G is for Grey

Silver Sands

Recently, greys have been a little baffling for me. Grey has always been a mix of black and white, but for anyone who has been looking at colour theory, as I have, will discover that the theory says that if you mix complementary colours (those opposite on the colour wheel) you will get a grey.

This is news to me. I’d always considered those colours to be browns, often very useful browns, but the literature says they are greys (or grays if you prefer the traditional American spelling).

So which are the true greys? Well, apparently, according to Wikipedia, up until the 19th century greys were made simply by mixing black and white, as in my original assumption. But in the early 19th century Paynes Grey was introduced into the market. Paynes Grey, named after the watercolour artist, William Payne, is a blue-grey (and wonderful to work with).

My tube of Paynes Grey is a mixture of Ultramarine and black pigments. So, doesn’t that make it a shade of blue? (Tints are pure colour with white added, shades are pure colour with black added.)

And then there is the issue of cool and warm greys, even if it is only a mix of black and white. None of our black pigments are pure black since black denotes the absense of colour, as is the fact we have no pure white as white is the presence of all colour. So each of the pigments we mix with have a bias. Some of the blacks, in particular, shift towards the warmer yellow or the cooler blue of the spectrum, so when they are mixed to create greys, the resultant colour reflects that.

So perhaps, ultimately, a true definition of grey would be to say they are colours of extremely low saturation – absence of colour – that can be both shaded and tinted. They are outside the colour spectrum because they are only derivatives, more a lack of colour than a colour in itself.

And this leads me to some more colour theory as the correct name for traditional pigment colour mixing is Subtractive colour mixing (as opposed to Additive which resides int he realm of physics and light). When you mix colours you lose some of their brilliance, some of their saturation as the pigments interact to create secondary and tertiary colours. Ultimately adding all the colour wheel together will create a ‘black’ (whereas adding all the colour wheel in Additive mixing creates white – look at your TV, that uses Additive to make the picture). That black is ultimately a grey.

So where to draw the line between a brown and a grey? I don’t think there is a physical line using this theory. If you add black or white to tint the pure pigment, perhaps they are greys. But then through that definition pink is a grey, or light green or even light brown. Paynes grey is defined as a grey, yet is is only dark blue.

Perhaps if you add both black and white to a pure colour?

I do not know. But I do know that greys can be very useful.

Rembrandt - 'Self portrait with plumed beret'

Rembrandt – ‘Self portrait with plumed beret’ – Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Rembrandt used a very low saturated palette. I’ve been looking at his work recently due to my current Piece a Week and art class subject, as I’ve always adored his use of light. How interested was I to discover that his light often came from greys. A quote from Wikipedia…

Grey was a particularly good background color for gold and for skin tones. It became the most common background for the portraits of Rembrandt Van Rijn and for many of the paintings of El Greco, who used it to highlight the faces and constumes of the central figures. The palette of Rembrandt was composed almost entirely of somber colors. He composed his warm greys out of black pigments made from charcoal or burnt animal bones, mixed with lead white or a white made of lime, which he warmed with a little red lake color from cochineal or madder. In one painting, the portrait of Margaretha de Geer (1661), one part of a grey wall in the background is painted with a layer of dark brown over a layer of orange, red, and yellow earths, mixed with ivory black and some lead white. Over this he put an additional layer of glaze made of mixture of blue smalt, red ochre, and yellow lake. Using these ingredients and many others, he made greys which had, according to art historian Philip Ball, “an incredible subtlety of pigmentation.”.The warm, dark and rich greys and browns served to emphasize the golden light on the faces in the paintings.

And in a discussion of greys, we cannot miss mentioning one of the most important and often the first tool of the modern day artist – graphite (which also starts with G :D).


Graphite – Image courtesy of Wikipedia

This is the stuff your ‘lead’ pencils are made from (wrapped in wood). The first use of graphite was around 4000BC in Europe, but it wasn’t really used as a drawing utensil until about the mid-16th century when a large deposit was discovered in Cumbria, England. They used it to mark sheep.

Graphite has had a number of names throughout history including lead, plumbago and blacklead and this has created a fountain of confusion. The name ‘graphite’  – writing stone – was first coined in 1789, but the misnomers continue.

Modern day pencils use a mix of graphite and clay for their ‘leads’. Most of the graphite now comes from China.

And here I will end my babble as my children are very quiet and that is always disturbing, so I must investigate what they are up to. G is a little late (I have an art assignment due tonight so it has been a mad rush), H will follow hopefully soon.

Best wishes,

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