How to Mix Amazing Grays in Watercolor

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Color mixing is something I’m good at. Watercolor, acrylic, encaustic: I can mix and match and get just what I’d been hoping for – sometimes something even better than I’d hoped for. I discovered this fact quite by accident a couple of years ago, and it’s come in quite handy. I can save money by sticking mostly to buying primary colors. And I can create truly individual colors that you won’t necessarily find in tubes or pans. I’ve mixed some amazing greens (if I do say so myself) and yellows and oranges are among my very favorites to mix (which is ironic because neither rank among my favorite colors). But it wasn’t until I started working with Sandrine Pelissier (author of Fearless Watercolor for Beginners) that I really gave much thought to gray.

Yes, gray, that workhorse of paint colors. It does it all, shadows, lines, light. But the extent of my inventiveness with the color gray was to add black or white to a tube gray, or maybe if I was really going to live it up, I’d mix black with white! Crazy, I know.

While the results were typically satisfactory, they were nothing special. But I didn’t really notice that. After all, it’s gray we are talking about. I never knew gray could be … dare I say it … exciting! And those primary colors I said I rely on? They are truly all that is needed to create grays that have life, depth and maybe even a little mystery. The easiest way to mix grays is to mix complementary colors: green and red, yellow and violet, or blue and orange. Here are Sandrine’s favorite gray mixes (and by extension, my favorites as well):

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Gray mixed from complementaries Alizarin Crimson and Viridian Green. This is a great mix when you need a very dark gray. Alizarin Crimson and Viridian Green are intense colors, so the resulting mix is quite dark. You can add water to lighten the mix, if desired.

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Gray mixed from complementaries Cadmium Lemon Yellow and Violet. This mix creates a very soft and luminous gray.

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Gray mixed from complementaries Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna (a very dark orange). This mix creates an excellent natural-looking gray for landscapes. This mix also has a tendency to granulate and produce very nice effects on textured paper.

Those are all beautiful, soulful light grays. But if you need (or desire!) something darker in your painting, you can use a dark gray or a black straight from the tube or the pan, or you can mix these as well. Black from the tube is usually very neutral. You will get a more vibrant gray or black if you mix (or layer) your own darks. You’ll also be able to make very subtle variations. For example, try mixing a black with a hint of red or a black with a hint of blue. The resulting colors are far more interesting and vibrant, still made by mixing complementaries, just darker version of complementary primaries. Again, Sandrine knows what she’s doing. Check out these combinations and feel free to make them your own:

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Color combinations from left to right:

  • Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna
  • Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Umber
  • Alizarin Crimson and Winsor Green
  • Alizarin Crimson and Prussian Blue
  • Dark Purple and Sap Green

On the far right are Payne’s Gray (top) and Yarka Neutral Tint Black (bottom) (Included here so you can compare these “out of the tube” darks with the mixed darks.)

Remember, watercolor dries to a lighter shade than it appears to be when it’s wet. To get a very dark gray or black you might need to paint a few layers, allowing the paint to dry between applications, until you achieve the desired shade.

So if you haven’t before, go ahead and give it a try. Make a playdate with yourself and try mixing grays to your heart’s content. I think you’ll be glad you did.

*The photography and paint combinations in shared in this post come from Sandrine’s book Fearless Watercolor for Beginners. Check it out for tons of great instruction on everything watercolor, including some really interesting ideas for combining watercolor and mixed media.

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