Mixing Gray in Watercolor

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:

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

I say “theoretically” because it’s never that simple, is it? Sometimes a single-pigment complement does not exist (these are natural pigments after all), and sometimes the mixing complement is not quite the same as the visual complement. Still, it’s a starting place. 

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 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

This is my favorite pair of the moment. 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). 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.

Perylene Maroon + Cerulean

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)

A range of soft grays that never get too dark, thanks to the light-value opaque Cerulean Blue. One of my impetuses for buying both of these colors was seeing a video from In Liquid Color where Denise paints a soft gray pigeon in just these two colors.

(Note that my Daler Rowney Perylene Maroon is a bit of on the orange side compared to other PR179 Perylene Maroons; it’s maybe more similar to Quinacridone Burnt Scarlet.) 

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.

Lemon Yellow + Carbazole Violet

Dioxazine Violet + Lemon Yellow
Daniel Smith Carbazole Violet (PV23) + Winsor Lemon (PY175) on Arches Cold Press paper

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.

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. 

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.

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. 

For a smooth, even black, my favorite is Neutral Tint. This is usually a mix, but I currently am really enjoying the deep inky black from the single-pigment MaimeriBlu Neutral Tint (PBk26). For a highly textured, granulating black, try a Mars Black (PBk11), such as Daniel Smith’s Lunar Black. 

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.

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