What Colors Make Gray and How Do You Mix Different Shades of Gray?

Shades of gray brush strokes

Trapped somewhere in the haze between black and white, gray offers a soft gradient that is both soothing and reassuring. We can often picture a sky full of parked clouds, ash from a fire that’s on its last light or clay in a potter’s hand when we think of the color gray. It is an invaluable color for any artist, and learning how to mix the right shades of gray is essential to capturing the perfect emotional tone in paintings and other artwork.

What Is So Special About Gray?

One of the more fascinating things about gray is that it is considered a “conformist” color that doesn’t have its own personality. As a result, gray typically takes on the theme of the strong colors surrounding it. Gray is considered a neutral color that is generally impartial in terms of the feelings that it evokes.

However, this natural, agreeable color is capable of creating dramatic effects when used to bring to life scenes of a foreboding sky at twilight. In fact, darker shades of gray are often used to replace black in nighttime canvases because of the way this color is able to convey darkness without obscuring details the way true black does.

Oil painting of night in Paris with street lamps along brick road

This makes gray one of the most essential and important colors for any artist. Mastering the techniques for creating versatile, highly specific shades of gray opens up new worlds for playing with darkness, light and shadows on a canvas.

The visual and emotional experiences created by gray can vary greatly depending on the shade used. For instance, darker shades of gray can be both formal and mysterious. Lighter shades can nearly sparkle the way strands of silver do when they catch the light. Gray can also take on an intellectual look when paired with the right color mates.

It’s clear to see that gray can be a stately, dependable choice when introducing color into a space. However, you may be wondering how to create gray tones that evoke the specific level of silvery bliss or dark-sky beauty you’re trying to produce. This is where it can help to know what colors make gray and how you can create gray shades on your own.

What Colors Make Gray?

Paintbrushes on artist canvas covered with gray paint colors

Which colors can you mix together to get gray? Gray is considered an achromatic color because it is a color that is technically without color. The simplest way to create gray is to mix black and white. You can also create your own black paint for the purpose of tinting it gray using white. The most basic formula for black is Red + Blue + Yellow. However, you can also create gray using a formula that is not quite as direct.

How to Make the Color Gray

Making gray truly from scratch begins by mixing blue and red pigment in equal proportions. This should bring you to a nice purple. Next, you can decide if you want to warm up or cool down the purple you’ve created. To warm it up, add more red. Adding blue will bring you to a cooler shade. It’s now time to finalize your formula to turn it gray.

The purple you’ve just created can be transformed to gray by adding yellow pigment. This is a crucial point for deciding the specific shade of gray you want because the amount of yellow you add ultimately determines how light or dark your shade of gray will be. For lighter gray, add more yellow. You’ll need to be very conservative with your yellow if the goal is to create a darker gray.

Mixing Different Shades of Gray

Color palette with many different shades of gray

This is where the real fun begins because you can now make a wide variety of shades of gray to bring to life everything from the fine furs on a wild wolf to the blemished led on a smoking bullet. Take a look at color mixes for specific shades of gray:

Greenish Gray (Use for Stones, Clay and Fur):
Green + Cadmium Red + White

Bluish Gray (Use for Waves, Fish Scales and Gray Eyes):
Ultramarine Blue + Cadmium Red + Cadmium Yellow

Mauve Gray (Use for Storm Clouds, Puffs of Smoke and Ocean Rocks):
Violet + Azo Yellow

Steel Gray (Use for Pipes, Bullets and Dolphins):
Burnt Umber + Blue

Charcoal Gray (Use for Metals and Deep Smoke):
White + Black + Orange-Yellow

White is always an important color to have on standby as you’re developing your own custom shades of gray. That’s because you can always blend in more white to enhance the grayness of whatever shade you create using other colors.

Black is also an important balancing tool when you’re creating custom shades of gray. Adding black can help to darken your custom shade of gray if you feel that you’ve gone too light. Of course, it’s important to be gentle when dabbing black paint into your mixture because black can quickly overpower your color work to create a murkier tone that hides the nuances you’ve carefully created through blending.

Using Gray With Other Colors

Oil painting of two wolves in multicolored tones

Gray is a wonderful choice for bringing out the vibrancy of the colors around it. The most classic way to use gray is to border it with white. This really brings out the regal qualities of gray. However, playing with some nontraditional colors can bring out the hidden vivaciousness of gray in surprising ways.

Gold and brass tones can bring out the richness of gray to create a very glamorous, high-society look. Purples and violets are also great for accentuating the charcoal-toned qualities within gray. Pink is another surprising color that works well with gray because of the way it brings out gray’s softness.

To bring out the soothing qualities of gray, pair it with another neutral tone. Gray paired with beige or tan creates a very soft, neutral look that allows the textures of the colors used to shine. There is also room to layer light grays and dark grays to create a very neutral, calming effect.

Final Thoughts on Creating Custom Shades of Gray

Learning the art of creating gray from scratch is really an exercise in understanding how to master the balance of light and dark on canvas. When creating gray, always keep in mind how overpowering even just a dab of black can be. An artist must have an eye on maintaining balance when introducing any new droplet of color into a gray equation because this is what neutral, easily influenced gray demands.