The charm of gray in oil painting

Published: Wednesday 31 January, 2018

With its unique attributes of fuzziness and conciliatory, gray is absolutely an indispensable color in oil painting. Artists can create more attractive optical effects by using various painting techniques on gray. It is no exaggeration to say the beauty of gray makes those famous oil paintings great.


As an artist's recreation of nature, oil painting is the modeling art that painter melts and reproduces the real structure of the underlying surface, and its techniques are mainly shown in two aspects: sketch and color. If drawing is the skeleton and body of an oil painting, then color is the blood flowing in it. It is the color that endows oil painting with strong artistic inspiration and infinite vitality. However, rather than red, yellow, and blue or black and white, gray is the color most painters feel difficult to master. Paul Cezanne, a French impressionist, once said, “you’re not really a painter unless you know how to paint gray.”


1.The charm of gray

  • Fuzziness

As far as color attributes are concerned, the typical feature of gray is fuzziness. From the nature of color, gray has no color tendency. It's just a middle color between black and white. It has the same purity and lightness as other colors, but its attribute is hard to define. Gray smooths the sharp visual sense of purity and lightness so that all kinds of colors in the entire oil painting show in harmony and look solid.



  • Harmonization

In the process of producing an oil painting, how to blend colors well is really a problem for artists because even a little deviation will make the viewer feel uncomfortable. When we appreciate those masterpieces with intense tone, we won’t get irritable on account of the harmonization of gray. In these paintings, gray is used as an intermediate tone among a variety of colors so as to relieve the tension caused by bright colors.


2. Techniques of applying gray

It's not difficult to find the common points among famous oil paintings: gray tone sets off the main color in the influence of different colors so that people have a visual enjoyment when watching the artwork. And there are three basic techniques for applying gray color:


  • Glazing

All kinds of pure colors on the canvas are separated from each other, but they are arranged in a subtle arrangement by the painter so that people can integrate these pure colors into one with their own vision. In this technique, using gray tone is the key to make color blocks separate naturally.


  • Impasto

Impasto is a technique where paint or pigment is laid on an area of the surface thickly. The optical gray produced by this technique is far more attractive than the true gray in an oil painting.


  • Chiaroscuro

Chiaroscuro is the compromise of light and shade in a picture or the effect produced by light and shade in a place. The basic principle of this technique is to paint lots of opaque pigment on bright parts, and transparent pigment on dark parts. Artists using this technique not only pay attention to the sense of optical gray, but also needn’t be too rigid in fine skills.



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