Grey? A color?
Who wants grey? We associate it with rainy days, gloom, even boredom. And yet grey has many qualities.
Grey is a chameleon par excellence, and it brings out the best in other colors. It makes them shiny, important, glorious. And if these colors harmonize more easily, it is again thanks to grey. Moreover, grey offers an infinite number of nuances like so many subtle and delicate perfumes.
Let’s explore grey in artists’ work, but not before taking a stroll through visual perception to understand its versatility. Ignore this section if you are only interested in the artistic aspects, or skip to the summary. But if you have some time, let yourself be surprised by the videos.
And then, get inspired by all these works, observe where greys are hidden, reproduce them in your own way before launching into new creations.
This article is also an opportunity to revisit the subjects mentioned in previous challenges (complementary colors, the magic hour palette, the colors of the night, flowers, the color of shadow, etc.) by looking at them from another point of view: the presence of grey.
The properties of grey
As a prelude, a short passage through a few definitions to know what we are talking about.
Grey as neutral
What is a grey? A color between black and white, whose hue is indistinguishable; the whole – black and white included – constitutes the neutrals.
In the colorotate application (see Challenges #5 and #6), the neutrals are the colors of the central axis with black and white as the ends. It is convenient to associate them with a brightness, i.e. L=0 for black and L=100 for white. Any color on the screen can be placed inside or on the surface of this spinning top.
Where does the first grey start? Although everything is relative, it seems reasonable to consider as grey any color between L=15 and L=94, i.e. from the second to the ninth grey sample above.
By the way, don’t you have the impression that the circles along the axis of the spinning top are identical while only the lighting around them differs? On the other hand, set apart at the right or below in the image, they really look different, don’t they? Why?
Because two interpretations are always possible: relative or absolute. On the axis, the color is interpreted in a context that suggests a more or less dark lighting. At the bottom, on the other hand, a constant white separating the colors serves as a reference.
The painter, the photographer or the trained observer have developed the habit of moving from one interpretation to another (i.e. relative versus absolute).
What about colored greys? They are slightly off the central axis. Also, grey and colored greys form the heart of the spinning top: they are inside a narrow cylinder (see examples below).
In the previous challenge devoted to shadows, we have noticed that a neutral grey tints itself with the complementary of its neighborhood: its neutrality disappears!
Let us now look more systematically at artificial examples to observe the contrast in lightness, hue and intensity of color in the vicinity of greys.
Brightness contrast inversion
Saying “everything is relative” is not a simple view of the mind. Indeed, look at the illusion conceived by Akiyoshi Kitaoka.
The square on the left looks lighter than the one on the right, doesn’t it? And both squares appear uniformly grey. Illusions! In fact, the squares are identical. They are made of a gradient grey: darker on its left than on its right border. Move the square on the background to the left, it will appear light grey, in the middle it will disappear, merging itself with the background and then it will darken while approaches the background right edge.
Why is this? Our perception is developed according to a context. A color is not only sensed, it is interpreted.
Below, in red, the profile of the lightness on a horizontal line crossing the background and, in blue, the profile of the squares. The difference in brightness between the square and the background gives the perceived brightness, i.e. on the left a uniformly lighter square and on the right a darker one. The middle square intensity is exactly the same as the background, therefore it disappears.
How is the perception different when the squares are really uniform? In the figure below, the squares on the left and right still appear light and dark respectively. You may perceive a slight difference between the left and right sides of the same square, but nothing significant. However, the middle square, where the contrast is reversed, is undeniably perceived as a gradient grey: lighter on the left and darker on the right. It’s an illusion!
Light grey, dark grey, uniform, gradient, when will you experience one or another? It all depends on the reference that your brain uses to establish its judgement. This reference usually comes from the background.
The artist knows it: he can create the illusion of clarity or gradation by intervening only on the background.
Hue modification and hue gradient illusion
And what happens if the background is colored as in the figure below? The illusion of reverse lightness remains while a change in hue is perceived. Indeed, when a perfectly neutral uniform grey square is on a sky blue background (see left square below), it not only appears lighter than on a pale yellow background, but it looks more yellowish. On the other hand, when it is on a pale yellow background (see the right square below), it does not appear neutral either, but bluish. At the position where the background switches from blue to yellow — passing through neutral grey — the sides of the square seem to acquire the inverse contrast: it is yellowish on the left and bluish on the right.
Viewing the black and white figure below allows one to judge only the lightness contrast.
The video below shows the transformation of the contrasts when a uniform grey square is moved over the gradient blue-yellow background.
Color Intensity modification
How does the intensity of a color change when the background is changing?
On the left, yellow seems to vibrate over blue; in fact, complementary colors embellish each other (see also Challenge #4). When the contrast in brightness is non-existent, a floating sensation appears. In comparison, the same yellow on the right side seems to be extinguished. In the center, the discreet grey fades away to emphasize the yellow of the square. No vibration, grey just plays the jewellery case for yellow.
The black-and-white transcription underneath allows us to observe the contrast in brightness only: the left square has almost disappeared while the contrast in brightness increases towards the right.
Similarly, this video let you appreciate the evolution of the intensity perception of the color according to the position of the yellow square on the gradient blue-yellow background.
In summary: properties and perception of grey
Judging the clarity or neutrality of a grey is a difficult exercise; we want to access the absolute perception of color while we are trained to judge it relatively, based on supposed qualities of lighting: rather warm (yellow) or rather cold (blue), rather powerful (light neighborhood) or rather weak (dark neighborhood).
In fact, our brain analyzes a color’s environment to establish its judgement in terms of clarity, hue and intensity of color. In the case of greys, assessing lightness and hue is all the more difficult as they are the most common basis for judging ambient lighting; indeed, they serve as a point of comparison or “calibration” for all other colors. In other words, the brain looks for greys to compute the white-balance.
Grey is therefore the most versatile of all colors; it may appear blue when it is neutral simply because of a yellow background; conversely, it looks neutral when it is lightly colored with the same hue as the one of the background. Generally speaking, whether it is colored or not, the perceived hue will always be influenced by the complementary hue of the surrounding color.
Grey also makes the colors around it more intense. As it serves as a point of comparison, it is often ignored, worse, it is not even noticed. But remember, grey never steals the show, on the contrary, it enhances the other colors.
Inspiration and observation
In previous challenges I have already drawn your attention to the use of grey as a binding element. Remember the Challenge on complementary colors: in Van Gogh’s painting “Noon, rest from work”, the figures, the shoes, the knife, all these elements are in shades of grey that balance the whole. In Judith Simonian’s gouache “A single room”, the proportion of grey is even greater.
But grey can also play its own part and amaze us with its many nuances.
What media other than drawing, engraving and black and white photography can be used to evoke the grey scale?
In the drawing by Georges Seurat (1859-1891) below, observe how the painter has reinforced contrasts by playing simultaneously on the figure and the background. On the one hand the knot on the dress appears darker thanks to the juxtaposition of the lighter background on the left, on the other hand the light seems to caress the right shoulder, lighter than the background. So the shoulder stands out from the shadow and moves towards us. This intervention on the background extends the range of perceived greys. Indeed, the more conventional use of a uniform grey – whether on the background or on the figure – would reduce both contrasts making the female silhouette flatter.
Following the same process, Mélanie Geray offers us a more contemporary portrait in mezzotint. Notice the transparency of the earring of Amandine, rendered by this subtle play of contrasts.
But limiting the range of greys can be a pictorial choice; this is the bias of the above nocturnal portrait, which could be described as “low-key” (cf. Challenge #2 ); the same feelings would not be conveyed in “high-key” where only light tones are present.
Controlling the grey range is the aim of the “zone-system“, an analog photography technique for exposure control and development co-invented by Ansel Adams (1902-1984).
In the darkroom again, veiling the paper in a controlled way reveals unsuspected greys. The hardness of the paper itself generally determines the overall contrast of the image. Finally, the choice of warm or cold paper, possibly followed by a specific toning like gold or selenium, will refine the grey palette.
Above Flore also plunges us into a dreamlike and personal universe. In “The smell of the night was that of jasmine“, the choice of grey seems to echo the words of Marguerite Duras, the source of this photographic work. Moreover, the tea toning deposits a veil of exoticism while adding softness and warmth to the print.
Known above all for his meditative landscapes, sometimes cold, icy, immense, desolate or inhabited, Jeffrey Conley, a worthy heir to Ansel Adams, also creates very graphic images such as these pine needles.
Black and white painting
Gerhard Richter, one of the world’s most beloved living painters, is a great colorist. And yet he has spent years painting grey pictures, as the catalogue of his works shows: no less than 67 “grey” pictures in 1965 alone! He will continue this series of paintings that evoke blurred black and white photos for a decade. Sometimes he even paints uniform greys that cover the whole painting.
The approach that leads him to paint in grey gives clues to any artist feeling a lack of creativity or simply depressed. In 1975 he wrote: “When I started (about eight years ago) to cover several canvases with grey, it was because I no longer knew what to paint or what to paint. It was obvious to me that such a pitiful pretext would only lead to aberrant results. However, as time went by, I noticed qualitative differences between the various grey surfaces and I noticed that they no longer expressed this destructive motivation. These paintings taught me a lesson. By universalizing a personal dilemma, they have solved it: the distress has become constructive, relatively beautiful and accomplished, thus painting. “
The film “Werk ohne autor” translated by “Never Look away” (trailer below) is a beautiful biopic of the artist’s youth.
Grey as binder and grey as color
By going through a series of themes, discover the role of grey sometimes as the cement of the composition, sometimes as a color in its own right, a color that the artist modulates in infinite variations.
For the portrait of his mother, James Whistler (1834-1903) used almost exclusively grey. Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), was hardly any more generous with color in depicting Ermine Gallia. Does grey contribute to the softness that emanates from these paintings?
Almost everything opposes the two portraits above. The young woman is calm, gentle, patient perhaps. The young girl is determined, standing firmly on her two legs, looking straight ahead. The carpet behind her makes her a princess dress. But in these two paintings, which could have appeared in the Challenge devoted to white, grey unifies the composition.
Anto Carte (1886-1954), in this portrait of two clowns musicians, uses a palette of grey variations near a blue which serves as background. Notice already all the hues appearing when the eye crosses the painting along a line just below the musician’s elbow. This painting is reminiscent of Picasso’s blue period.
But nothing prevents the artist from associating grey with more intense colors, they will be all the more brilliant.
This is the approach of Joseph-Philippe Bevillard in the two portraits of Alesha, below. The photographer, even if he also excels in black and white portraits, seems to me to be a master of color. In the Minceirs series, named after the traditionally nomadic ethnic minority indigenous to Ireland, one is struck by the intimacy and confidence that the photographer has inspired and the accuracy of his gaze.
Flowers and still life
Challenge #15 presents flowers as the colorful subject par excellence. But that doesn’t mean that everything in a floral painting has to be color.
Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), for example, adopted a grey background to enhance this country bouquet. The distribution of the bright red petals of the poppies, the chamomile flower in the foreground and the few blueberries make our gaze wander through the composition.
Grey certainly enhances other colors, but Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) also notes the opposite; he writes: “Sometimes, after a rain shower, I saw the whole sky colored pink and light orange, which gave exquisite value and color to the silver-green greys”. Furthermore, in the two still life above, the alternation of grey and colored hatching brings dynamism, volume and structure to the represented space.
And finally, to end the theme of flowers as seen by painters, greys and dull tones only in this painting by Gwen John (1876-1939), a painter rediscovered after 1950.
Today, Mathilde Nardone does not paint or photograph flowers and plants, she scans them. The engraver creates a mirror image on his plate; Matilde composes the reverse side of an image on the scanner window. Delicate harmonies of colored greys.
Trees and forests
Warm and cold greys embellish each other in the forest of Koloman Moser (1868-1918) below. One has the impression of walking there at the magic hour, when the sun has already disappeared and the blue begins to dominate (see Challenge #7). The same impression is apparent in the painting by Teodoro Wolf Ferrari (1878-1945) as well as in the painting by the contemporary painter Tobias Spierenburg already presented in Challenge #10.
Funny to realize that a series of abstract compositions by Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) has its roots in this theme and for color a range of colored greys. The tree pictured above is one of the first steps in this creative process.
Grey is timeless; it is also the favorite color of the contemporary painter David Grossmann. Here are two paintings on the theme of trees and forests.
An exploration of the catalogue raisonné de Piet Mondrian will convince you of his talent as a colorist and his mastery of colored greys. In his figurative works, he also seems to appreciate the colors of dawn and dusk.
This color palette already explored in the Challenge #7 echoes that of the work below, by the Dane Per Adolfsen (Instagram: @peradolfsen_artist). This is followed by landscapes by the same artist in which greys are mixed with subtle tones to end in the purple greys of the night (cf. Challenge #8).
Like the Stranger of Charles Baudelaire, “I love the clouds… the passing clouds… over there… over there… the wonderful clouds ! “. I love them in a stormy sky, in the city or on the sea. In rural landscapes, they throw balls of woolly grey in my eyes, I love it.
Pastel is well suited to this enchantment. Julia Jewab writes: ” blue and yellow, pink and green, mauve and grey, white and black, fragile pigments, volatile at the slightest breath, the time of a wonder, like a cloud […] “. Julia’s clouds transport us into a meditative state. Subtlety of light and shades of sky blue, all immersed in greys.
Do you like clouds? Laly’s instagram account (@rheamatter) will delight you. And yet, so much grey! The contrast of a busy and tormented sky on a calm sea, a dash of light in the darkness like a claw of hope, you are close to a Rothko.
There, behind the Thames, London appears in these grey-blue and grey-green shades, through the mist. This is a watercolour by Winslow Homer (1836-1910). It is of course reminiscent of Monet’s London series of a few years earlier, which was more well-known.
After London, here above is Paris represented by Léon Spierenburg. Who has never been seduced by the grey-blue roofs of the City of Light?
Whether European or Japanese, the city is also its tunnels, its mysterious nightlife that Florent Chavouet draws and tells us (Instagram @florent.chavouet). We read “Touching the Miso” and we want to fly to Japan and see everything he saw. But all the details on which his gaze stops, you just have to see them, like the greys.
Neil Whitehead (Intagram: @ennkaydraw) sketches the city with a pen. His continuous and energetic line goes to the heart of the matter. His watercolour drawings gain even more life by being enhanced with faded tones, almost grey.
Finally, to end this urban route, here is another vision of the blue hour, decidedly rich in colored greys. Tommy Kim paints in gouache, in the open air. He shares his technique on Instagram (@tommykim_art); there you will see some of the steps in the elaboration of the work and some very educational videos of the same process.
Below is a video of the artist at work in the field. Gouache always looks more beautiful than reality!
Grey and its interactions
In a museum or a gallery, the question of the interaction of the colors of the works with those of the environment obviously arises. The most common choice is to paint the walls white, which can be detrimental to dark, highly nuanced paintings. The solution of grey, halfway between black and white is wiser; it offers the best compromise but may seem boring.
If the museum or gallery is ready to repaint the walls at every event, why not adapt the surface to each work displayed? This is the solution of the couple Jacqy Duval: in addition to the exhibition of the paintings, visitors are treated to a bold installation. Note below the many greys and neutrals of the project and its realization. If the color is intense, it is reminiscent of an element in the painting where neutrals are usually very present.
One could still look for grey in abstraction, in decoration — the beautiful harmonies of the 50s —, find it in other great colorists, but the article would never end! When I started writing it, I had no idea of its potential, which I have barely scratched the surface of.
Now that we’ve been inspired by many artists, we are ready for the next step.
A small step aside from the recommended “GORC” method (Get inspired-Observe-Reproduce-Create) however: this time, no reproduction, but an attempt at appropriation.
Below, two inspirations created with Richter’s black and white abstract paintings in mind. For the first one, I developed a personal technique with acrylic on velvet paper. The perfectly neutral greys result from the variable absorption of the paper. For the second, I wanted to create a dialogue between neutral, cold and warm greys.
Looking is also creating. When it rains, have you counted the number of greys that wet paving stones offer? After it rained, did you look at the reflection of a tree in a puddle? Do you know the favorite trees for the crow’s boisterous gatherings?
And finally, a photograph taken at the blue hour, which evokes the journey. Grey plays a large part in it.
It’s up to you
Convinced by the power of grey? The power to highlight bright colors? To be the liaison agent? To bring a set of colors together? To soothe the over-strained gaze?
The boring grey? Dust off this idea and take a fresh look at beautiful paintings, seen for example in previous challenges, or those of your favorite painters. Did you notice any colored neutrals and greys in them?
Grey is the backbone of all colors. It is the ordinary. You don’t notice it, yet it is fundamental. When you start looking for it, you find it everywhere.
So, go ahead, but in space or a painting, don’t leave it alone: it could dull and sadden the whole. Everything is a question of proportion, and of taste of course; learning how to marry it well remains an art.
Feel free to comment on this article to share your experience with grey.