The color gray is often associated with neutrality, boredom, and old age. Being a "boring" color may be why only a few people have gray as their favorite color.
As an artist, it's important to understand this neutral color, how it's used in the past until today, what it means and the different emotions it evokes, as well as its different shades, and how to produce them.
This article aims to help you do just that.
A Brief History of the Color Gray
Unlike black and white, gray saw its earliest use in fashion and art during Medieval times. During this period, gray was the color of undyed wool and was thus the color worn by peasants and poor folk. Gray robes were also worn by Cistercian monks and friars of the Franciscan and Capuchin orders as a symbol of their vows of humility and poverty.
Gray began to play an important part during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. During this time, black became the most favored color among European nobles while grey and white harmonized with it.
It was also during the Renaissance and Baroque periods that gray was frequently used for drawings in oil paintings through a technique called grisaille. The painting would first be composed in gray and white to act as shading underneath the transparent color glazes that were added on top.
The painters Rembrandt and El Greco also favored gray as a background color for its ability to complement gold and skin tones.
Gray continued to be a fashionable color in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly for women's dresses and men's waistcoats. Soldiers' uniforms were usually gray during this time as the color made the soldiers less conspicuous targets.
Also around the 18th and 19th centuries, painters like Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot used tones of gray to create memorable paintings. James McNeill Whistler even created a special type of gray for the background of his famous painting of his mother.
In the 1930s, gray became the color of war and industrialization. Pablo Picasso used the color profusely in his painting depicting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, Guernica.
After the war, the gray business suit became a metaphor for uniformity of thought as popularized by the book and film The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.
Gray Colors: Psychology and Meaning
Gray is a relatively newer color, at least when compared to its parent colors. That said, it has nonetheless gained various associations and symbolic meanings through the centuries.
Earlier associations for this color link it to old age, dullness, depression, and loss.
If gray could be described in one word, it would be "neutral". This color is neither hot nor cold, neither material nor spiritual.
Because of its neutral color, gray is considered too weak to be considered masculine but also too menacing to be considered feminine. It's this characteristic that's made gray one of the least favored colors in Europe and the USA.
It's the color gray's neutral tone that also lets us associate it with balance, compromise, and intellect.
Shades of Gray
The color gray has not only gained popularity, purpose, and meaning through the centuries but also variations.
When it comes to the number of gray shades, we may have to leave that one up for debate.
While there are actually 101 shades according to X Window System's definition of grey, the human eye can usually differentiate just 30 shades.
Here are just a few of them:
Gainsboro is a pale tone greenish gray.
It was included as one of the X11 color names, before its standardization as a web color.
2. Spanish Gray
Spanish gray is a medium gray color. This color was gris (gray) in the Guía de coloraciones (Guide to colorations) by Rosa Gallego and Juan Carlos Sanz, a popular Hispanophone color dictionary published in 2005.
3. Davy's Gray
Davy's gray is characterized by its dark gray color.
This pigment was made from powdered slate, iron oxide, and carbon black named after Henry Davy.
Xanadu is a moderate green gray color. This color's name is derived from the Philodendron, a large genus of flowering plants in the family Aracea.
5. Stone Gray
Stone gray is characterized by its light grayish-olive color.
This color is part of the list of RAL Classic colors from the RAL color standard. Stone gray is the main color on the Indian 500-rupee note.
Marengo can be a shade of gray (black with a tinge of gray) as well as a shade of blue. It's often the color to describe wet asphalt.
Taupe is a dark grayish-yellowish brown.
This color was referenced in the 1930 book A Dictionary of Color, the world standard for color terms before the invention of computers.
Modifying Gray Acrylic Paints
Now that you have a deeper understanding of the color gray and some of its shades, it's time to learn how to make some of your own. As artists, we usually look for the right shade of color to really make our painting pop.
If you don't happen to have the exact shade you need, here's how you can modify your gray acrylic paint to achieve your desired shade. Being the most neutral color, gray is one of the easiest to modify.
How to Create Warmer Shades of Gray
To create a warmer shade of gray, you can either mix a warmer black and warmer white or mix gray with some brown.
How to Create Cooler Gray Shades
Conversely, you can create a cooler shade of gray by mixing a cooler black and cooler white or mix gray with some blue.
Use Gray to Mute Other Colors
Being the most neutral color, you can mix gray with other colors to make a more muted shade without necessarily altering its brightness.