Follow Me on Facebook  Get 'How To' Articles via RSS Feed

Using Grays in your Oil Painting.  By Don Finkeldei:  How to achieve harmony, balance and reserve in your oil painting by pre-mixing grays from the primary colors.

I use a limited palette (cadmium red light, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium lemon yellow, ultramarine blue and a little Alizarin and viridian).  Rather than adjusting the tube colors with complementary colors and white to decrease intensity and adjust value, I use grays that I pre-mix to moderate the tube colors.  I mix a very dark gray (almost black) by using 2.5 parts of ultramarine blue, 1 part cadmium red light and 1 part cadmium yellow medium (I use Utrecht paints, other brands might require different parts). You can also use orange since that's the same as equal parts of yellow and red.  This combination makes a very dark neutral gray ( that I’ll use to mix the darkest shadow colors for the painting).   I mix a lighter cool gray by adding white and blue to the dark gray and a lighter warm gray by adding white, yellow and red (a khaki gray color).  Sometimes I mix three or more value ranges (darker to lighter) of cool and warm grays, especially if a painting will contain primarily shadow areas where I want fine control over the color intensity and values in the shadows.

There are three properties of any paint you use.  They are hue (color), value (lightness or darkness as viewed with no chroma - grays) and chroma (color intensity).  A pure gray has no chroma. Pure primary colors (cadmium red, Cadmium yellow or ultramarine blue)  have maximum chroma.  Value is the lightness or darkness of the paint as seen without color (gray scale - what it would be if  on a scale of black to white).  Using  neutral grays to adjust  chroma  and value  without modifying the hue is obviously an advantage with this technique and will give you much greater control in mixing paints.  As an example, lets say you mix pure red and blue together to get a purple color (hue).  You can then use the neutral grays (of the right value you need) mixed with the purple to attain the correct chroma (color intensity) and not have to worry about changing the color.  An intense chroma of purple ( in this case ) is lessened by  graying the purple (making the chroma less intense) and the value (lightness/darkness) is modified by either using a darker or lighter  value of neutral gray (lighter values have more white in the gray, darker values have less white in the gray).

I almost never use pure primary tube colors on the canvas directly.  The reason is that a scene in nature almost never contains pure primary colors either.  Another reason:  using grays to moderate the primaries allows you to build a reserve into your painting and creates harmony.  You will want to de-emphasize and subdue certain areas of your painting allowing your focal objects and areas to take precedence.   If you don’t construct a painting with reserve in mind, you won’t be able to achieve an effective focal point with that extra punch you need.  Use the grays to adjust your primary colors to the right intensity and value and you’ll find that your learning curve and accuracy will increase very quickly.

Using an ample supply of pre-mixed grays of varying value and temperature (cool (more blue in the neutral gray),  and warm (more yellow and red in the neutral gray)) will allow you to arrive at just the right mixture much quicker than trying to mix each brushstroke without them.  Your plein air painting will also be completed quicker.  That’s important when lighting conditions and clouds vary rapidly throughout the day.

I can't stress enough the importance of being able to mix grays to moderate tube paints. Also, notice that my palette background is a mid value perfectly neutral gray.  That's important because the palette background color will skew your perception of the color you mix.

Don't buy a lot of tube colors thinking you can use them as they are.   It's a bad crutch and will not  teach you the important nuances of how to arrive at the exact hue, value and chroma you need.  Learn how to mix EXACTLY what you need because paint out of  tubes almost never are "exactly what you need".  All is needed are the primary colors and a variety of grays.  from that, any color value and hue can be achieved.  I can arrive at yellow ochre, cobalt blue, orange, brown, purple, or whatever color/value/chroma that I want from the three primary colors and grays.  It's also much less expensive than buying a huge array of tube paints.

Don't use different manufactures of paint.  Be Consistent.  Don't use barium reds or off colors of the primaries.  Stick with CADMIUM RED, CADMIUM YELLOW and ULTRAMARINE BLUE made by the same manufacturer.  They are the closest colors to the primaries.  The use of a cooler yellow like CADMIUM LEMON YELLOW ( a cooler yellow than Cadmium Yellow) and transparent colors like VIRIDIAN and ALIZARON (good for shadow areas) can be a valuable addition to your palette (I show them on my palette below).  Don't buy student grade paints.  They don't go as far as the professional grades and are very weak in pigment.  Learn the proportions needed to mix a flat neutral gray with your manufacturers paints (most important - grays are moderators for value and chroma).

A limited Palette with Gray Modifiers


# DLD 2013-08-13 00:32
THANK YOU! Mr. Finkeldei for the time you put into the tips on painting, ESPECIALLY using greys! I've used the compliment way for a while, did lots of research and color charts, and your way of color mixing to get the proper hue, value, chroma is spot on, I cannot see any other way but your way. I bet the old masters used the grey way to mix colors especially Ivan Aivazovsky; I have been studying his paintings for two years to try to figure out how he mixed his colors, now I know the secret! Thank you again! D
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Don Finkeldei 2013-08-16 20:08
Ivan Aivazovsky is a great tonalalist painter. I think he used mostly transparent paints. He knew how to mix grays and use tonal washes. Superb!
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Steve 2013-03-29 19:42
Don - great article. I read a book by Edgar Payne and he mentioned that as he learned to paint, he was increasingly brought to the realization the importance of using grays in landscape painting. This has helped me tremendously, and I also thank you for not just this article, but all of them on your site. A great help!
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Mike Le Blanc 2013-02-24 20:59
when i was 18 i took painting lessons from my uncle
he taught hue value chroma, I asked him when do i use
use gray and he couldn't answer. all these years i've tried every method and couldn't harmonize color.
I found your site and you got it right. My painting
has zoomed into wonderfulville. I can now make pretty color and control it. A hundred thanks for sharing your method. i think its the secret of painting. there is much info out there that doesn't make the picture work.
I'm now hitting my color pretty quick. It use to take me 5 tries and i was never satisified. I now can paint like the painter i've always admired. God bless you. Mike
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Kimberlee 2013-02-24 20:58
I have been painting for a little over 10 years now.
I am finally to the point of understanding value and color.
Every time I see a painting filled with grey tones, I always say to myself..."Wow that person really understands color."
I am always in awe of those people and knew there was information missing from my paintings. Grey is that missing link and your article here is like a magic key. Thank you so very much...I can not wait to try this! I am so very excited to mix these shades...I will keep you posted.- Thanks again.
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Kelly 2013-02-24 20:54
I already have some grey down as a toned overcoat in some areas. the shades are a bit purple oriented and in some places a bit bluish. How can I neutralize these to a more neutral grey with a see through wash over?
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Don Finkeldei 2013-02-24 20:57
Kelly, I wouldn't use a see though overcoat with white (in the gray) in it. White is opaque. Just use thinned paint without white in it. Thin it to the consistency you need for the wash over.
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Vijaya 2013-02-24 20:52
Helpful article for the beginners like me.It will help to improve.Before going through this material,i used to add burnt senna,burnt amber,raw umber,yellow ochre for values.Is it a correct way?
Thank you
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Pam 2013-02-24 20:50
Boy did you hit the mark on paint drying different on acrylic primed canvas and oil primed linen. It took me five years to discover that. The Retouch varnish and liquin is new news. Will that work with watersoluble oil paints also?
Very nice of you to share. Very nice. Thank you.
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Don Finkeldei 2013-02-24 20:51
Yes, you can use a little liquin with water soluble oil paints. A good blog to read about this is at:

You can also use retouch or varnish on water soluble paints.
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Faisal 2013-02-24 20:49
I absolutely loved the way you have covered limited pallette and greys on your "How To" Article section. I have read and re-read these. You... Sir... have dispensed some awesome wisdom to the world. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you...
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Richard Wyatt 2013-02-24 20:46
Wonderfully helpful material. One question and I am not quite sure how to formulate. Often I hear the warning about mixing grays out of the primary colors that they are not really neutral or that they need to be further modified to be neutral. Is this a concern???? Am I understanding this or am I hopelessly confused. Thanks
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Don Finkeldei 2013-02-24 20:47
Richard, If you have the well balanced highest series paints it will cross the neutral gray area perfectly. Utrecht Series3 orange and Utrecht Series1 ultramarine (and other quality brands) are perfectly balanced compliments. Some lesser series paints may contain barium or be slightly non complimentary and won't cross the neutral gray area. For instance, using a rembrandt series 1 or 2 orange with some other brand of ultramarine will not cross the neutral gray area - the closest you can get is a green gray which means you'd have to add a little red to bring it back to neutral.
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Gerry 2013-02-24 20:45
Thanks so much. This is the most valuable and clearly understood info I've had in 10 years of oil painting.
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Rebati 2013-02-24 20:42
This is really brilliant.I have one question is that,in my painting light values goes one or two step darker when it dries.I am not understanding where am wrong.Please help me.
Thank You
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Don Finkeldei 2013-02-27 17:04
Yes, paint will always dry darker especially if you are using gessoed boards or acrylic gesso primed canvas. I try to keep that in mind. Using an alkyd or oil primed linen will keep the painting vibrant. Retouch varnish will bring the painting back to life. A little Liquin as a medium will help. Also, when I continue a painting that has dried I paint the entire canvas with a thin coat of Liquin to bring the painting back to "wet" values so I can match the paint better.
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# SFX 2013-02-24 20:43
Nice site, thanks for sharing!

To user Rebati:

Stay away from liquin and retouch varnish.
Instead of retouch varnish ^oilout^ the painting (when the painting is dry, pass oil only with a brush then remove the excess with a towel, then you can rework it after without worries, may have to be done more than once).
I simply dont use liquin cause i want my painting to stay true to the old techniques (time tested also) Dont know how liquin will react with linseed/walnut oil with time, or if it will darken. I WONT risk my work for their product.
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote

Add comment

Security code