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Mixing grays with acrylic paints

Acrylic Paints Can be Easy to Work With

I find color mixing a joy using acrylic paints.  This image is a painting I did titled "The Jazz Player."  I did use my own graying techniques.

I find color mixing a joy using acrylic paints. This image is a painting I did titled "The Jazz Player." I did use my own graying techniques.

Grays, or neutrals, are terrific tools in the artist's toolbox. Gray can be used in a variety of ways:

  1. to tone down colors that are too bright or intense
  2. to create shadow areas instead of adding black
  3. as a color choice in and of themselves

Not all grays are created equal, however. You could think of gray as being just a mixture of black and white. As soon as you've added any amount of white to black, you begin a gray scale. However, the simple black-plus- white gray gives you a rather bland, unexciting neutral. Try mixing various colors together and use them in place of the black-plus-white gray and something exciting begins to happen in a painting.

Try making gray using a mix of colors

Grays, or neutrals, mixed from colors can be created by either of these ways:

1. mixing the three primary colors together, Red plus Blue plus Yellow - this is called "primary gray"

2. mixing a primary with its complement to make a "complementary gray" [a complement is the color opposite on the color wheel. Red and Green, Yellow and Purple, Blue and Orange...or another way to explain it: it is a primary color mixed with a secondary color. An example would be Red plus Green. Red is the primary color and Green, the secondary color which is a mixture of the primary colors Blue and Yellow.]

Not a "gray" in the traditional way of thinking, a primary gray nevertheless is a great neutral to use instead of a black-plus-white mixture. Because a primary gray contains within it each of the three primary colors, it will enhance and enliven any color it is either added to or painted next to.

An example would be painting the foliage of a tree. Greens are most often the color of choice for tree foliage. Mix up a primary gray and use it in the shading areas. The Blue and Yellow in the primary gray mix will intensify the Green of the foliage because the color Green is made from a mixture of Blue and Yellow. The Red in the primary gray will add interest because the Green used for the foliage is the complement of the color Red.

Hints on Color Mixing

Sometimes when mixing hues (colors) together, they can seem too dark to tell exactly what you've got.

  • An idea: take one part, say the size of a pea, of the color you've just made, and mix it with the same size of white...this will give you a tint of the color you mixed. It is a unique and quick way to translate your mixture for you.

For example, you could mix the primary colors blue, red and yellow to make a primary gray, but the mixture is rather dark. Take a pea-size amount of that and mix it with a pea-size amount of white. Using a palette knife spread some of that on a scratch piece of canvas. What you'll see is the lighter version of your primary gray. You'll get a much better clue as to which of the primary colors is dominate...once tinted it may pull more towards blue/purple or more towards red/purple or even red/orange.

When making a reference chart, it's a good idea to put this tint down next to the mixed example so you can have that translation reminder.

Make a gray using primary colors

Making a primary gray is as simple as mixing, in equal parts, Red plus Blue plus Yellow. Where it gets really interesting is in choosing which Red, Blue and Yellow to use. Each paint formulation will give you a completely different result. For example:

  • Cadmium Red Hue plus French Ultramarine plus Cadmium Yellow Hue will give you one result;
  • Naphthol Crimson mixed with Brilliant Blue mixed with Lemon Yellow will give you a result totally different.

Try a few of these primary combinations. Mix them in equal ratio: one part each. Make a chart that shows what color formulations you chose and after you've mixed them, apply a bit next to the mixture notations so you can see what the result is. This makes a good reference chart for future painting purposes.

  • Prussian Blue plus Vermillion Hue plus Cadmium Yellow Deep Hue
  • Cobalt Blue plus Venetian Red plus Gamboge
  • Cerulean Blue plus Permanent Rose plus Cadmium Yellow Light

Grays made with complementary colors

It gets very interesting when mixing grays made from complements. The possible combinations are many. Remember that a Complementary Gray is made from mixing, in equal parts, a primary color and its complement like Blue plus Orange. The possible combinations of just this Blue-plus-Orange gray are many. First start with the possible combinations of making Orange, mixing an equal part of each:

  • Cadmium Red Medium plus Cadmium Yellow Medium
  • Naphthol Crimson plus Cadmium Yellow Light
  • Vermillion Hue plus Cadmium Yellow Deep
  • Primary Magenta plus Lemon Yellow

This gives you four separate "oranges;" now take just Cerulean Blue and mix with each and you have four distinct Blue/Orange complementary grays. Then take Winsor Blue and mix with each of these oranges and you have yet four more different grays or neutrals. You can see how you can have a field day just coming up with combinations for mixing the color orange; and then have another day mixing those oranges with all the various Blue formulations.

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  • You can also mix your blues with an orange "from the tube" such as Cadmium Orange or Vivid Red Orange. However, you greatly expand your rainbow of possibilities by mixing your secondary colors yourself.

A Red and Green Complementary Gray example works the same. For this example choose Cadmium Red Medium as the Red. Now make a variety of Greens, again using an equal one-to-one ratio:

  • Winsor Blue plus Primary Yellow
  • Primary Cyan plus Cadmium Yellow Medium
  • Phthalo Blue plus Lemon Yellow
  • Azurite Hue plus Gamboge

After mixing the Greens, using the Cadmium Red Medium, add equal mixtures Red and Green to create four interesting neutrals. Now use a different Red with these same Greens; again, more choices for you as an artist.

And finally a Yellow and Purple Complementary Gray works the same way. As example choose the Cadmium Yellow Medium as the primary Yellow and make a selection of purples:

  • Winsor Blue plus Cadmium Red Light
  • Cerulean Blue plus Permanent Rose
  • Prussian Blue plus Cadmium Red Deep
  • Indanthrene Blue plus Primary Magenta

Using an equal ratio, mix your Cadmium Yellow Medium with each purple and you have four distinct neutrals. Choose a different Yellow with these same purples and you have four more.

Creativity is about Experimentation

Creativity in painting is not limited to the painting itself, it is also in the choices of colors used. And it can even be in the mixing of the colors that sit on the painter's palette. Experiment. Have fun. It's only paint!


Nelvia from Atlanta on July 26, 2020:

So ething I don’t use enough are neutrals in my paintings.

Jason from Indianapolis, IN. USA on June 26, 2014:

GREAT HUB! You mention only greys made from equal parts of there constituents. An artist should also carefully a small amount of excess primary or complimentary color to produce grays with a hue bias. Add a little extra blue to make a bluish grey, or a little extra yellow or green for greenish gray or shades of mint green.

Randi Benlulu from Mesa, AZ on January 20, 2013:

A good, informative hub!

Linda C Smith (author) from United States on January 17, 2013:

Thanks to everyone for the kind words.

prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on January 17, 2013:

I love painting and I got wonderful tips here about mixing the gray with acrylic paints. Thanks for share with us. Voted up!


Linda C Smith (author) from United States on January 17, 2013:

Thank you for your kind words @MaximumFatLoss.

Dr Abby Campbell from Charlotte, North Carolina on January 17, 2013:

Great hub! I come from a line of artists, though I don't have much of an artistic flair personally. My youngest daughter (17) is a wonderful artist. I'm going to send her to your posts, Linda. Thank you! ;)

George CloggI on June 11, 2012:

I have just turned 94 and have been painting on and off all my life. It wasn't until recently when I discovered Linda C.S Smith demonstrating how to use acrylic making colorful grey tones, did I feel rather ashamed of my ignorance. She is an exceeningly talented person. If only you had a TV show! Thank you for sharing your talent.

Salt Spring Island.

daniellachep on January 06, 2011:

Wonderful hub!

I am a self-taught artist and thrive on information as such. I also love your unique style of painting. I love acrylics as well. I do enjoy (not too often) painting with knife and other tools to add texture.

Thank you for the information.

anderson_weli on January 05, 2011:

Worthy of study of hub

blackmarx from Cameron, WIsconsin on November 23, 2010:

Thank you very much for the new insight into grays, I plan to use this new found knowledge ASAP. Great hub.

Jasmine on April 30, 2010:

I´m bookmarking your hub as I am new to acrylic painting and any advice is valuable!

bonny2010 on January 27, 2010:

Thank you for this hub I love to paint, but Iam self taught even though I experiment a lot I often run up against a brick wall information such as yours helps me along the road to paintings I can be happy with

nikki1 on December 14, 2009:

very informative/love ur artwork.

m miller on October 20, 2009:

Thanks- very nice tips!

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