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Gray Watercolor

Gray Watercolor - It doesn’t sound very exciting, but the subtlety and power of Gray is often overlooked when we think of all the vibrant hues of watercolor paint available.


Vibrant colors sure do grab attention, but when a number of intense colors appear together, their impact can be lost and things become busy and confused. This is where a myriad of subtle grays can make all the difference. By providing a region of color relief, areas of Gray can be used to isolate and intensify colors, increasing their impact and clarity.

There are many options when it comes to mixing Grays. I find the most interesting Gray Watercolor mixtures come from using two complementaries. 

Gray Watercolor mixed from Permanent Rose and Phthalo Green
Gray Watercolor mixed from Permanent Rose and Phthalo Green

This painting was done entirely with Phthalo Green, Permanent Rose and White Gouache. It is interesting the subtle range of Greys available from such powerful colors. Pulling some of the Greys towards red and some towards green keeps the painting interesting.

Watercolor Painting using Grays mixed from Phthalo Green and Permanent Rose

This painting also uses a red/green combination, this time based on Permanent Rose and a more subtle green mixed from Phthalo Blue, Indian Yellow and a small amount of Alizarin to subdue the color. Keeping the warm and cool Greys in the water the same tonal value causes the animated shimmering effect.

Grey Watercolor Painting

Here again the Phthalo Green, Permanent Rose combination was used. The warm Gray sky in this painting has been mixed with White Gouache to give it a contrasting flat opacity. This gives vibrancy to the transparent washes in the rest of the painting and also pushes the sky back into the distance.

Gray Watercolor mixtures
Gray Watercolor mixed from Orange and Ultramarine

An Orange mixed from Indian Yellow and Permanent Alizarin Crimson was combined with French Ultramarine Blue to produce this range of Grays.




Grey watercolors mixed from Ultramarine Blue and Orange

Using this combination in the painting below keeps a tight color harmony in the warms of the focal point. Grays in the sky can then range from harmonious warms to contrasting cools and neutrals. The subdued colors in the Grey sky reinforce the warm colors of the focal point.

Grays mixed from Complementaries
Gray Watercolor mixed from Violet and Indian Yellow



A Violet made from French Ultramarine and Alizarin Crimson was mixed with the complementary color, Indian Yellow to produce this range of grays.



Greys mixed from complimentary colors violet and Yellow

The Yellows in the tree and bushes of the focal area are reinforced by the cool Greys in the sky and foreground which lean towards Violet. The simple gradations of the sky and foreground provide relief from the complexity of the busy focal area.

watercolor employing mixtures of Gray





This painting was done almost entirely with neutral Greys. The inclusion of a few cooler blue/greys, plus the contrasting darks, draw attention to the focal area. Increasing detail and complexity from the bottom of the painting to the top also encourages the eye up through the simple foreground to the area of detail. 

Watercolor sketch in Gray



To paint this old barn, a varied range of greys were used. The small punctuating areas of color are given much more power by their placement in this sea of Grey. The Greys come from various combinations of French Ultramarine Blue, Alizarin Crimson, and Indian Yellow. The stronger colors are also built around these three colors plus some Phthalo Green and Permanent Rose. The variation in the greys is only slight, but without it, the painting could become drab and uninteresting.

Subtle grays add impact to the colors in this watercolor



There are a number of pre mixed Greys available, but mixing your own from the colors you use in the painting will produce much more interesting Greys, and provide a better color harmony. Greys can be mixed on the palette then applied to the paper. They can also be created on the paper by over glazing. This will produce beautiful, translucent Greys, particularly if transparent pigments are used. Permanent Rose, Cobalt Blue and Aureolin are perfect for this. They can be applied, one layer at a time, allowed to dry between layers, then adjusted with subsequent layers until the desired color is achieved.

This foreground detail shows the beautiful, subtle greys possible by building up transparent glazes.

Greys made from transparent watercolor glazes

In this predominantly Grey sketch, the intensity of the reds in the focal area are given much more impact by pulling some of the Greys slightly towards green.

Watercolor Sketch using Grays leaning towards green to intensify the red focal point

It is easy to overlook the importance of Grey in a painting. It can provide relief and harmony and add intensity to the more saturated colors you use. It is well worth experimenting with the colors you use to see just how many interesting Greys they will produce. Far from being dead and boring, the addition of Grey can give the stronger colors in your work so much more power.

Author: John Lovett

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