Grey matter: a colour story of the old and new

Grey might be understated, as the neutral hue between black and white, and neutral – a ‘grey area’ dictates being in-between. But it is also wise and ancient – consider the ‘little grey cells’ of the brain or the stonework of ancient civilisations. It’s modest, as in the uniforms of England’s grey friars. And yet grey is also the shade used for polished, sleek interiors and architecture of the 21st century.

We chronicle the versatility and cultural impact of grey; the colour that manages to capture both the old and new.  

Built to last

When we think of ancient structures from long-lost civilisations that have stood the test of time, we don’t immediately think of the colour grey. But it is there in the best of them: the dry-stone walls of Peru’s Machu Picchu; England’s mysterious standing stones we know as Stonehenge; Borobudur’s andesite stones in Central Java, Indonesia. In countless ancient civilisations, grey-hued rocks and stones were carved into homes, religious monuments and eventually entire cities. Where ochre and chalk were soft and malleable, grey rocks and minerals were sturdy, permanent and tough. Colour expert and Executive Director at Pantone, Leatrice Eiseman says that, ‘The greys represent solid strength and longevity, an association stemming from the colour of granite and gravel, stone, slate and rock; of ancient monuments, pillars and temples that have withstood the ravages of time and technology.’


Heaven's Army (uploader at EN.Wikipedia), CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


A grey area

The phrases ‘grey area’ or ‘in the grey’ are used to describe an ambiguous or undefined situation. Because grey sits between the opposing clarity of black and white, it is often seen as a neutral colour. Despite grey’s connotations with impartiality and its subtlety, the colour has made its way into the phraseology of many languages. In pagan beliefs the colour grey represents neutrality and stability – ‘grey magic’ is known as a neutral form of spiritual power that lies between the honourable ‘white magic’ and the evil ‘black magic’. The intentions of grey magic are neither to do good or to cause harm. 

Grey is also associated with intellect. The Cambridge Dictionary describes the term ‘grey matter’, when relating to the anatomy, as ‘the darker tissue containing nerve fibres (= structures like threads) found in the brain and spinal cord’. As an informal idiom, however, it says it relates to ‘a person's intelligence: “It's not the sort of film that stimulates the grey matter much.”’ Writer Agatha Christie’s well-loved fictional detective Hercule Poirot popularised the phrase ‘little grey cells’. This refers to the detective’s psychological deductions that he considers more useful than simple logic or physical clues in order to solve crimes. Poirot says: ‘It is the brain, the little grey cells on which one must rely. One must seek the truth within – not without.’ Even the newspaper, The New York Times, is referred to as ‘The Grey Lady’ because of its densely packed words and highly esteemed opinion in the world of journalism.

Light and shade

Grisaille is a technique usually made up of entirely grey shades, both in oil paintings and glass works such as stained glass windows. In oil paintings, artists would paint in grey and white, and then add thin transparent glazes over the top. Grisaille was popular with 15th-century Flemish painters, which can be observed in the top outer sections of brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, believed to have been completed in 1432. To achieve the grisaille technique, you need to combine water with pulverized white vitreous enamel to create a paste. This is then mixed with turpentine and oil of lavender or petroleum, and then applied to a black enamel ground. Next, thicker paint is added to the light sections and thinner coats to the dark background colour to create a grey. Because of the effect of light and shade that this creates, the intended effect is a three-dimensional relief of carved stone and the illusion of sculpture.  


Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Jan van Eyck, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Grey was also commonly used by artists such as Rembrandt and El Greco for shading, highlighting, backgrounds and skin tones. This tended to be a combination of black and white pigment, such as lead white and ivory black, along with other colours to add warmth or cool the palette. It was as recently as the early 19th century that a solid grey pigment became available to artists. Payne’s Grey is a dark blue-grey made from a mixture of Ultramarine, Mars Black and sometimes Crimson. It was named after 18th-century watercolourist William Payne who invented the colour.  


A colour for the poor

Before wool was dyed, its raw state was often grey. Its accessibility and inexpensiveness meant that it was worn by the poorer classes throughout the Middle Ages. Because of these associations, monks opted to wear grey robes and sackcloths as a sign of humility, such as Franciscan friars and monks of the Cisterian order, and Taoist and Buddhist priests in China, Japan and Korea. In Christian faiths grey robes are often worn during times of fasting such as Lent.  

In 19th century France, grey clothing came to represent a very different role in society. Many working-class women employed in factories and workshops were given cheap grey clothes to wear, earning them the name ‘grisettes’, which stems from the French word for grey – ‘gris’. The Dictionnaire de l'Académie française described a grisette as ‘a woman of lowly condition’ in 1694. The notion of a grisette then developed, and by the 1835 edition of the dictionary, it meant ‘a young working woman who is coquettish and flirtatious’. This had further connotations, where the name grisette was colloquially given to low-class Parisian sex workers who frequented the bohemian scene, showcased in characters in literature such as Fantine in Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Misérables.  

Lewis Sergeant, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Achille Devéria, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By the 20th century, grey became a common colour for military uniforms, such as the stone-grey regalia of the German army. Other European nations soon followed suit, along with the American Confederate Army during the Civil War. By this time a transition to grey from reds, blues and greens meant that there was a greater ability to blend into the environment now that longer-range weapons were in use. After both World War I and II grey became a popular colour in men’s fashion, particularly in suits, symbolising post-war conformity. This was popularised by famous actors such as Gregory Peck and Cary Grant in films such as 1956’s The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. Grey was still worn for its subtlety, but it had become ubiquitous in the textiles of the modern world.  


The rise of grey 

By the late 20th century and 21st century, grey transformed into a contemporary, futuristic shade. A colour that meant slick and high-tech in chrome and stainless steel, and featured in paint and glasswork in everything from skyscrapers to home interiors. As design became more pared back, the neutrality of grey grew in popularity. More and more cars have been made in shades of grey, and it’s also one of the most common colours chosen to furnish home spaces in recent years. 


Raphael Isla, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


In 2020, a blog post written by Cath Sleeman on behalf of the Science Museum Group reviewed findings from a research experiment that used computer vision to analyse colour pixels in photographs spanning the 1800s to 2020. Over 7,000 samples were taken from five British museums and fell into classifications such as photographic technology and domestic appliances. The outcome was that where browns and yellows were once popular colours, a dark charcoal grey has become dominant. The article states that: ‘The most notable trend, in both the chart and the video, is the rise in grey over time. This is matched by a decline in brown and yellow. These trends likely reflect changes in materials, such as the move away from wood and towards plastic.’ The post sparked a discussion about the absence of colour in the designs of recent years on Tiktok, where users uploaded videos to examine the subject. One user noted that there has been ‘a disappearance of color variety everywhere in the world’. 

Grey might sometimes be overlooked, but its impact is everywhere. It has been a colour that sits between the opposites of black and white, and a colour of opposites in itself: humility versus promiscuity; wisdom and longevity versus sleek and ultramodern. Grey might blend into the background, but no matter its existing connotations, it is forever present. 

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