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Why use more grays?
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.
This article will give you some color harmony examples using grays.
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.
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 color harmony examples of how to use grays
Here is some more of my work where you can see I use a lot of grays:
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.
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.
I painted this work in Venice. 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.
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.
How Old and Contemporary Masters use grays to make outstanding works of art
Color harmony examples using grays: Claude Monet
Although Monet was renowned for his colorful garden and figure paintings, he also created some beautiful artwork that were predominantly painted in muted grays.
Color harmony examples using grays: John Singer Sargent
Another master of mostly gray paintings is Sargent. Look at these diverse paintings, which evoke emotions and capture the mood of the day. This is a different use of grays compared with how I use them. In my work I use them to contrast with more saturated colors and to create a color harmony. Sargent however, is mostly painting in values, and color does not take such a priority in his work. His paintings rely for their effect on superb drawing, subtle value changes, solid notan structure, high degree of control of edges, and good compositions.
Color harmony examples using grays: Joaquin Sorolla
Sorolla is another artist who created many beautiful paintings, using mostly grays with dabs of pure color. Unlike Sargent, Sorolla uses grays mainly to enhance the color harmony in his work. His grays are much more colorful than those used by Sargent. I talk a lot about these techniques for color in the various workshops in the Apprentice Program painting classes, and in particular in the Color Building Block.
Color harmony examples using grays: Berthe Morisot
Color harmony examples using grays: Daniel Sprick
In Dan Sprick’s beautiful work, we see the use of more saturated colors contrasting with subtle grays to give stunning effects.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article. If you are interested in a structured approach for learning how to paint, and want to learn more about my Visual Music & Poetry® model, take a look at my online painting classes.
Barry John Raybould
Virtual Art Academy
I love this. I actually bought this course years ago but after a time I have lost the website to look at it. I don’t know if you can help or not. Mitzi Undesser Thanks. Best course ever.
thanks Mitzi for your nice words. Since you bought the original course, I’ve made a lot of improvements and built a new online school, with an active art community. Contact me via the contact form on this website and I’ll give you the details.