To be truthful, for me, grey is the most frightening colour – I don’t wear grey, I don’t like looking at it, I don’t have it in my house and I HATE grey cloudy days! So when I was told recently that my “greys” were greatly admired I was quite floored, this started a renewed process of investigation, what greys do I create and how do I use them?
Firstly, many of the pigments are made from natural minerals and due to these natural qualities, react and bounce off each other, quite fun to watch and experiment with. Manufactured blacks and greys are mostly made from a kiln firing process therefore they contain soot - for large washes they can be lifeless and dull and often dry substantially lighter than expected.
Secondly, in watercolour, our staples are our complementaries (red vs green, purple vs yellow etc). For example, to neutralise red, I add a little green, a secondary colour containing blue and yellow, when I add green to red I have 3 primaries which means the greying process is started.
I prefer to paint with transparent watercolours so I select my palette carefully, mostly I use Winsor & Newton pigments and then I add opaque pigments for accents.
My favourite palette includes winsor blue (red shade), permanent alizarin crimson and burnt sienna. Sometimes I swap the blue for winsor blue (green) or French ultramarine and alizarin for permanent rose or another transparent “pink” like permanent magenta. I choose this palette because each of these colours have good tinting strength in their own right, therefore this palette, with just enough water to mix, will make an exciting and fresh dark and, with diluting, will create fantastic luminous greys. I start by making a violet, for shadow areas a cool violet (ie less red, more blue) and then I add burnt sienna.
For silvery greys try cobalt blue and permanent alizarin for a gorgeous violet then add just a wee
touch of raw sienna or try winsor green and permanent alizarin or rose. Cerulean blue or cobalt blue
plus burnt sienna, for darker grays try french ultramarine or indigo with burnt sienna. As you can see the sky’s the limit but of course this all depends on the pigments in your palette and what you can do with them – a matter of experimentation.
To start with, I mix light value greys in my palette but I make sure I can still see little pockets of the ingredient colours; in other words, sloppy, inefficient colour mixing is best, partly because it ensures there is no accidental overmixing. After washing in a light value gray around whites, I mix a stronger gray with the same pigments but in different ratios so that, eg I wash a warm gray over a cool gray. I then select one of my accent colours and charge it in and then spatter some of the other colours while it’s still damp.
For me watercolour is about poetry, creating beauty and light and life. As Delacroix said 'Colour is the fruit of life' and developing a repertoire of grays will only enhance your colour work.