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The Anatomy of Gray


I had a hard time with gray. I always thought it was spelled grey. I looked it up and Google says grey or gray depending on where you are from. Maybe that’s the confusion. So, I dug deeper... etymology. Germanic. Græg in old English. Grau in German and grauw in Dutch. Of Germanic origin, related to Dutch. Okay, so, a lot of English comes from German.... Wikipedia disagrees, in part, via Middle English, grai or grei... so this confusion started a while ago. Saxons, Normans, Germanic peoples, Danes, Celts, Angles, Franks, Alemanni, Picts, and bears. Oh my!


I could easily get lost down a rabbit hole of how Germanic came to English, but I looked up Anglos and Saxons, and I think the French are somehow involved. Only French is separate from France... French is a ‘Romance’ language, Latin, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese. They roll their R’s and things, weird stuff is silent or L’s are pronounced like Y’s and J’s are pronounced like H’s. George is pronounced Horhay. Go figure. It’s all just different kinds of grunts in the end. We are animals, after all. Barking, snarling... whatever. But in French and Spanish the word is gris (pronounced gree, because in Latin I’s are long E’s) correction... Gris is masculine, Grise is feminine. My middle name is French, Ivo, pronounced Eevo in English.


Don’t get me started.... in Chinese grey is spelled funny like a picture in a 300 character alphabet and that’s just the Mandarin version... it’s pronounced Huīsé... in English terms. And in Arabic, Google says it’s pronounced allawn alramadiu in English terms. Both the Chinese and Arabic spelling are much cooler looking. 灰色 and اللون الرمادي, respectively. There ate lots of varieties of grey or gray (my implicit English or is it American bias?).


Google thinks gray is a neutral color mixed from black and white. CMYK does too (0, 0, 0, 50). I’m not even going to go into CMYK, RGB, Munsell, or Pantone, but trust me, there is plenty of variety there too. And, there are plenty of varieties of grey.


Gray in painting could be 50/50 black and white... in Munsell color space it’s dead center of the color sphere, with white at the top and black at the bottom and all the colors around the equator. Grey, you see... is a tone. Not a tint (adding white) or a shade (adding black), although one could say that grey is a shade of white or a tint of black, I suppose. But what’s in a tone? A tone in music is a note, a sound, a frequency of air vibration. In light a tone is a color, a visual equivalent of sound or a color note, a frequency of light vibration... an electro magnetic propagation of energy which for our eyeballs and retina (plural retinae, also Latin) just happens to be in the visual spectrum that we can see. Do grays occur in UV color space that we cannot see?


In pigment, however, grey could be that mix of black and white pigments to varying proportions, dark grey (more black), light grey (more white). You get it. But, in painting, adding any color to another color so that it changes the first color’s hue, value, chroma, or temperature is called ‘graying’ it. Not greying, in the US, apparently, but mixing blue with yellow or orange with green... these are all grays (I note here that Apple autocorrect prefers grays over greys, too); because, in theory (color theory), it pushes the original color more toward the center of the color sphere towards neutral gray.


This doesn’t begin to do grey justice as an explanation... and I’m sure there are names for all those 4 million adulterated pure hues like some Tetrachromates can see (and then bees can see in the infa red or ultraviolet spectrum... and maybe even magnetic spectrum). But, there are only so many pigment names... maybe a lot but I doubt 1 million, unless of course, you multiply the English by Latin, Chinese, Arabic, etc... but the pigment database has like 180 yellows or whatever, Pantone might have 500 yellows, but they use numbers so it could get really squirrely. Don’t get me wrong, you can buy grey paint out of the tube (it too is a mix), pail, or barrel (battleship’s paint is some really toxic doo doo that causes cancer in the state of california), or even a pure pigment like mineral graphite (a mineral is a naturally occurring crystal structure). Ice is a mineral... but not a pigment. We do, though, use pigments mixed together to create the illusion of ice (check out Zaria Forman’s pastel work).


Graying is a really useful tool in painting. It gives our eyes a rest between brilliant colors, it can balance and reduce contrast (lessen our focus), it can be pushed warm or cool, light or dark, dull or bright. It’s so not just 50/50 black and white.... it’s red and blue and any other pigment mixed down, too. I had to learn to dull those pigments straight out of the tube.... green grass is not chrome oxide color. Chrome oxide is a dull green but it’s still too high a chroma straight out of the tube. It has to be mixed with something to dull it down, grayed, like with its complement, red, or lightened, with yellow, or cooled with some blue, it’s all called graying.

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