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Big Gray Area

I don’t really know how to make an exciting catchy title for gray, but any time you mix two colors together it’s considered graying one of the colors. Tonalism uses a lot of these muted grays. The technicality of it is that any other color mutes the first, in effect, taking it down in chroma or brilliancy. I would argue that adding yellow to green increases its chroma but there is an exception to every rule. It may just be that adding yellow only warms green in temperature, and lightens it in value.

So, we have color or hue, value (light and dark), chroma or intensity, and temperature (warm or cool). Some of these variations are relative to the surrounding colors, and some even have names like pink (red+white) or lavender (purple+white). And, I should probably mention that adding white is tint, adding black is shade, and adding grey is tone.

Color space is roughly a sphere. The different pure color hues are distributed around the equator in what is called the color wheel. Up tends toward white, down towards black and the middle is a big grey area called neutral. Greying colors is like neutering them.

Most of nature are rather dull colors. The exceptions are plants, animals and some minerals like gemstones. Well that covers just about everything as those are the only three things there are, except light and blue lava. Most of the earths crust, though, are browns and beiges, which is where we get the beautiful but dull earth tones like the ochres and umbers. And, then there are some grays like elephants, sharks and granite.

Simply put, gray is a mix of black and white... but it’s never that simple is it? There is always more in that gray area than meets the eye. Neutral gray is actually a mix of black, white and umber, because black biases towards blue when mixed with white. And, black and white are not technically colors, but in pigment reality they are.

Black is just the absence of light and white is just light. But, pigments are different... white light contains all of the colors (think prisms and rainbows). What we see as color is just wavelengths of light energy. Our retinal rods and cones are just energy transducers. Whatever color something appears to be is that surface reflecting all the frequencies of light and only absorbing the frequency of that color. Counterintuitive if you ask me, something’s color is the only wavelength that isn’t reflected back to our eye. It’s our brain that “sees” or processes color, in my opinion. The eye is just the I/O device. Brains and minds are infinitely interesting meaning and emotion making machines, due to evolution, and perhaps I’ll do a blog post on that topic.

Which brings me back to the topic of this post, grays. Normally, visual artists are taught to gray pigment colors by adding the compliment of that color (the opposite color across the color wheel). Again, counterintuitive, in my opinion... it should be the ‘contrary’ color or something. Like in Heraldry (family shield crests) us left handers are ‘Sinister’ at least.

So, when we see gray... we see every wavelength of light color except gray, and so our brain must be asking what color is missing, oh! It must be colored that gray color then. Most, and I should say me, beginning artists paint way too bright a chroma. I still remember my aha moment out painting cows in a sea of grass and tree green. The compliment of green is red... I’m red green colorblind. I can still see red and green but when you mix them... my eyes don’t get it just right... lavenders look light blue, and brown socks can match with green socks, undetected.

In order to dull down high chroma bright green artist pigments right out of the paint tube, we can either mix in the compliment, red, or some other color, orange, black, white, blue or purple. I could go off on a tangent about primary, secondary, and tertiary colors, but suffice to say, green and purple make a grey called olive green. Olive green is much more likely in nature than bright grass green, and green grass refers to what is known as local color.

The sky is blue, the grass is green are local colors. In reality, the sky and grass contain every color but they do bias heavily toward local color, just not paint tube colors. They say that an artist should mix every color right out of the tube with other colors, in order to gray them down and adjust their value. I should, also, say that value is more important than color, which is where grey comes in.

Mixing another color with red or green changes it. Yellow is tricky... blue and yellow make green, red and yellow make orange... the compliment of yellow is purple, but purple tends toward blue and mixing the two can make a nice dull green, but not a dull yellow. Black biases towards blue, so yellow and black make a nice green. Pushing colors around and mixing them together does not always produce a desired result. Some refer to that as ‘mud.’ To get a dull yellow, the obvious solution is to mix it with gray. It can be mixed with ochres or umbers, but then the value needs to be adjusted. We are not talking about dark yellow... cool or warm yellow, but dull yellow.

Grays can be mixed on the pallet from compliments, blacks, whites, or other colors, but grays can be bought as tube colors, as well. There are 10 grays on the Munsell scale... well 8 plus black and white. So neutral gray #5 is a tube color... of value 5 on the Munsell scale. You look, you squint (to reduce color and enhance value) and decide what value that yellow is over there... then you can add gray number whatever to the yellow to maintain the value.

Someone in a Facebook group talking about mixing greens commented that Payne’s gray mixed with yellow makes a nice green. Payne’s gray is a dark gray value like 3 on the Munsell scale. I did mention that dull yellow was tricky.

So, we are trying to paint the color of light. Dull colors mostly. Skin tones are just dull oranges and browns mixed from orange and blue, or red and green. We gray them and add shadows and highlights and turn the form. Our brain takes it from there. Landscapes, figures and still life’s are just shapes and colors.

"All the visible world is only light on form." Andrew Loomis


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