Mixing Gray & Black in Watercolor

Mixing neutral gray or black is a common task in watercolor painting. Grays and other neutral dark colors are useful for shadows, landscape elements like mountains and rocks, silhouettes, and muting other shades. It’s possible to mix all your own grays and neutrals from a bright palette. Even if you choose to have a convenience gray or black watercolor on your palette, you may want to mix grays sometimes for that special, specific gray.

Theory

Theoretically, if you mix a color with its complement (opposite on the color wheel), you should get a neutral gray/black. For example:

  • Red + Green
  • Orange + Blue
  • Yellow + Purple

If the color is biased one way or the other, you’d expect the complement to be biased the other way. For example, you can get gray from:

  • Orangey-Red + Bluish-Green
  • Purpley-Red + Yellowish-Green
  • Reddish-Orange + Greenish-Blue
  • Yellowish-Orange + Purpley-Blue
  • Orangey-Yellow + Bluish-Purple
  • Greenish-Yellow + Reddish-Purple

I say “theoretically” because it’s never that simple, is it? Sometimes an exactly complementary paint does not exist, and sometimes the mixing complement is not quite the same as the visual complement. Still, the theory is a starting place. 

Now let’s get into the practice: color mixes from my palette(s) where I’ve succeeded in making gray.

Two-Pigment Mixes that Make Gray or Black

I’ve been doing a lot of experiments with two-color mixing lately, and here are some pairs that I’ve found make a reliabe gray or black. 

Transparent Pyrrol Orange + Indanthrone Blue

Transparent Pyrrol Orange + Indanthrone Blue
Daniel Smith Transparent Pyrrol Orange (PO71) + Daniel Smith Indanthrone Blue (PB60) on Wonder Forest paper

Thanks to the darkness of the blue, the transparency of the orange, and the complementariness of the pair, these make a striking black at a high concentration. More orange, and you get browns; more blue, and you get nice blue-grays.

Transparent Red Oxide + Ultramarine

Transparent Red Oxide + Ultramarine
Daniel Smith Transparent Red Oxide (PR101) + Holbein Ultramarine Deep (PB29) in a Wonder Forest sketchbook

Don’t sleep on earth colors as potential complements. Transparent Red Oxide is an “earth orange,” so it complements blues nicely. This is a color mix that Liz Steel uses often for shadows, and it is similar to the combination that Jane Blundell uses for “Jane’s Grey” (Burnt Sienna + Ultramarine Blue). It’s much more textured and granulating than the Indanthrone + TPO mix above; even at its most “neutral,” you can always seek flecks of the component colors.

Transparent Brown Oxide + Indanthrone Blue

DS Transparent Brown Oxide (PR101) + DS Indanthrone Blue (PB60) on Wonder Forest paper

Venetian Red + Phthalo Blue RS

WN Venetian Red (PR101) + HO Phthalo Blue RS (PB15) on Canson XL

Indian Red + Cerulean Blue

DV Indian Red (PR101) + DV Cerulean Blue (PB36) on Canson XL

This combination makes a range of lovely, soft, granulating and color-separating mid-tone grays. Because they are opaque colors and Cerulean Blue doesn’t get very dark, none of the shades get very dark, either. I love this combination for very naturalistic rock, mountain, and violety cloud colors.

Perylene Maroon + Cerulean Blue

Perylene Maroon is another good option with Cerulean Blue. (There’s a great video from In Liquid Color where Denise paints a soft gray pigeon in just these two colors.) In my experiments (using Daler Rowney’s rather orangey PM), the grays tended to remain more on the warm side.

Perylene Maroon + Cerulean Blue
Daler Rowney Perylene Maroon (PR179) + Da Vinci Cerulean Blue Genuine (PB36) in a Wonder Forest sketchbook (blue spot in upper right is a mistake)

Perylene Maroon + Phthalo Blue GS

Perylene Maroon + Phthalo Blue
Daler Rowney Perylene Maroon (PR179) + Da Vinci Phthalo Blue (PB15:3) on Wonder Forest paper

Pyrrol Scarlet + Phthalo Blue GS

DS Pyrrol Scarlet (PR255) + WN Winsor Blue Green Shade (PB15:3) on Canson XL

Pyrrol Scarlet + Cobalt Turquoise

Cobalt Turquoise + Pyrrol Scarlet
Schmincke Horadam Cobalt Turquoise (PG50) + Daniel Smith Pyrrol Scarlet (PR255) on Wonder Forest paper

Using the same principals as blue/orange pairs or green/red pairs, you could opt for a green-blue and a red-orange.

On the light end, this semi-opaque pair makes a light, granulating gray that never gets dark. You can always see flecks of either orange-red or turquoise in the granulation. I prefer the mixes on the turquoise side, which give me a stormy-sky vibe.

Deep Scarlet (PR175) + Phthalo Turquoise (PB16)

WN Phthalo Turquoise (PB16) + DS Deep Scarlet (PR175) on Canson XL

You can make quite a neutral black or gray with this; I actually tried it for a mauve mix but found them all too neutral!

Naphthol Scarlet (PR188) + Phthalo Turquoise (PB16)

DV Permanent Red (PR188) + WN Phthalo Turquoise (PB16) on Canson XL

Pyrrol Scarlet (PR255) + Phthalo Turquoise (PB16)

WN Phthalo Turquoise (PB16) + DS Pyrrol Scarlet (PR255)

Pyrrole Rubin (PR264) + Phthalo Green BS

Winsor Green Blue Shade (PG7) + HO Pyrrole Rubin (PR264)

Quin Coral + Phthalo Green BS

DS Quin Coral (PR209) + WN Winsor Green Blue Shade (PG7) on Canson XL

Red Rose Deep + Phthalo Green

Quin Rose + Phthalo Green
Da Vinci Red Rose Deep (PV19) + Da Vinci Phthalo Green (PG7) on Wonder Forest paper

Generally, I don’t like red/green pairs as much as blue/orange pairs because I find the intermediate range of dull pinks and gray-greens less useful than browns and gray-blues.

Note that I’ve chosen a particularly red-toned PV19 and a particularly yellow-toned PG7 to make this work. Daniel Smith’s versions of these pigments, Quin Rose and Phthalo Green (Blue Shade), are much bluer-toned and the combination makes a dull purple, not a neutral gray. If you want to make gray with DS Quin Rose, Phthalo Green Yellow Shade (PG36) might work better.

Perylene Violet + Perylene Green

Perylene Green + Perylene Violet
Holbein Shadow Green (PBk31) + Daniel Smith Perylene Violet (PV29) in a Wonder Forest sketchbook

Starting with dark colors is a good cheat to getting to deep blacks quickly. This already-dark green/red pair makes rich, velvety blacks that border on either deep green or deep wine-purple. 

Lemon Yellow + Carbazole Violet

Ultramarine Violet + Lemon Yellow
WN Ultramarine Violet (PV15) + WN Winsor Lemon (PY175) on Arches cold press

I guess I’d better show you a purple/yellow mix, too, even though I think this is the worst of the three primary/secondary pairings to use to make gray. I find purple/yellow grays ugly, looking more like dark khaki than a nice neutral gray; somehow they’re simultaneously too purple and too yellow for me.

MANS or Raw Sienna + WN Smalt (PV15)

WN Smalt (PV15) + DS MANS (PBr7)
WN Smalt (PV15) + DV Raw Sienna (PBr7) on Canson XL

Adjusting to a blue-violet and an earthy orange-yellow makes a nicer gray, though in this case it’s a light-valued steel gray that doesn’t get very dark.

Mixing Gray from Three Colors

It’s a lot easier to get an even gray from three colors than two. Most combinations of two colors do not result in gray – you have to make sure they’re perfect complements – but any primary triad will. (Mixing, say, blue and orange is the same thing as mixing blue, yellow, and red, after all.) With a primary triad, you have two levers to pull: if your mix is too purple, you can add more of the yellow; if it’s too green, you can add more magenta/red, and so on. 

Here are some examples, but really any rough mix of some sort of yellow / some sort of red / some sort of blue will work.

Modern Primaries

Modern Primary Mix
Modern primaries mix to make gray. Colors: Da Vinci Red Rose Deep (PV19), Winsor Lemon (PY175), Holbein Phthalo Blue Yellow Shade (PB15:3)

Cloudscapes Triad

Cloud Gray Triad
Cloud Gray Triad: DV Red Rose Deep (PV19), DS MANS (PBr7), DV Cobalt Blue (PB28)

This one is adapted from Maria Coryell-Martin’s ‘Cloudscapes’ class, where she recommended a combination of raw sienna, quin rose, and ultramarine for cloud shadows.

Dark Cloudscapes Triad

Dark Cloudscapes Triad
Dark gray mix of DS Transparent Brown Oxide + Daler Rowney Perylene Maroon + DS Indanthrone Blue; on Arches paper

Another mix adapted from Cloudscapes, where Maria demonstrated dark grays made from DS colors Burnt Umber, Deep Scarlet, and Indanthrone Blue.

Or Just Get One Color

Of course, the easiest way to get black or gray, if you use it a lot, is to just use black pigment. I waver on whether to include black in my palette, since I don’t like the mixes that it makes. I think mixing black with a color rarely gives you a nice “dark” version of that color, but instead makes mud. I find it much more flexible to mix “dark” versions of a color from complements, such as making a dark blue by adding a tiny bit of orange (just not quite enough to make the mix black). 

Still, there are good use-cases for black, such as painting objects that are black, silhouettes, and so on. 

My favorite black and gray paints:

  • Payne’s Gray is a blue-tinted gray. Holbein’s Payne’s Gray is one of the more neutral, smooth and pleasant versions of this mixed gray. This is the one I usually choose.
  • Neutral Tint is a mix designed to be a neutral dark color (neither cool nor warm).
  • PBk26 is a smooth, inky, transparent black. You can get it as Rembrandt Spinel Gray or MaimeriBlu Neutral Tint.
  • Mars Black (PBk11) is highly granulating and adds interesting texture. It’s available as Daniel Smith’s Lunar Black, among other brands.

Takeaways

  • It’s easier to get a neutral gray from three colors than from two.
  • Blue and orange are a great complementary pair, especially for landscapes, because they make a range of browns and blue-grays.
  • Granulating pigments will mix a gray with flecks of the base colors.
  • If you want to make black, it’s best to start with at least one very dark color, and both pigments transparent. Bright opaques will never get you there.

Appendix: List of Known Complements

Here’s a list of my “all star” paints and the complements I know for them.

PaintReasonable Complement
Imidazolone Yellow (PY154)
Hansa Yellow Deep (PY65)
Quinacridone Coral (PR209)Phthalo Green BS (PG7)
Quinacridone Rose/Red (PV19)Phthalo Green BS (PG7)
Quinacridone Magenta (PR122)Phthalo Green YS (PG36)
DS Indanthrone Blue (PB60) or Ultramarine Blue (PB29)Burnt Sienna (PBr7), Burnt Umber (PBr7), Transp. Red Oxide (PR101), Transp. Brown Oxide (PR101), Transp. Pyrrol Orange (PO71/DPP), Quin. Burnt Orange (PO48), Benzi Orange (PO62)
Phthalo Blue RS (PB15:1)Venetian Red (PR101)
Phthalo Blue GS (PB15:3)Pyr. Scarlet (PR255), Pery. Maroon (PR179)
Phthalo Turquoise (PB16)Naph. Scarlet (PR188), Pyr. Scarlet (PR255), Imid. Brown (PBr25), Deep Scarlet (PR175)
Phthalo Green BS (PG7)Quin Rose/Red (PV19), Pyr. Rubin (PR264), Pyr. Red (PR254)
Naples Yellow Deep (PBr24) or MANS/Raw Sienna (PBr7)WN Smalt (PV15)
Transparent Red Oxide (PR101)Ind Blue (PB60), Ult Blue (PB29)