Color Mixing-How to Mix Beautiful Grays with Oil Paints

Grays color swatch

Mixing those Wonderful Grays

Colors in nature are rarely straight out of the tube. Your primary and secondary colors are too intense to look natural. When painting, you are constantly modifying your colors and graying their intensity to create paintings that are harmonious.

First, lets look at the definitions of color.

Primary Colors – These colors cannot be mixed. They are the colors from which all other colors are made. The primary colors are red, yellow, and blue.

Secondary Colors – These colors are mixed from the primary colors. The secondary colors are orange, green, and purple.

Tertiary Colors – These colors are the steps between the primary and secondary colors. The tertiary colors are red orange, yellow orange, red purple, blue purple, yellow green, and blue green.

Complementary Colors – Colors directly opposite one another on the color wheel. The compliment of red is green. The complement of blue is orange.

Analogous Colors – Colors near one another on the color wheel. Analogous colors of red are purple and orange. Analogous colors of green are yellow and blue.

Each color has three characteristics.

hue small

Hue– The hue of a color is what color family the color belongs to. Is it red, yellow, blue, green, orange, or purple?

Value sm

Value – How dark or light a color is.

Chroma small

Chroma – Is the intensity of a color, how bright or dull a color is.

Grays are essential to give your painting structure and depth. Grays are more than those neutral battleship grays. Every color has its highest saturation point or intensity. As the intensity of a color drops, it is referred to being “grayed down”. Browns are actually dark reds or oranges, where the intensity and value have been lowered.

Anytime you want to knock down the intensity of a color, in other words create “grayed color”, add the color’s complementary color. For instance, if you want to make a red less intense add green and you will get grayed reds. Continue adding green and you will get brown, which is also a grayed red.

Pushing a color more towards neutral gray is a multi-step process (and can be tricky for beginners). First add the color’s complement (such as green added to red), now depending if the colors aren’t completely complementary your color will never get to middle gray. It may get close but will lean a little purple,green, orange, well you get the picture. If it is leaning green than add a little red. Just a touch of color will push the color a lot so be careful. If it’s dark then add white to lighten the color, because most neutral grays are a middle to lighter end of the value scale. Below shows the Primary, and Secondary, and Tertiary colors on the color wheel moving towards gray.

Now some people may ask, why do this? Why can’t I just add black and white. Well the short answer is if you make grays with compliments they will be very rich grays. They won’t be as muddy or lifeless as grays mixed with black. The better answer is if you learn to do this you will have more control over your colors and you ability to control color mixtures will expand exponentially.

Color Wheel Chroma sm



Get out your paints and practice mixing color with their complementary colors. See the variations of color you can make. The possibilities are endless.

Here is an example of mixing grays with oil paint on my YouTube Channel

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24 thoughts on “Color Mixing-How to Mix Beautiful Grays with Oil Paints”

  1. Thanks I’m gonna practice color mixing today my paintings look like crap because I realize I have not taken the time to prActice grAying my colors. I have just recently picked up water mix able oil paints since starting to paint again the clean up is much easier. I also picked up some expensive sable brushes I’m not sure i like them why is that? And do you recommend good blending blending brushes with no stroke lines. Glad I found this website let me know if you teach a class close to San Diego


    1. Carey,
      Thank you so much for the comment. With sable brushes, you really have to thin the paint much more than with hog bristle brushes. About the consistency of half and half or heavy cream. Once you do though they work beautifully. I will let you know if I teach in San Diego.

  2. What is a neutral gray as opposed to just a gray? Is a neutral gray only neutral with its component colors? Can neutral grays have different values, without adding black or white, ranging from dark to light, and if so are neutral grays only effective with their component colors of equal value? I’m assuming that neutral grays are used to lighten or darken a hue to change its value, but not its hue. Thank you.

    1. Any color that isn’t at it’s highest intensity is a grayed color. As colors lose their intensity they become grayer until the color becomes a gray that doesn’t favor any of the color families so it is then a neutral gray. Neutral grays can be any value. They can be used to darken a color but more importantly, they can be used to control a color’s intensity or chroma.

    1. It depends on the manufacturer of the paint. Mars black gives you a gray closer to neutral gray. Most people will mix burnt umber and ivory black to get a neutral gray. If your burnt umber is too red use van dyke brown instead.

    2. Hey Sally- here’s a great neutral grey I’ve discovered while experimenting with the Atelier Interactive acrylics.
      first mix:
      1 part Cadmium orange + 2 parts Cerulean Blue = neutral hue ‘mud’ ( looks like a chalky Burnt Umber)
      then mix:
      3 parts of this ‘mud’ + 1 part titanium white = excellent neutral value grey.

  3. wow am really learning. I used to think grey is strictly a product of black and white which can either be dark or light depending on the quantity of black and white respectively. I used to think a complement mixed with a primary color gives a range of brown. I have learnt something but still a but confused. I need to try this practically

  4. I’m trying to get a grey sky to look like it’s going to rain with Bob Ross oil paints. When putting it on the canvas that has a thin coat of liquid white, it looks blue. How can in get the gray color?

    1. Hello Robert,
      This can be challenging. I am guessing it is a blue-grey that you are getting when you put it down on the canvas. You can easily make a color more neutral gray by adding the colors complement. So if it is casting blue you can add a touch of orange. Too much and it will become an orange-gray so add it in very small amounts. Usually, people would reach for Van Dyke Brown or Burnt Umber both of which are very dark oranges and since they have less intensity these colors would gray your blue color slowly. Good luck I hope that helps.

  5. Hi Kevin,
    If I mix a base grey using for example cerulean blue, vermilion red and cadmium yellow. Can I mix this grey with other colours to grey them out. Basically not using black. Will it still make the painting muddy or grubby which I thought was caused by using black. Thanks

    1. Hello James, Let’s first talk about muddy color. It is a term we hear a lot in the art world. First off a muddy color is usually the wrong color in the wrong place if it was surrounded by the correct colors it wouldn’t look muddy at all. Next, let’s talk about black which has gotten a bad reputation but used correctly it’s a wonderful color. It was used by all the French Impressionist painters and the post-impressionist painters with the only exception being Monet and even with Monet used it in his early career. The impressionists were known for their wonderful use of color and they used black. That doesn’t mean you have to use black many artists don’t and there are times I do use it and there are times I don’t but it shouldn’t be overlooked. You can gray color using compliments and you can use a mixed or tubed gray to add to your colors to gray them down. You can also use burnt umber and or black to gray colors. All of these work great. It’s more important how the colors work together than how they look individually.

  6. Stephen L. Schroeder

    I’ve been oil painting for a number of years now and have tried every way to mix beautiful grays with their complements. I now use Old Holland classic oil colors because the high pigmentation gives me the results I’m looking for. Recently, I used Old Holland Ivory Black to mix with each color on my palette. My palette consist of the following colors: Cadmium yellow light, Cadmium orange, Cadmium red light, crimson madder lake deep, Cobalt blue, and Prussian blue and Ivory black to gray each color. The results are realistic shades of grays to no end. I my opinion it’s the quality of paint you use makes the difference and after trying all oil colors on the current market Old Holland classic oil colors are the very best and well worth the price.

  7. Anything wrong using Old Holland Ivory Black to gray oil colors ? My palette consist of the following of Old Holland Classic Oil Colors: Titanium White, Cadmium Yellow Light, Cadmium Orange, Cadmium Red Light, Crimson Madder Lake Deep, Cobalt Blue, Prussian Blue and Ivory Black.

    1. No, nothing wrong with using black to gray color. Especially if the colors are high quality. When using a traditional or Rembrandt palette I usually use ivory black to darken and dull blues, purples and greens and burnt umber to dark and dull reds, oranges and yellows. If I really need something close to neutral combine burnt umber and black and then the hue of your choice.

  8. Your site and comments are very useful. There is always more to learn about mixing and using oil colors, and I will take the suggestion about purchasing even better quality oils in the future.

  9. Hi, this sounds crazy and out of place but I’m on DIY painting my interior walls and I really want to produce a lilac gray color. I’ve watch your video and saw that u mix violet and yellow and added a little white. This could be the lilac gray? Thanks

    1. Hello Marvin, paint especially latex paint can be rather tricky. Instead of mixing violet and yellow with house paint, I would mix a small amount of voilet with the grey tone you want it to be. Better yet when you go to the paint store look for a swatch closest the color you want and modify that color slightly. You will have better luck with either of the last two methods.

  10. Can I add white to a pearl grey colour to make a grey sky colour even if the white is glossy white colour that is added to matt of the pearl grey

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