The History of the Color Gray: Both Celebrated and Unappreciated

Beautiful gray mountain landscape with an artistic monochrome look

Gray might not seem like a very dynamic color. The modern eye tends to view gray as neutral or utilitarian at best and downright apathetic at worst. For example, gray is often used to describe depression. And we’re all familiar with the less than stellar feelings evoked by gray skies.

However, by going back through history we can see that there’s far more to the color gray than our modern context might suggest.

The Earliest Use of Gray

Horse painting with orange, yellow, and gray colors in the Lascaux caves in France

We need to look back around 15,000 to 17,000 years into the past to discover humanity’s first known use of the color gray. The Lascaux caves in France are home to some of the oldest known cave paintings. And it’s here that we see evidence of our species’ first use of gray pigments. The ancient artists who painted the walls of Lascaux used steel-gray manganite for some of their works. It’s important to note that gray doesn’t seem to be a focal point of any artist’s attention. Instead, black typically fades to gray in the image’s periphery.

We also find examples where black and gray can be substituted with each other. For example, the cave artists would often use black pigments to depict the ground. But we also have some examples where gray pigments are used instead. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever be able to know for sure why this was done. But it’s most likely a byproduct of the ancient artist’s tools. Both black and gray pigments were produced with a range of manganite oxides. These materials are variable enough to produce both dark black and gray.

From Prehistory to the First Semi-Modern Culture

Assyrian art from ancient Mesopotamia of King Ashurnasirpal II on a gray wall

Sadly, most of humanity’s earliest struggles will be forever lost to the mists of time. A true record of a culture typically requires two elements. A culture needs to possess both a writing and agricultural system to make a strong impression on history. Agriculture is needed to anchor a people within one central geographical area. This provides access to the items used throughout a culture’s existence. And a writing system is necessary to preserve a culture’s thoughts and motivations. Take ancient Mesopotamia as a good example of this phenomenon. The culture provides us with a wealth of data to examine. Though it also raises a number of questions about their worldview.

The Mesopotamian city of Uruk gives us one of the earliest known examples of a semi-modern civilization. It has many of the elements we consider vital for true civilization. This includes the aforementioned writing and agricultural systems. It also displays some impressive architectural feats, art, poetry, literature, and law. Unfortunately, even with all of these elements, we can’t be totally sure how ancient Mesopotamians related to various colors. We do have some examples of gray within their artwork. But it raises an important question of whether or not any given piece was selected for color or its more utilitarian qualities.

We’re also left with the unfortunate reality of the toll an environment can take on color. The existing examples of ancient cave paintings have been fully protected from the outside environment. We find a similar situation with the art of many ancient cultures such as Egypt and China. But this isn’t the case with Mesopotamian art. The existing examples of their use of color are few and far between. Once vividly painted sculptures or pottery will have been worn down to the base material over the centuries. This is similar to what we find with examples of neolithic architecture such as Gobekli Tepe.

Turkish archaeological site of Gobekli Tepe, the oldest temple in history

Thankfully, this is also where we see the importance of a writing system. The structures of Gobekli Tepe were created around 9,500 BC. This makes them about 11,500 years old. Some of its creator’s art has been left behind. But while there’s a beauty to the browns and grays displayed in that art it probably wasn’t what was originally intended. But we’ll likely never know how the creators of Gobekli Tepe thought of color. They left no writing behind to tell us of their culture. Any given example of gray at Gobekli Tepe could be attributed to either choice or chance. And we’ll probably never have a concrete answer as to which is which.

But thankfully, the ancient Sumerians did leave us with an impression of how they saw color. With that understanding, how did one of the oldest known cultures view gray? To answer that we need to first consider a question from our modern viewpoint. Imagine someone who’s taken a picture of a shiny silver surface. To a modern eye, the picture and the object would have the same color. But to a Sumerian, the lack of any reflective quality in the picture would mark it as quite distinct from the physical object.

Mesopotamians saw a link between reflective, luminative and color properties in any given object. The culture felt that the intrinsic spiritual essence of an object was tied to its appearance. And in particular, the ability to shine or reflect light lent an inherent spiritual quality to an item. So gray elements which could reflect light or shine would be considered more spiritual than a duller gray. And in fact, gray would usually just be seen as a subset of white. This means that silver metal, and the color of the moon, were considered to be white rather than a distinct color of their own. But they might have felt differently if either of those subjects lacked reflective properties.

A Background Character in Ancient Egyptian Life

Two gray pyramids as geometric objects on a dark background

Of course when we mention ancient cultures almost everyone thinks of Egypt. The culture’s pyramids and prolific writing has left us with a wealth of knowledge dating back to around 3100 B.C. What’s more, we know that this ancient culture was in love with color. They produced a wide range of pigments and paints which were the envy of distant lands. So how did this artistically expressive culture view gray?

The average person in ancient Egypt probably didn’t give much thought to the color gray. It tended to be used as a background color to provide further emphasis for other colors. On rare occasions, it might also be used to depict animals with gray coloring. For example, it was used to depict goose plumage. It could also be used as a substitute for green or blue. This was almost certainly done out of necessity rather than choice. The Egyptian’s green and blue pigments were created with rare materials. Meanwhile, gray pigments were easily created by simply diluting common black elements.

Looking East to Find a True Celebration of the Color Gray

Hand painted Chinese ink landscape in gray tones

Most of the cultures we’ve seen so far have used gray in a fairly utilitarian manner. The cultures we’ve looked at don’t dislike gray. But at the same time, it’s seldom appreciated in and of itself. But we do see one ancient culture which has celebrated the color gray in an iconic art style.

China was first unified as a single entity in 221 B.C. This makes it quite old, even if not quite as ancient as the Sumerian and Egyptian cultures. We see the use of gray coloring in Chinese art first take hold around 900 A.D. This period saw one particular artist, Wang Wei, change the artistic trajectory of both China and Japan. Wang Wei created a technique now known as ink wash painting or monochrome ink painting.

Wang Wei’s technique is notable for using a single color, offset against a background element, to produce a truly stunning effect. Looking over examples of this technique shows how one source of black ink can produce a vivid recreation of different landscapes.

Japanese sumi-e ink painting with men in boats at sunset

Ink wash painting mirrors one element of Egyptian art. The ancient Egyptians saw gray as a color that could be swapped out to represent something totally different. But Wang Wei’s technique uses different shades of a single color for its substitutions. For example, a tree’s limbs might be portrayed with black while its leaves are painted with progressively lighter shades of gray.

With this technique, we typically see a white background and black ink mixing with each other to portray a world of gray. Outside of any tradition, this might become a dull exercise in monotony. But Wang Wei built up this technique within a culture that prized calligraphy. Writing with ink was already considered an art. This brought an exacting skill with ink shading to the practice of depicting landscapes. And Wang Wei was able to leverage this expertise to create something truly remarkable. The ink wash style demonstrates that gray doesn’t have to be boring.

It’s little wonder that this art style flourished in China. By the 13th century this artistic technique would spread to Japan along with much of China’s Buddhist philosophy. China and Japan each have a different take on this beautiful style. But the end effect is quite similar within both traditions. Each country has embraced the full potential of gray imagery to represent the rainbow of color seen in the world. But what of the rest of the world during this period?

The Middle Age’s Color of Humility

Kilwinning Abbey Tironensian Benedictine monastic community home of the gray monks during the Middle Ages

The view of gray in the West tends to change a lot over the course of several important historical periods. The ubiquity of gray wool defined the color for most people during the middle ages. People without money to spare would typically have an abundance of gray wool clothing. This would in turn lend an air of humility to the color among the more well-off. If someone within a powerful or wealthy group was wearing gray then it was typically seen as a mark of humility. And we’d eventually see this taken up as official policy within much of the clergy. The Tironensian Order is one of the more notable examples of this practice.

The Tironensian Order was founded near the Thiron-Gardais woods of France in 1106. The Tironensian Order ascribed to the notion of gray as an especially humble color. As such, their monks were typically clothed in gray robes.

The Tironensian Order of monks would grow at a rapid pace. Within just five years the order would have over 117 priories in many different European countries. It’s also important to note that they participated in several types of public outreach and service. For example, they offered shelter and protection to laywomen in a time when women faced considerable hardship. The Tironensian Order became so synonymous with the color gray that they were often known as “gray monks“.

The Renaissance Brings a Newfound Appreciation of Gray to the West

Grisaille painting of apple and cup using only shades of gray

The 14th century would mark the beginning of the Renaissance period in the West. This marked a period of astounding creativity and artistic experimentation. One example of this innovative spirit can be seen with an art style known as grisaille. Artists using this technique would create monochrome work done entirely in shades of gray. In fact, the word “gris” is French for gray.

Grisaille is perhaps best known from the works of Michelangelo and Hieronymus Bosch. However, the Renaissance period would see grisaille become a common technique within the Western artistic tradition. It was sometimes used simply due to a lack of resources. But many artists were able to demonstrate a similar mastery of ink that’s comparable to the ink wash techniques of China and Japan.

Men and Women in the West Begin to See Gray Differently

Retro illustration of men and woman in gray Victorian clothing

The Renaissance certainly changed how many people saw the world around them. Gray made its way into more works of art. And as people saw gray in new contexts they’d reframe it from prior assumptions of humility.

By the 18th century gray had made its way into the wardrobe of wealthy men and women alike. But gray’s role as an equal opportunity color would come to an end in the 19th century. Gray colors were becoming quite common in men’s attire in London. As long-range weapons became the norm so did gray military uniforms. The brighter military colors of the past would only make soldiers an easier target for firearms. Gray was seen as a potential camouflage in a variety of different conditions. All of this came together to ensure that men of many different walks of life would clothe themselves in gray. During this period gray was often seen as a more somber, utilitarian, or masculine color.

In France, women were relating to gray in a very different way. The term grisette, a feminine take on the color gray, became synonymous with the working woman. The term’s application ranged from gray uniformed women working in factories to those taking an even less desirable path on the streets. For a while gray would come to suggest a higher status for men while insinuating a lower status for women.

La Grisette statue at Jules Ferry square in Paris, France

However, over time many people came to view the gray clothing of the grisettes as a sign of independence. Some people would look down on women who needed to work. While others might come to admire a grisette for her ability to live life on her own without the support of a man. Some writers of the time would reframe the image of these gray women from victim to victor over society’s conventional values. And over time the grisette would even be seen as a fashionable ideal in some circles.

We also find an exception to the average person’s view of gray within the art world. The 19th century’s exploration of gray in the West wasn’t as innovative as what was seen during the renaissance period. But artists still made great use of gray within their works.

We also see this through the musical creations of Debussy. The musical genius would often use visual imagery to describe his works. He alluded to his Nocturnes as an exploration of a single color in the same vein as a painter working with gray. He also wrote that he felt Nocturnes evoked clouds fading away in gray tones. And of course one of his most memorable works, Clair de Lune, famously evokes the imagery of gray moonlight reflected on the water.

Moving Into the Modern World

Modern business man and woman in gray suits standing back-to-back with arms crossed

All of this history leads into the modern world. Today we still have all of the artistic traditions and works which have been touched on to this point. Global communication has given us all the ability to sample the works of even the most distant lands. And use of gray is now almost always a conscious choice rather than a substitution demanded by lack of other options.

The modern view of gray isn’t all that dissimilar to what we saw in 19th-century men’s fashion. Gray is still quite common in suits, for example. Meanwhile, the negative connotations for gray among women in the West have disappeared. As with men, women’s fashion tends to use gray to imply work within the business sector. However, gray has largely faded into the background of daily life. Our gaze is seldom arrested by use of gray in the way it might by louder colors such as red or purple.

Much as in ancient Mesopotamia or Egypt, we use gray but seldom really dwell on it. But moving forward we may well see an eruption of new artistic uses of gray. The history of color shows that humanity is constantly building new concepts and ideas around what we see in the world.