choose a red, blue and yellow from your box of paints.
- Recommended colors for watercolorists: Permanent Rose, Cobalt Blue & Aureolin
- Recommended colors for oil/acrylic/water mixable oil painters: Primary Red/Permanent Rose, Primary Yellow/Hansa Yellow Light, and Cobalt Blue, or your most true transparent primaries.
- Tip: Avoid thalo blues because they tend to be overpowering and make mixing difficult. Your ‘cool’ primary colors seem to work the best. I do not recommend using alizarin crimson as your red because it is a dull red. To read more about alizarin, venture over to my post: Could You Toss Your Alizarin Crimson?
- Begin creating a large quantity of black by mixing the three primaries you have chosen. It requires a bit of trial and error to achieve a black that is not too warm or too cool; or too red, yellow or blue. Have some scratch paper or canvas to test out your color. Use your knowledge of color opposites to achieve this result. This is great exercise in ‘seeing’ colors.
The image above, shows you the three primaries I used with my oil paints, and the black they produced in the long horizontal swatch. A swatch on the far right is mixed with a little white to show you a lifeless gray.
3. Now let’s turn this mixed black or neutral gray into a variety of colorful grays. Make sure you have a good amount of this mixture.
4. Begin by adding a little of your blue pigment to your black mixture and watch it become a blue-gray. You are adding the blue to the entire puddle of black. Next paint a square swatch of this first gray which will be a blue-gray. Paint a box with this blue-gray using a 1″ flat brush, leaving a 1″ center unpainted. See example below where I happen to be using watercolors. There is a reason for the white center. 🙂
5. Next add a little red to this blue-gray mixture. This transforms your mixture into a lavender-gray. Paint a square with this purple-gray. You can see mine below. It is the second square in the top row.
6. For your next gray, add still more red and you will have a soft, warm gray or a rose-gray. Paint a square of this yummy gray. Where might you use this rose-gray in your next painting?
7. Now add your yellow to produce an earth tone-gray (tan). Paint a square of this tan-gray. It might look something like the square you see on the far left in the second row.
Note: Each of us will create slightly different looking grays because of the primary colors we start out with. Do not try to match my examples exactly.
8. Create your next colorful gray by adding more yellow into the gray mixture and watch it become warmer. Paint a square of this yellow-gray.
9. For you final colorful gray, add more yellow plus blue and you have a green-gray. Paint a square of this gray.
You can see that each square is a different gray with a hint of color. By adding a little more of one color or less of another, you can mix the same three pigments in different ratios for endless variations of a mousy gray color. Are they not yummy? Where will you use one in your next painting? Which three primaries might you try using for another set of grays?
All the grays can be varied further by the different amounts of water or medium you use – producing lighter or darker grays.
This color mixing exercise can be challenging the first couple of times you try it. Stick with it and you will learn more about mixing colors.
Below is an example of mixing grays using oil paints. In this chart you can see the similar colorful grays though more opaque because of the medium. Are these not lovely colors?
Next Steps in Mixing Gray:
Now let’s return to the white square left in the center of each gray square. Each of them is just waiting for another color! For your center color, select a color that is a complement of the dominant color in each gray. If you choose a complement, the center color sparkles.
This is an example of painting the color opposite of the near gray in the center square, using watercolor. In other words, in the square of blue-gray I painted a saturated orange, because blue and orange are complementary colors. In the next, I painted yellow within the purple-gray and so forth.
The color gray is magical because it adds mystery to a painting, while giving the viewer places for their eyes to rest. Also, when placed strategically, a colorful gray can assist in making a more intense/saturated color really sing as you discovered in the exercise above. Mixing gray with the primaries you already using on your palette create more harmony throughout your painting; this adds to the magic and unity of your work. Hopefully you can see how mixing gray with black and white is not interesting or nearly as colorful.
Can you see how all of my green-grays and blue-grays in my painting “Beckoned Away,” above makes the red wine pop?
Want to learn more about mixing colors and how to use them? Consider my book “I Just Want to Paint: Mixing the Colors You Want!”