50 Shades of Grey

I have been back to basics regarding colour, to enable me to move forward from a knowledge base, rather than intuition.

Starting with co-primaries, prismic colours, cool red, blue, yellow, warm, red, blue, yellow, warm advances, cool recedes.  Cool red moves towards violet, warm red towards orange;  cool blue moves towards violet, warm blue towards green;  cool yellow moves towards green, warm yellow moves towards orange.



Fig 1

Hue – name of the colour

Value – Lightness on the grey scale

Saturation – richness of colour

Overtone – colour temperature, leans towards

Analogous – adjacent on colour wheel

3 ways to change a prismic colour into muted tones (second circle fig 2), adding white, adding grey, or adding a complimentary colour (secondary triad fig 1).

Chromatic grey (third circle fig 2), discernible hue, eg bluey-grey


Fig 2

Achromatic grey has no discernible colour, fourth row in, fig 2.

Yellow/Violet – greatest difference

Blue/Orange – best grey

Red/Green – opposite and equal, can interchange

Triadic is the triangulation of colours across the colour wheel.

Colour range:  Same family, oranges/red;  Complimentary – yellow/violet,  blue/orange,  red/green;  Organisation – triadic



Mixing muted and chromatic colours from complimentaries


Repeating above with slightly differing proportions in the mix


Of particular interest is the second row, cool.  All other attempts to mix a grey have had a bias towards mushroom or lilac.  This mix produced the closest to achromatic grey.

From a slightly different perspective, I have been reading about the history of colour, human response to colour and anecdotal stories about colour.

Bright Earth and Colour -Travels Through the Paintbox, were both recommended by recent MA graduate Alexa Cox.  Both are must reads.

In Bright Earth, Philip Ball traces the history of each colour in painstaking detail, to create a surprising page-turner packed with insights into the derivation of the colours but also their application through history.

Victoria Finlay is like an intrepid detective seeking out stories in remote parts of the world in Colour -Travels Through the Paintbox.  Her determination to route out the truths concerning colour is highlighted by her trip to the depths of the Aboriginal heartland, with the patience and permissions that that entailed, to uncover the secret of a particular white, used exclusively by a particular Aboriginal painter.  Her writing is engaging and so informative, from de Menonville’s determination to break the Spanish stranglehold on the red dye market, to the pencil museum in Keswick, in the Lake District, built to celebrate the area’s graphite deposit.  Not content with visiting the museum, she travels to Seathwaite looking for the unmarked mine in the depth of winter …pure delight.

Faber Birren has written many books on colour and is referenced in others.  I was therefore surprised by the weakness of Colour & Human Response.  Drawing on the research of others, he condenses and repackages the information for a wider, non-academic market.  The work dates back to 1978, which perhaps explains the irritating illustrations accompanying the start of each chapter and the weakness of the work.

Ball, P, 2009 Bright Earth, the Invention of Colour, Vintage

Finlay, V, 2002, Colour -Travels Through the Paintbox, Sceptre

Birren, F, 1978, Colour & Human Response, John Wiley & Sons

Author: susanmilleruk

Watercolour painter living, working and loving Hastings and St Leonards on Sea. MA in Fine Art.

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