Spotlight on Grey: The Versatile Neutral

Grey (or gray in the American spelling) is a neutral colour between black and white. It represents a neutrality and gives rise to the saying “it’s a grey area” or “a shade of grey”, to indicate when a situation or object is unclear, or in between.

In painterly terms, there are many shades of grey, each giving a more subtle shift in tone than black. Historically, until the 19th century, artists made their greys using a mix of black and white, plus a dash of red for a warm tone, or blue for a cool tone. Grey can also be made by mixing complementary colours together (orange and blue, green and red, or yellow and purple), or by mixing all three primary colours (red, yellow and blue). Although grey is sometimes called an “achromatic” colour, meaning “free of colour”, mixing colours in an unequal amount will add a hue to the grey making it a “chromatic” grey.

The colour grey has been used throughout art history. The technique grisaille relies on it. Here the background and outlines of a painting are composed in grey and white and the colours then applied on top, with the under layer giving a helpful shading effect. Rembrandt, an expert at mixing a wide variety of greys, used this technique for many of his portraits. Another artist known for his use of grey was James McNeill Whistler, who mixed a very particular grey for the background of his 1871 painting Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, best known as Whistler’s Mother. Whistler’s extensive grey tonal subtleties went on to directly influence the French composer Claude Debussy’s 1899 musical composition Nocturnes, of which he wrote: “an experiment in the different combinations that can be obtained from one colour – what a study in grey would be in painting”.

You’ll find a wide range of greys across the Winsor & Newton range, designed to complement greys mixed on the palette and techniques used by artists such as Rembrandt and Whistler. Here’s an overview:

Payne’s Grey was created in the early 19th century by William Payne, a British watercolourist and art teacher, who would recommend it to his students as an alternative to the more intense black paint, which made it easier to mix the right shade. It is a dark blue grey, made from a mixture of ultramarine and black or ultramarine and sienna.

Davy’s Gray is a soft grey colour that traditionally includes powdered slate pigments. It is a transparent grey with a greenish tinge and was developed by Winsor & Newton for the 19th century English artist Henry Davy, a pupil of famous watercolourist JS Cotman.

Neutral Tint is a soft grey black pigment. It is an opaque watercolour with staining properties. Lots of experiments were carried out to find different formulations of this tone.

Charcoal Grey, as the name suggests, is made from ground charcoal. It is a dark grey oil colour.

Silver is a unique colour which, due to its unusual combination of pigments, creates a metal sheen closely resembling that of silver.

Pewter is a unique silver-grey oil colour which is semi-opaque. Due to its unusual combination of pigments, it creates a metal sheen closely resembling that of pewter.

Graphite Grey is made of graphite. It is a stable all-round opaque grey colour with a very soft or subtle metallic grey finish.