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  • Writer's pictureJoel Popadics

A Touch of Gray

Watercolor Painting by William Payne

I have quite a few favorite colors and Payne's Gray is definitely among them. It's a bluish-gray color that we add to our landscape shadows. In the studio under the north light we use another color called Puce, a reddish-purple, for our still life and portrait shadows. Payne's Gray and Puce with their infinite variation are really more of a concept than an actual color.

William Payne (1760-1830) was an English watercolorist that is credited with inventing "Payne's Gray." He's also known for developing a few other innovative methods including a useful lifting technique and a dry brush method for creating texture in his landscapes.

You can purchase Payne's Gray, but it's better to mix your own using black and blue. But, not all blues are the same and each one has a slightly different hue. Although they sell a dozen different blues at the art store, there's basically only three hues - blue-violet which is sold as French Ultramarine, "true blue" which is Cobalt Blue and greenish-blue which is Thalo Blue (also called Winsor Blue). All the rest, including Cerulean, Manganese and Prussian Blue are slightly greenish. In the past, manufacturers mixed French Ultramarine Blue with Ivory Black for their Payne's Gray. Nowadays, they've replaced French Ultramarine with the less expensive Thalo Blue. I prefer to mix Cobalt Blue and Ivory Black which gives me more control over my shadow color.

It's funny, in art school all of my teachers told me to never use black. Students tend to overuse it in the shadow and it can produce a muddy, dead color if you're not careful. I think the omission of black from our palettes started with the French Impressionists, Renoir in particular. He theorized that there wasn't black in nature therefore we shouldn't use it in our pictures. Perhaps his own explanation is more revealing, "One morning one of us, having no black, used blue instead, and Impressionism was born."

After art school and during my independent study as a painter, I was surprised to discover how many great painters from the past used Ivory Black. Rembrandt, Diego Velázquez, John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer all featured it in their work. If the masters whom I admire used it, why was I limiting myself? It's on my palette now and I use for a lot of other stuff besides Payne's Gray. It's terrific for neutralizing a vibrant color and great for painting tree bark, silver tea pots, roadways, the weathered wood on lobster shacks, Cape Cod houses and old barns, among other things.

When I use Payne's Gray for a shadow, the amount of blue versus gray depends on the light effect. For example, on a bright sunny day with a clear blue sky, the shadow on a white objects will be more blue than gray. On an overcast day, the shadows are more gray than blue.

Do you work with Ivory Black in your paintings? Were you also discouraged to use it in your training as an artist? I'd love to hear about your experience - good or bad. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment box below.

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