Payne’s Grey – friend or foe?

Now and again something comes along that splits the artistic community in two. Call it the “marmite” effect if you like. It’s something that you either love or hate! However as fickle artists we are allowed to change our mind, and on this one I recently have. You see, I used to hate the colour Payne’s Grey with a vengeance, but in the past few weeks I have come to accept it as a useful colour – that’s not quite the same as loving it, but I’m less upset by it than I used to be.
Let me explain…

The man behind it all…

William Payne (1760-1830)

Wikipedia says about him:
Among the innovations with which he is credited were “splitting the brush to give forms of foliage, dragging the tints to give texture to his foregrounds, and taking out the forms of lights by wetting the surface and rubbing with bread and rag”, but the invention by which he is best known is a neutral tint composed of indigo, raw sienna, and crimson lake called Payne’s grey.

Other sources say he used Prussian blue, yellow ochre and crimson lake. Nowadays they make it with ultramarine blue and black or with ultramarine and burnt sienna. But it all amounts to the same – a dark grey that causes mud!

The problem with Payne’s grey

My problem with this colour is that it can become a quick solution for anything grey, especially shadows. Over the years I have seen many, many students reaching for the Payne’s grey instead of mixing their own coloured greys, and this results in a dull and lifeless picture. So eventually I banned my students from using it, and I banished it from my palette as well.

Value studies

However I recently came across an article where a Plein air artist was using it to sketch value studies. Used neat it creates a near-black, and mixed with a little white gouache, or just watered down, it makes a mid grey. The white of the paper gives you the third value. So it becomes a quick and easy way of testing out your tonal composition before committing to your painting. I tried this out on this little sketch of some bushes and grasses, below, and it worked!

Instant black

The other shortcut that Payne’s grey gives is of course black. I usually create my black by mixing ultramarine blue with burnt sienna, but, hey presto, modern Payne’s grey is made from ultramarIne blue and burnt sienna! So this saves me valuable seconds when out in the field. At home I would still prefer to mix from the blue and brown so that I get more colourful blacks, but when sketching en Plein air it provides a great little shortcut.

Muted colours

I tried adding a touch of Payne’s grey to the other colours in my palette, and the effects were varied. Some colours were muted beautifully and I can see myself using them in landscape sketching, but others became just a bit dirty.

So that’s it really. I’m a partial convert to a colour I once despised. I’d love to hear what you think about it. Let me know in the comments below.

Please rate this post with a thumbs up if you found it helpful.

10 comments

  1. My love affair with watercolour was heavily influenced by Ron Ranson in the 1980s, and Payne’s was one of his limited palette of only seven colours. I felt like I’d gone rogue when I eventually added an eighth colour: burnt sienna! Haha, not too crazy. The basic 7 are 2 blues (Paynes and ultramarine) 2 reds (alizarin and light red) 2 yellows (raw sienna and lemon yellow) and the convenience color of burnt umber– all Winsor & Newton of course. They are surprisingly versatile. I use more than that now, but those 7 are my first loves, whose powers I understand inside out.
    This was a great post, Andy– I’ve also changed/simplified, my plein air kit, thanks to you!

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  2. I love Paynes gray for mixing a dark dark blue:/black using it with burnt umber. Also a great dark green is made with Cad yellow, UM blue and a bit I of a Paynes.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for this article. I have used Payne’s Grey mainly for shadows, because you can make it fade out beautifully, and I have always had trouble making my own black. So I thank you for the information on how you you mix black as well as the interesting material on William Payne. Even reading about painting makes me want to forget the dirty dishes and un-swept floors to go paint, paint, paint! Thanks again.

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  4. Amazing how the painting has such lovely shades of a color that would seem to be a little lifeless. I think I will experiment with it…I really don’t like straight black and white nearly as well. I really like neutral tint which is just a more purple shade. but for a value study, this may be best. Thanks for sharing!

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  5. You took the time to experiment with the color and found out where you can use it and where you didn’t want to use it. 👍👍Two thumbs up for you. With play and experimentation we can find a way to use so many things. I am not a supporter of absolutes. I had one teacher say she didn’t consider oil pastels to be a real art medium. Take the time to experiment before coming up with these absolute statements. I’ve seen beautiful art in oil pastels as well as not so great. I know there’s not always time to play around but it can be a lot of fun.😊

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