How to mix subtle grays for your next oil painting

Paintings by Francisco Silva named Full Stop
“Full Stop” by Francisco Silva

Why can’t I just use a tube of gray paint?

…or mix Titanium White and Ivory Black to make gray? You can, but as a painter you should learn to mix paint:

  • to expand you understanding of color
  • to increase your range of color choices

How to start

I prefer Gamblin oil paints (my choice for using Gamblin may be a future post). To get a neutral gray, I start with equal parts Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Sienna and Titanium White. But I prefer to mix equal parts Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna to get a dark, rich gray. I then add small amounts of Titanium White to get the desired tint. My next step is to add small amounts of Burnt Sienna to make a “warm” gray or Ultramarine Blue to make a “cool” gray. Try experimenting to create a range of grays with different values.

Examples of usage

Detail of Painting named Full Stop
Detail of “Full Stop” by Francisco Silva

Above is a painting I recently finished. Detail A is an example of a warm gray. Detail B is an example of a cool gray. Since this is a night scene with many light sources, I wanted to emphasize the subtlety of the lighting by using a range of warm and cool grays. If you look at the entire painting, you can see that I’ve created cool colors on the left side to warm colors on the right side. This was done to create different moods.

Detail A shows a warm gray that creates a more interesting contrast in the lights and darks within the painting. It’s this subtlety that we’re trying to achieve.

Detail B shows cool grays that have more blue paint. You’ll notice that there are variations of cool blues within this detail.

How it improves your painting

As a painter, you want to increase your choices by creating a wide range of colors and values. Why settle for one choice (Payne’s gray) when I can mix a multitude of grays and have something that will create more visual interest in my painting.

Summary

  1. Learn to mix color to become a better painter
  2. Start with Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna to mix you initial gray
  3. Add Titanium White to tint the gray
  4. Add Ultramarine Blue to create a “cooler” gray
  5. Add Burnt Sienna to create a “warmer” gray
  6. Use this technique to improve your color range and create different moods within the painting

How do you mix grays in your painting? What colors/techniques do you use?