How to Mix Gray With Watercolors

Knowing how to mix gray with watercolors is a very handy skill! Although color mixing can be challenging at first, when you understand the basics it’ll become easy.

So in this post, I will show you what you need to know when it comes to mixing grays with watercolors. 

Let’s get into it!

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Basic color theory

Before learning to make gray with watercolor, it’s important to discuss the basics of color theory so that you can understand the relationships between different colors.

Let’s start with the image below which shows a color wheel. A color wheel is a visual representation of color theory:

The color wheel is comprised of primary, secondary, and tertiary colors:

Primary colors: Red, Blue, Yellow

Secondary colors: Orange, Purple, Green

Tertiary colors:  Yellow-green, Yellow-orange, Red-orange, Red-purple, Blue-purple, Blue-green

Mixing two primary colors produces a secondary color. Combining a secondary color with a primary color makes a tertiary color. Finally, by mixing all three primary colors you can produce neutrals and earth tones. 

Complementary colors: these are colors that lay on opposite sides of the color wheel. When you mix complementary colors you can make neutral colors such as gray, brown, and black.

Colors also have a temperature bias, meaning some colors are warm and some are cool. If you’re confused about this, read my article which explains color temperature bias and color theory in depth.

This is just a quick introduction to color mixing. However, I recommend reading my guide on how to master watercolor mixing to further your skills!

Using pre-mixed gray

The easiest option is to go for ready-made grays such as Paynes gray.

Essentially, using pre-mixed grays on their own tends to produce a flat tone. It’s better to mix them with other colors. 

How to make gray with watercolors?

There are two ways to mix gray with watercolors, the first is by mixing red, blue, and yellow and the second is by mixing complementary colors. This includes purple and yellow, green and red, and finally blue and orange.

Making gray from primary colors

Neutral colors such as brown and gray are the result of mixing the three primary colors. Depending on which primary colors you mix and the amount you add you’ll either end up with a black, gray, or brown. 

Using primary colors to mix gray from scratch will take some practice to master. However, it’ll be worth it, because you’ll unlock countless possible shades! 

If you look closely at the clouds and shadows around you in real life, you’ll realize they don’t all consist of the same shade of gray. We’re used to pointing at something and calling it gray because it’s how we make sense of our world.

The image below shows a cloudy sky that I took during sunset. You can see how the sun has changed the color of the cloud to look yellowish-gray. Some parts of the clouds are more blueish-gray.

You can change the tone of gray by leaning slightly toward a specific primary color. Although you have to be careful with this, adding even a small amount of a primary color can change the color. Because of this, it can be difficult to replicate the same shade of gray. 

To master mixing grays with primary colors it’s important to experiment using different pigments. Below you can see five examples of making gray using different shades of red, blue, and yellow:

How to mix gray using primary colors. ( Five examples)

Compound mixing charts

Any color produced by combining all three primary colors is referred to as a compound color. Compound mixing charts show the possible hues you can mix with all three primary colors! Creating compound mixing charts can help you experiment and get to know your color palette better. They also help a great deal by acting as a reference to guide you while painting.

The image below shows a compound mixing chart. The chart shows the possible colors you can mix using cobalt blue, Quinacridone rose, and New Gamboge. The three colors are located on three corners of the chart (they are labeled below). 

The X-axis shows three shades of purple which you get by mixing Q.Rose and Cobalt blue at different ratios. The Y-axis shows three shades of orange you get from mixing Q. Rose and New Gamboge. The rest of the chart shows all the possible colors you can make by mixing different amounts of each color.

If you’re interested, I have written an entire article on how to make a compound mixing chart.

Mixing gray from complementary colors

When you mix two complementary colors you can make a neutral color (gray, brown, and black). This is because all complementary colors consist of a primary color and a secondary color that contains the other two primary colors. 

For example, red and green are complementary colors, and green is made with yellow and blue. When you add red you can create a neutral color because you are essentially mixing all three primary colors. The same goes for the other complementary colors:

– Blue and orange

– Purple and yellow

Complementary color recipes to make gray

Using complementary colors will make it easier to replicate the same shade. Below are a few complementary color recipes I like to use.

  1. Alizarin crimson + Viridian
  2. Cobalt blue + Burnt Sienna
  3. Ultramarine + burnt umber
How to mix gray with complementary colors in watercolor painting

How to mix light gray

To mix light gray, use a blue that’s lighter in value such as cobalt blue or cerulean blue, and neutralize it with it’s complementary (orange). In the example below I combined cobalt blue with burnt sienna to produce a beautiful light gray:  

How to mix light gray

How to mix dark gray

Using dark reds and blues such as Prussian Blue or Pthalo blue and alizarin crimson is an excellent way to make dark grays. I also noticed adding warm yellows produces darker grays. You can see this in the mixtures below:

How to make dark gray with watercolor

Mixing Alizarin crimson with Viridian can produce a beautiful dark gray.

Examples of mixing dark gray with watercolors

Just remember, when learning how to mix gray with watercolors, experimenting with your palette goes a long way. You’ll be able to figure out new color recipes and decide what you prefer the most. So grab your paints and start mixing!

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