Oct 30th, 2011 | | Aesthetics | Colour Ranges | 7 Comments

The Perfect Grey (or is it “Gray”?)

Pale Grey Sequence

A sequence of very pale Pure greys produced by Papers and Paints (SC371-SC375).
The sequence continues in gradual steps to off-black

It is generally accepted that “Grey” is the English spelling for an achromatic or neutral colour and that “Gray” is the American spelling. However, as with much of our language, this has been fluid – rather like the word “colour / color”. “Gray”, in spite of being championed by Samuel Johnson and other English lexicographers, found itself becoming “grey” in the early twentieth century.

One author on paint and colour suggested a different interpretation to the two spellings: Black and white = “grey”, while black, white and a colour = “gray” -

“Although the dictionaries do not usually distinguish between the spelling of “grey” and “gray”, and although many decorators use the two words indiscriminately, there is a distinct difference which it is both convenient and advisable to recognise. A “grey” is an admixture of black and white, and may vary from the smallest quantity of black added to white to the other extreme, where there is almost as much black as white. Anything between the two would be termed a “grey”…When a colour is added to the black and white the admixture is called a “gray”, provided, of course, that the black and white predominate; for example a French gray is made by tinting white with a little ivory or drop black and adding a little carmine or crimson lake or ultramarine. It will be seen that the addition of the lake or ultramarine gives it a peculiar warmth which distinguishes French gray, and changes the spelling from “grey” to “gray”.1

While such a difference may be clear to the person compounding the colour, to the inexperienced observer (unaware of the nuances) it is often impossible to tell how a colour has been produced.

Maxwell Disk - Neutral Grey

A Maxwell Disk for a neutral grey

For example the “Pure Greys” that Papers and Paints have produced are not compounded of just black and white because that ends up looking too ‘blue’. However, they have been formulated so that they appear to be completely neutral “greys”. There are currently twenty steps between white and black, although permutations in between each can be produced on demand.

The Current Fashion for Grey
Grey has been one of the most requested family of colours during the last decade. Although not perhaps the best-know advocate of the work of the late John Fowler I always felt that his decoration of the Great Hall at Syon House was both subtle and inspired.

Syon House - Great Hall: John Fowler scheme
Syon House. The Great Hall. The John Fowler scheme (sadly overpainted)

Some years ago I was commissioned to measure the paint colours seen above so that the scheme might be reproduced and the Great Hall ‘freshened up’. Sadly this was never done, but the colours that I found have proved to be very popular as our “Great Hall Colours”. It was very interesting to see that several of the eight colours selected by Fowler were identical to the greys on our 1950s colour range (perhaps not surprising when one considers the origins).

Greys - from Papers and Paints' 1950s Range
Greys – from Papers and Paints’ 1950s Range

Earlier Use of Grey
A grey known as Lead Colour was one of the family of inexpensive, or Common colours employed by the eighteenth century house-painter (the others being – Cream colour, Pearl colour, Stone colour, Wainscot or Oak colour, and White).2

These ‘staples’ are encountered when investigating so many eighteenth century interiors, and the Lead Colour found in the house lived in by George Frideric Handel has recently been reintroduced.

Handel House - ©Matthew Hollow
Handel House Museum – the panelling was painted in Lead Colour. Photo ©Matthew Hollow

The palette of the eighteenth century house-painter was somewhat limited, however he had three different blacks to work with before having to resort to the addition of other pigments. Here is a small range of grey or greyish colours made up in soft distemper and offered by one such house-painter to the owner of a new house in 1807.

Colour samples produced for Barnbarroch House in 1807
Colour samples produced for Barnbarroch House in 1807

Greys have remained popular and are amongst the most versatile of all families of colours. Amongst the more interesting are those that Mr Jennings would have labelled “Grays” – those produced when a colour is added to the black and white. However, each of the black pigments employed by the early house-painter had its own characteristics and great subtlety could be achieved by their careful use.

Lamp Black
Lamp black was the soot collected after burning the resinous parts of fir-trees. It came mostly from Sweden and Norway, although it was manufactured on a large scale in Germany at the beginning of the nineteenth century. John Smith, the author of one of the earliest house-painting manuals, referred to its being “made up in small boxes and barrels of deal, of several sizes, and so brought over to us”.3

Lamp Black - the simplest form
Lamp Black being produced in the simplest way

The burning process often led to incomplete combustion, which caused the pigment to have a slight shade of brown, and to be somewhat greasy.

Lamp black was the most commonly used of the blacks, being cheap and plentiful. It was a very fine pigment, that would serve most needs, without grinding, if ground well with linseed-oil. If used in this manner, however, the greasiness would retard its drying time, unless a drying agent were added. This might be the addition of either two-parts of drying oil, or driers, preferably white copperas (zinc sulphate). Smith, in the late seventeenth century, recommended adding a small amount of verdigris for that purpose.

Both the colour and the natural fatness could be improved on by burning it in a crucible or iron ladle over a fire, but this process tended to harden the pigment, requiring a lengthier preparation and therefore higher cost.


Ivory Black
Ivory black was always regarded as an expensive commodity “not used in any common work”4, Lamp black, it was believed, would “answer the purpose quite as well for any work required in house painting”5. Nonetheless, it is mentioned in the majority of early sources that deal with house-painting.

Ivory Comb

Ivory black was traditionally made from the shavings and off-cuts of the comb-making industry, and from other waste fragments of ivory. These were burned or charred to a black coal, ground very fine with water on a marble slab, and then dried. A late eighteenth century author described it being sold in small lumps in the colour shop.6 It ground well with oil, and formed a beautiful pearl grey when mixed with white lead.

In the nineteenth century it appears that the name ivory black was often used to describe the pigment produced by burning animal bones, more properly called bone black. This was regarded as a “very indifferent black, abounding in impurities, and suited only to the coarser kinds of painting”7. The latter tended to produce a reddish hue, quite distinct from the richer effect derived from ivory.

Actual ivory is no longer used because of the expense, and because animals who are natural sources of ivory are subject to international control as endangered species.

Willow Charcoal - courtesy of Ken Bromley Art Supplies
Willow Charcoal

Blue Black
A European author tells us that black of a bluish hue was produced by the burning of vine twigs, which, when ground carefully, and mixed with white produced a silver white. Beech charcoal was credited with a very similar tone, and it seems more likely that in the United Kingdom beech, rather than vine twigs, would have provided the source.

Peter Nicholson in his The Mechanic’s Companion, of 1825, mentioned it being used in small amounts to brighten up the last two coats of a surface being painted in white with oil.8 Other authors suggested Prussian blue, or lamp black, for the same purpose. In finer work, one might expect a charcoal black to have been used, and I have certainly encountered it in a number of historic decorative schemes.

Charcoal has been made in the same way for hundreds of years as this film clip indicates:

Perhaps the final word on the “Perfect Grey” should be left to someone who knows about these things:

Caspar chooses Grey
Caspar, the British Blue, selects the perfect grey

Well, maybe not the final word. Here is the American Word Jazz artist Ken Nordine and Absolute Grey

1 Arthur Seymour Jennings. Paint and Colour Mixing. 3rd edn. 1907. p.83. Jennings was, in fact, repeating something that George Field had first written in his Chromatography; or, a treatise on colours and pigments, and of their powers in painting, which was first published in 1835.
2 William Salmon. Palladio Londinensis. 1748. pp.55-58.
3 John Smith. The Art of Painting in Oyl. 2nd edn. 1687. pp.16-17.
4 (Smith 1687, 18).
5 Nathaniel Whittock. The Decorative Painters’ and Glaziers’ Guide. 1827. p.9.
6 John Smith. The Art of Painting in Oil. 9th edn. 1788. p.17.
7 P.F. Tingry. Painter’s and Colourman’s Complete Guide. 1830. p.135.
8 Peter Nicholson. The Mechanic’s Companion. 1825. p.406.

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Comments (7)

Tim NorrisNo Gravatar » 31. Oct, 2011

I agree, the colour grey has its own charm…in his book about Gilles de Rais, Robert Nye has one character say: “When my master appeared he was kneeling in front of the altar, dressed as at the beginning of his trial in pearl-grey silk…”could anything be more elegant or sophisticated?

M.K. HajdinNo Gravatar » 27. Nov, 2011

The most detailed analysis of “grey” and “gray” I have ever read.

I tip my hat to you, sir.

PatrickNo Gravatar » 27. Nov, 2011

You’re very kind. It’s something that’s always intrigued me (along with “colour” and “color”!).

a perfect grayNo Gravatar » 12. May, 2012

absolutely fascinating detail about the terms “grey” and “gray.” I decided to use the “a” since it is mostly used here in the good ole USA.

I also loved your discussion of white + black = gray vs. white + black + color = gray.

Grays are so tricky. To put it simply, I have come to the conclusion that grays are nothing but a medium for undertones! Darn those pesky things.

Enjoyed your piece very much. donna

PatrickNo Gravatar » 12. May, 2012

Thanks Donna. I was very interested to come across your blog on the subject of grey (gray).

Sample Of Gray Pearls On Ivory » 05. Jun, 2013

[...] The Perfect Grey (or is it “Gray”?) | Patrick Baty – Historical paint … When a colour is added to the black and white the admixture is called a “gray” provided, of course, that the black and white predominate; for example a French gray is made by tinting white with a little ivory or drop black and . A grey known as Lead Colour was one of the family of inexpensive, or Common colours employed by the eighteenth century house-painter (the others being – Cream colour, Pearl colour, Stone colour, Wainscot or Oak colour, and White).2 . [...]

Stephen BarkerNo Gravatar » 13. Aug, 2016

Very Interesting. I have noticed that grey seems to being used more on exterior woodwork and doors. The paint scheme of the hall at Syon looks superb.