Many times, creating a gray in watercolor simply involves diluting black, but these grays can often appear rather flat. Because hand-mixed grays are often variegated and closer to what one typically sees in nature, mixing your own grays can really add a lot of depth and dimension to a painting.
And it's so easy to mix grays! In the past, I've shared how to mix black with watercolor, and these darks can easily be diluted into a wide range of grays, but because there are many ways one can achieve a variety of grays, I thought it would be helpful to share a few recipes and tips specifically on how to mix gray watercolor.
By the way, I only used four pigments to create the painting above, and the yellow was only used to mimic the sun: Daniel Smith's Hansa Yellow Medium (PY97) & Raw Umber (PBr7), and M. Graham's Anthraquinone Blue (PB60) & Transparent Red Oxide (TR101).
So is it gray or grey? Actually, both spellings are correct. Americans lean toward phonetic spellings, so we commonly use gray, but all other English speaking countries spell it with an e. Maybe because of England's beloved Earl Grey tea? But then, there's the American Greyhound breed... Just pick whichever one floats your gray/grey boat!
Grays Straight from the Tube
Before we jump into how to mix grays, I thought I'd begin with the easiest option... tube grays. However, there are a few drawbacks to tube grays. Some black or dark watercolors don't perform well when diluted into a gray, and nearly all tube grays are going to be some sort of convenience mixture which can be rather precarious unless you are well acquainted with what's inside.
Still, some tube darks can be fine options, so let's explore several of the most common grays straight from the tube.
[If you are interested in knowing exactly what brands I used for this post, the links below should lead you to them; please note that some are affiliates.]
Many artists reach for Payne's Gray, a common convenience mixture. Of course, many artists think Payne's Gray is of the devil. I won't debate that here. I don't think there’s anything wrong with Payne's Gray, but gray is such an easy mix that I no longer keep this color in my palette. However, it won’t hurt to give Payne’s Gray a go because a tube mix can be an easy shortcut and a fine addition to a palette.
Daniel Smith's Payne's Gray (featured above) is a convenience mixture of PB29 (aka Ultramarine) and PBk9 (aka Ivory Black), and it dilutes easily into a lovely range of cool grays. M. Graham's Payne's Gray is also comprised of these two pigments.
Before you run out and buy, please know that "Payne's Gray" is not a standardized name and the color can vary highly between brands. For example, American Journey's Payne's Gray is a blend of PBk6 (aka Lamp Black) and PB27 (aka Prussian Blue). Some Payne's Grays actually contain three pigments like Winsor & Newton's (PB15/PBk6/PV19) and Grumbacher's (PB15:4/PB29/PBk6).
And this is exactly why I avoid this shade: It's just too unpredictable. But seriously though, it's your palette. I always encourage you to go with what works best for you.
To learn more about what these letters and numbers mean after each color, see my post here.
Another tube option for gray is to dilute black, and some single-pigment blacks work well when diluted. Ivory (PBk9) tends to be warm and semi-transparent; Lamp (PBk6) is more opaque and cool. But both of these blacks can be used to produce a small range of grays and may be more dependable than muli-pigmented Payne's Gray.
Some painters will also include white in a palette which (of course) when combined with black will produce gray, albeit a rather flat and dull version. But still, it's an easy shortcut.
In all honesty, black and gray are so easy to produce that I don't allow black or white to take up valuable real estate in my palette. You can learn more about mixing black here.
If you are determined to go the tube gray route, Jane Blundell has a great page of swatches, but again, take care with these. I urge you to explore your tube colors in mixes, because when you understand your palette, you can always modify a tube color to make it uniquely you.
If you absolutely can't stand to mix, at least scroll down and read "What to Avoid..." Some of these tips are extremely helpful with tube grays also. Plus, you'll understand why your tube gray went puce green when it mixed with yellow or umber on your paper.
Recipes for Mixing Gray
Oh my, this is the good stuff... the choices one has when mixing grays! Grays are known by a lot of names (shadow colors, neutrals, darks) and can work with a variety of undertones (red, green, blue) because if you take a good long look at shadows and reflections of objects, they aren't all gray, and they don't all look the same.
Grays in our world, like in shadows and skies and other smoky things, are actually an explosion of reflective colors that are mimicked best on paper when they aren't consistent. (In other words, not straight from a tube.) They are comprised of rosy, bluish, brownish hues mingled with purplish, greenish, yellowish tones all showcased into a perception of depth and deemed by us dull humans as "gray."
Even the simplest watercolor palette usually contains some form of red, blue, and yellow, and these three mix wonderfully well together into a variety of neutrals which the eye reads as "gray." And as you can see in the swatches below, the neutral or "shadow color" is easily modified by adjusting one of the three colors.
Are you thinking that these don't look gray? Me, too. However, I will highly encourage you to play with these mixes and use them as a "gray" to see how much more your paintings and sketches will glow and sing. Again, gray is never really just plain ole' gray.
I prefer to keep things simple, and I usually don't have time in the field to fiddle with three colors. The good news is that there's a wide range of two-color mixes that will easily result in gray. Below are plenty of examples to get you started.
Since unlimited grays can easily be created through mixing, why not give custom grays a go? It won't take much experimenting to discover one (or four) that you like. Just remember that watercolors don't show their true colors until dry, so it's important to test pigments and mixes until you know how to mix a gray spot on.
What to Avoid When Mixing Gray
No matter how you to choose to go about gray, there are a few things you may want to avoid. I will freely admit that I am a baby beginner watercolorist, but I've learned these things by lots of trials and huge errors. If another tries to tell you that my advice below is wrong, by all means, please listen, but don't say I didn't warn you.
Highly granulating pigments. Many of these don't dilute or mix well, and unfortunately, you often won't realize it until after the paint has dried. I've had some nasty surprises with those glamorous pigments that are touted as being the perfect "shadow color." For example, Daniel Smith's Bloodstone Genuine (above) is gorgeous but extremely finicky, and it doesn't behave well in my beginner's hand. Again, it's well worth your time to play with your palette every chance you get so you'll know a paint's characteristics, wet or dry.
Green-based blues. Green-hued blues like Prussian and Phthalo Blue GS (Phthalo Blue RS works a bit better; I compare both here) aren't the best options for mixing two-color grays... at first. With a bit of practice, both these colors can make lovely grays but not as easily as other blues. When mixing with a brown or earth tone, these blues tend to go green, which is lovely but it's not gray. Unless you want a grayed green, in which case...
Yellow-based earths. Just like using green-based blues, yellow-based earths like Raw Sienna, Monte Amiata, and Yellow Ochre like to turn green instead of gray. With a bit of practice, these can be used to make a lovely gray (like in the raw sienna/cobalt/ultramarine mixes above), but why frustrate yourself? In two-color mixes, deep browns like Raw Umber or Transparent Brown Oxide are the easiest to manipulate.
Untested colors. Many pigments will work very well when mixing two-color grays, but be aware that some won't always work well when diluted. Certain colors can produce a halo or separated effect when diluted that won't always be apparent until the paint dries. (I've often had trouble with highly staining or opaque pigments and the Quins.)
Whether you go with a tube color or decide to DIY your own, ugly surprises are never fun, but they are part of the learning process. However, you can minimize bad things happening by testing out a color thoroughly before diving in. This isn't a chore, I promise— mixing can be pure joy! This post can help you get started, or see all of my posts on mixing here.
Again, I'm always learning, so I'd love to hear about your favorite grays/greys. Feel free to leave me a comment below.
P.S. Did you catch my error in the painting at the top of this post? Look carefully... the second tree from the right is sitting to the right of the sun, so its shadow should actually fall to the right of the tree, not to the left as I have painted it. I caught my error in time to paint the shadow of the far right tree correctly, but there's still that lovely little goof. I hope by sharing this I encourage you to also embrace mistakes. After all, that's how we learn!