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How to Make Gray and Brown Paint Using Primary Colors

Mona Lisa,Da Vinci

In his portrait of 'Mona Lisa,' Da Vinci showed his mastery of neutral colours . You can learn how to make Brown or Gray paint from Primary Colours.

Red,  , Yellow, Blue - the three Primaries vibrate with colour in our minds even as we read their names. But did you know that the Neutrals - Gray and Brown can be made by mixing Primaries? There's just one big Trick to it: you might end up with boring Mud! Here's how you can avoid that.

This title was presented to me as a challenge, so how could a painter resist it? My first reaction was to wonder why anyone would bother, when more subtle and compatible neutrals can be achieved in other ways. I wasn't even sure it could be done. So, still in my night clothes, I slipped out to the studio this morning and experimented.

On my website, you can see a photo showing the tools I used to demonstrate this principle of making Gray and Brown from Primary Colours. You can also print out the Colour Wheel to practise on in your own studio, and learn how to make far more subtle Neutrals ( Brown and Gray ) from the colours in your current painting.

The Nitty-Gritty

  • If you simply mix all of the Primary colours in equal portions, the result will be a Neutral that tends towards 'warm' or 'cool' depending on the proportion of Red or Blue in the mix.Here's how to get a Brown of varying warmth:

Brown

  • Blend equal parts of Blue and Yellow, resulting in a crude Green. Into that mix add small portions of Red until you achieve a suitable Brown. If you want a Brown of less intensity or Chroma. ( In an earlier article, I discuss Chroma in detail and show how to use The Colour Wheel to achieve alterations with ease and precision.) This value refers to the darkness or lightness of a colour. It might seem obvious to add White to your new Brown mix. But this would be a huge mistake. Instead, add more Yellow.

Gray

  • The simplest way to achieve Gray from the three Primaries is this:

Blend equal parts of Blue and Red, resulting in a crude Purple. Into that mix add small portions of Yellow until a dark Gray appears. To lighten its Chroma, you can  - very carefully - add  small quantities of White.

All this mixing should take place on your palette, using a palette knife. This is the one and only way to achieve 'clean' colour mixes, vital when you're using Gray or Brown. In the excitement of creating a new painting, it's fatally easy to reach for a brush and start mixing colour straight onto your canvas. Please get into the habit of considering your brushes as tools for laying on the paint, never for mixing it.

Click the image at right and you can see a photo showing the tools I used to demonstrate this principle of making Gray and Brown from Primary Colours. You can also print out the Colour Wheel to practise on in your own studio, and learn how to make far more subtle Neutrals ( Brown and Gray ) from the colours in your current painting. © Dorothy Gauvin