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how to mix gray paint

Making Beautiful Grays

Why use more grays?

The Chestnut Festival, Licciana Nardi, Italy by Barry John Raybould
The Chestnut Festival, Licciana Nardi, Italy by Barry John Raybould

One of the strangest discoveries I made was that it is the dull gray colors that give a painting its beautiful color. It is not the nice clean color you get directly out of the tube. This discovery took me a long time to make. It is only when your painting has a lot of grays in it that you can make your color accents really stand out.

How to make grays

You can make grays in one of four ways:

  • add black and/or white to your paint pile
  • mix two complements. For example, you can mix red and blue-green, yellow and purple-blue, purple and green-yellow, blue and yellow-orange
  • use your leftover muds – these are the piles of gray paint you end up with after you have finished a painting
  • buy a tube of gray and modify it

In “The Chestnut Festival, Licciana Nardi, Italy” I used all of the above except for using bought tube grays. The main secret to this painting was to paint it using all of these muddy colors. When I added a touch of pure color to the foreground, it really stood out beautifully against all of that mud! I painted this work outdoors. Painting under natural light outdoors is the best way to learn color and was a key part of the color learning program that I was taught.

The Garden Painting by Barry John Raybould
The Garden Painting by Barry John Raybould

In this painting “The Garden”, note how the patches of color stand out against the more subdued and grayer colors in the background. This also gives the painting depth and atmosphere.

More examples of how to use grays

Here is some more of my work where you can see I use a lot of grays:

Cat. No. 1386 plein air painting in Montenegro

In the above painting that I did on a beach in Montenegro, you can see that the sand colors are very neutral. The colors of the bathing suits of the people on the beach, and of their towels provided the color accents to contrast with these muted grays.

Cat. No. 1210 Surrey Farm in Winter - Oil on Board - 2017
Cat. No. 1210 Surrey Farm in Winter – Oil on Board – 2017

I painted the above work on a cold winters day in England. The few saturated color spots of red and blue stand out against the backdrop of grayed browns.

Cat. No. 1363 San Simeone Piccolo, Venice, Italy - 14cm x 14cm - Oil on Canvas - 2020

I did this work in Venice last year. It was very early morning and the buildings were just emerging out of the mist. I painted the church very suggestively, and focused my color interest on the emerald green roof with a few color accents of the people and shops underneath.

still life painting of wild flowers

The background to this still life is painted mostly in neutral colors. This way, the more saturated greens, pinks, and yellows of the wildflowers stood out more clearly, and gives attention to the focal area of the painting.

To learn more 

To learn much more about how to achieve beautiful color in your paintings, see the Virtual Art Academy® Apprentice Program. 

Making Beautiful Grays

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