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, blue for a cool tone. Grey can also be made by mixing complementary colours together (orange + blue, green + red or yellow + purple), or by mixing all three primary colours together (red, yellow, 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, the colours then applied on top, and the underlayer 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: