Watercolours techniques and tips

Monochrome shades

Gray is a shade between white and black, usually 1/5th of black for 4/5th of white.

Gray is perceived as a non-color, but for painters it is the color that makes others shine.

In graphic art and in interior architecture, the nuances are subtle and even poetic:
gray slate, bitumen, celadon, gray (a mixture of gray and beige), gray of Payne (created by the English watercolorist William Payne), Gray mouse or pearl, turtledove (a warm gray), turd (color inspired by horses whose gray pulls on the yellow) or gray putty.



Picasso uses a lot of white, black and gray in moments when he wants to say something very important and when he does not want to waste his time with color.

Carmen Giménez, administrator of the Reina Sofía Museum where Guernica has been exhibited since 1981.


How to find yourself in these shades of gray?

Words are not enough, even if we can share what Pearl Gray may mean. Professionals use color charts, and I present you 2 as an example:

  • The Pantone color chart comes from the print shop, and references a combination of 18 colors, rather than the 3 primary colors.
  • The WEB color classification, which accepts 29 gray references.

Pantone color chart
In the Pantone color chart, there are 148 references.

Color name Color sample Color name Color sample
Grey   Steel gray  
Slate Gray   Anthracite  
Silver Gray   Payne  
Clay   Gris fer  
Bis   Gris fer 2  
Bistre   Pearl gray  
Bistre 2   Pearl gray 2  
Bitumen   Mouse gray  
Celadon   Dove gray  
Chestnut   Mastic  
Oxidized tin   Pinchard  
Pure tin   Lead  
Smoke   Mountbatten Rose  
Grege   Mole  

29 gray colors are referenced among the web colors.

Watercolor instant grays

In watercolor, there are two direct grays, gray payne and gray davy. The first is dark, slightly bluish while the second is lighter, predominantly green.

The opinions of the watercolor painters are controversial: some look at these instant grays as dirty colors, others include them willingly in their palette. We will see why in the rest of the article.


Payne gray


Davy gray

Payne gray

Payne gray from Winsor & Newton is a mixture of phthalocyanine blue, black and a quinacridone pigment. It has a bluish appearance.

At Blockx, Payne gray also contains ultramarine blue, black and a red pigment.

Examples of mixtures

  • The mixture of gray of payne and crimson of alizarin gives a gray-brown as well as the mixture of gray of payne and of burnt shadow earth
  • The mixture of gray of payne and blue ceruleum gives a gray-blue
  • The gray mixture of payne and overseas gives a gray

Boats on the pond, Gérard Leserre

The background of this watercolor is made from aureoline, magenta and a tip of red transparent oxide. The lower part is enhanced with payne gray. The vegetation is enhanced with the same gray and blue.

Davy gray

Davy gray often has a very light green tint.

It allows very subtle color corrections.

Discreet, it is in fact very useful when delicate hues are sought after

Landscape, Dominique Maréchal

Quebec quietness. An artist's village, peaceful along the river, watercolor done on the pattern, 18x26cm.

Water and lots of green, olive, bladder green, chrome oxide, perylene green, davy gray, and always a tip of red.

Dominique Maréchal

I specify here the characteristics of these two grays. You can find more explanations on the analysis of a color on this article. Indeed, Payne and Davy are colors each using 3 or more pigments, and which are semi opaque.

Winsor & Newton Payne gray characteristics
Color number 465
Serie 1
Resilience to the light II
Permanence score A
Pigment(s) PB15,PBk6,PV19
Product code 102465
Transparence/Opacity SO (Semi Opaque)
Davy gray characteristics
Color number 217
Serie 1
Resilience to the light I
Permanence score AA
Pigment(s) PG17,PBk6,PBk19, PW5
Product code 102217
Transparence/Opacity SO (Semi Opaque)

Compose a gray from the 3 primary colors



In watercolor, gray is obtained by mixing the three primary colors: red (pink madder), blue (cobalt) and yellow (aureoline). This is called a trichrome gray.

It is advisable to start with blue, then add red, and switch to gray with yellow.


Primary color and complementary color

An equivalent way is to take a primary color and associate the complementary pair (major pair):

  • For blue, the complementary is the orange (of cadmium)
  • For yellow, the complementary is purple (crimson alizarin and ultramarine blue)
  • For red, the complement is green (emerald)

Mouse grays

One can play on the pigments to obtain:

  • Neutral grays, whose colors are perfectly balanced
  • Gray to predominantly cold or hot, revealing a color as the mixture is uneven.

By uneven, one understands either a predominance in quantity of one of the primary colors, or a more covering (more opaque or less transparent) pigment. This is calledmouse grays.

According to this same principle, it is possible to apply after drying of the first layer another very transparent layer, from a complementary color applied in glaze of an underlying color.

The Winsor colors (Winsor blue, yellow Winsor, ...) are generally more covering.

Grays combinations

To illustrate the color revealed by the association of gray, I propose two watercolors that associate the grays between them:


Curley's Barn, Jeanne Dobie
53 x 68 cm, mouse gray, diluted or saturated (Aureoline, Garance Rose, Blue Cobalt, Indian Red, Emerald Green, Cadmium Yellow, ...).


Small view, Isabelle Corcket
19 x 19cm, colored grays combinations.

Make grays sing


The setting and the jewel

Make color sing, Jeanne Dobie

The secret of gray is uneven mixtures.

To bring out the gray, or so that the gray brings out a color, one juxtaposes a gray with a dominant with the complementary color.

Look at these squares and take a step back, note the vibrations of the centers.

To illustrate how a gray background can bring out the main subject, below are two watercolors that use this process:


The red heels, Emms 2011

Demonstration on a subject in ocher tones embedded in a bluish gray.
The gray is composed of a yellow base auroline + quinachridone magenta to make an orange, then a cobalt blue.


Tea Break, Angus McEwan 2016

Watercolor on Fabriano paper handmade, 56 x 38 cm.
Chinese orange and ash blue, purple gray and clear turquoise blue of cobalt, burnt Sienna earth, burnt shadow earth, Prussian blue, Moonglow, gold quinacridone, Indian yellow, cobalt blue, burnt orange of quinacridone, green Olive, quinacridone violet, Van Dyck brown, Italian ocher.

Application to 6 mice

The mice will be used to demonstrate the association of colors to make the grays sing. We associate each primary color with its complementary, and the mice will demonstrate if they stand out on the opposite chromatic background.

We have six possible combinations:

  • Each of the three colors opposite its complementary (blue orange)
  • Then reverse mouse and background.

3 X 2 = 6 illustrations. Let's start with blue and orange.

Combination of bluish gray and orange

This gray is made from orange (Cadmium Yellow with Scarlet Lake) and Blue Cobalt.

Depending on the proportions, the gray turns blue or orange-brown.


Bluish gray
Emms 2017

Inversion of blue and orange

For the second mouse, I take the same pigments, simply I decrease the cobalt blue to leave a dominant orange.

The background decoration shows the variations of colors that can be made around the gray, going from yellow, orange and gray.


Blue mouse
Emms 2017


Orange mouse
Emms 2017



Purple gray
Emms 2017

Combination of purple with yellow

This gray is composed of yellow (Yellow of Cadmium and Aureoline) and of violet (ultramarine blue and permanent rose).

Depending on the proportions, the gray turns purple or golden brown. The yellow disc is a glaze of cadmium and aureoline.

Inversion of yellow and purple

For the second mouse, I take the same pigments, simply I increase the proportion of yellow to leave a golden dominant.

The decoration in background makes vibrate the shades of purple.


Purple mouse
Emms 2017


Yellow mouse, Emms 2017
From a picture of Chris Stein



Gris rose
Emms 2017

Association of pinkish gray and green

This gray is composed from permanent pink and emerald green.

They are very transparent colors, delicate to pose because they condense like enamel.

Inversion of green and pink

For the last mouse, the challenge is to achieve a red background.

A dramatic situation is needed!

Pink mouse
Emms 2017


Green mouse
Emms 2017