Color Lovers: Don't Be Afraid of Grey

Color! That’s why we’re all here, right? Love of those fresh tubes of paint. Those bright reds, yellows, and blues. There’s nothing quite like opening up a new set of paints. With all that color, who needs gray? Isn’t the whole point of color to avoid greys?

But hold on. Greys might be the special sauce you need for your painting.

Play Nice

Mixed media artist Anne Bagby, Pattern & Form: Advanced Collage Techniques, uses greys for two reasons. The first, Bagby says, “You cannot make very pretty paper with Golden paint right out of the tube.” s

What Bagby means is that Golden paints (and professional paints in general) are all extremely bright (saturated) in their natural form. That can cause trouble for layering artists. At the end of the day, without greys potentially, you have very intense colors screaming at each other.

The solution Bagby has found is to grey them down.


Not only does grey calm the color down a bit but “grey is the magic mix that make your colors go together,” says Bagby. When she mixes her professional paints with grey (a mixture of white and black), she makes sure all of the colors she uses in her papers naturally go together before she even starts.

Mixing Colorful Greys

Watercolorist Sue Archer, Commanding Color, approaches the power of grey from a different angle. First she discourages her students from using tube black for creating their grays.

“I find this gives a very dirty look to the colors,” says Archer.

Archer mixes her greys by using opposite colors on the color wheel. “I enjoy the look of mixing with opposites on the color wheel and arriving at several different greys,” says Archer. “A warm grey and a cool grey from the same tube of pigments.”


In her workshop, she shows you how to take cobalt blue and add its opposite color, burnt sienna, to create a warm grey (more burnt sienna than cobalt)  and a cool grey (more cobalt than burnt sienna.) You can do this with any color by finding its opposite and using it to mix a warm and cool gray.

Why Mixing Grays Matters

Once you know how to mix greys, not only will your grays be more colorful, you can use those greys to make other colors bounce.

The trick is to bring in opposites. If you want your red roses to really pop from the page, mix a green grey (red’s opposite)  and use it in your background. If you want your yellow bananas to bounce more, mix a greyed purple (yellow’s opposite) and use it behind them.

Greys can actually work as the magic ingredient to make your colors seem more colorful.

How do you use greys? Where in your current paintings do you think greys could add bounce?

Try this at home!

Mixed media artists, try mixing your professional paints with grey (mixed through white and black) and make a few backgrounds using your favorite techniques.

Watercolor, oil and acrylic painters: Try adding a greyed opposite behind your focal point to see if you can get it to bounce even more.

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