I’m truly in a bit of a gray mood today. It’s still very cold here and will be cold for the foreseeable future. We haven’t seen much of the sun lately, so it’s definitely a gray day, and I guess that has affected my mood. That’s quite appropriate because as part of my 100-day “creative adventure”, today I’m learning all about gray.
Before I began studying art, gray was nothing more than a neutral color, one mixed by combining black and white. Simple, right?
Let me share with you now one of my favorite childhood jokes. It tells of a little boy coming home after the second day of school. He shakes his head and says he’s never going back. When asked why, he explains that his new teacher doesn’t know what she’s talking about. “Yesterday she told us that two plus two equals four. Today she says that three plus one equals four. I’m not going back until she makes up her mind!”
Now, back to gray and to the simple equation that black and white equals gray.
True enough, but it’s not really quite so simple, and as I began learning more about gray, I began to feel much like the confused little boy. Gray is gray, isn’t it? Well, no. It’s not. “Gray” can cover a wide range, and the idea of having 50 shades of gray — or more — is beginning to seem quite possible.
For starters, we have warm grays and cool grays.
Yeah. Right. But if gray is made from black and white, where do these different gray temperatures come from? Here’s a hint. White is known as a “pure” color. It can’t be mixed from any other hues. Got it? Yep, the answer is that the differences from one gray to another come from the black used in mixing.
Many artists refuse to keep black paint on their palettes. I’m not one of them. I have a tube of ivory black. I don’t use it as a color so much, though. I use black mainly to make other colors darker. I love deep, dark greens, and rich, dark blues.
As for using black to mix with white and make gray… well, sad to say, I seem to have a tendency to naturally create muddy grays in my paintings without even trying. That said, it seemed odd this morning for me to go to my easel, get out canvas paper, paints, and brushes, and set about deliberately making gray.
Another consideration with gray that goes slightly beyond the concept of warm grays versus cool grays is the fact that grays can be tinged with colors. We often speak of a “rose gray” or a “blue gray”, and sure enough we can have a “yellow gray”, and from this point on, to be blunt about it, we can end up with a big mess, and as I played at my easel I was starting to feel my brain going “poof” — a result of too much information, too many different ideas, too many different equations when it came to making gray.
First, let’s go back to black and begin there. Black — should we choose to make it ourselves — is generally a dark blue — such as Prussian blue or ultramarine — mixed with a reddish earth tone, usually burnt umber or burnt sienna. Of course, if you browse around a bit, you’ll come up with many different theories and formulas for mixing the perfect black.
Recently I shared the word achromatic, meaning without color. It’s opposite is chromatic meaning with color, and all of these different methods of mixing black paint result in what’s known as a chromatic black. In The Art Tutor and Chromatic Black, Jim Meaders has this to say:
When a chromatic black is added to white, you get some beautiful grays. If these grays are too blue for you, simply add a little more of the earth color to the original mixture, which will make the grays look grayer.
After reading about grays in all their glorious variety, I grabbed a sheet of canvas practice paper, picked up a brush, and began making a bit of gray on my own. The gray I most preferred took me right back to where I began — black and white. I used my ivory black and my titanium white, and I came up with what I considered to be a very lovely shade of gray.
Yet as a dutiful student of art, I went through the exercise of creating my own grays, working from simple primaries. I made streaks of different grays here and there. Honestly, I wasn’t overly impressed with any of them, but they have their place in art, of course.
- Warm grays can be used to paint shadows of “warm-colored” objects, especially those in the foreground.
- Cool grays, conversely, can be used for “cool-colored” objects, especially those at a distance.
NOTE: As I’ve continued my studies, I’ve learned that this information is inaccurate. The temperature of shadows is determined by the temperature of the light source, and it is inverse! What this means is that a warm light source will produce cool shadows, and a cool light source will create warm shadows.
I WILL HAVE ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ABOUT THIS COMING UP IN FUTURE POSTS.
One note of interest I should include is that creating a “yellow-gray” tends to lead to green. Because most blacks — and most tube grays — are made with a blue base, adding yellow creates a very greenish color. Many artists keep Payne’s Gray on their palette for precisely that purpose.
Payne’s Gray is named after William Payne, a watercolor artist in the late 1700’s. His original mixture for gray was Prussian blue, yellow ochre, and crimson lake. Today, however, Payne’s Gray is generally made from ultramarine and burnt sienna, and I would assume, added “pure” white.
So, we’re right back to that same basic black mix, and the question is why would we buy a tube gray when we can make the same thing? Good question, and just as many artists refuse to keep or use “tube blacks” many also avoid any “tube grays”. Others, however, as mentioned before, use Payne’s Gray to easily mix lovely greens. Some artists purchase tube grays simply for convenience, of course.
When all was said and done and I’d finished playing with my paints, I have to say my thoughts on gray were relatively unchanged. I like convenience. I like having tubes of black and white in my oil paint bin. I like the results when I mix them to make my own gray.
So then, to give myself a sense of purpose with my morning’s paint playtime, I turned my little streaks of gray into a painting of sorts, adding more clouds, and then using darker shades to create a sort of “silhouette” just to give the sky a bit of context.
I guess one lesson learned here is that even “gray days” have a bit of color if we’re willing to look. Rose gray, blue gray, even yellow-greenish grays are all part of our world. It’s not necessarily black, white, and shades of gray, really. There are beautiful colors there, hidden among the clouds.