Color history

Color History Moment: Paynes Grey

Anyone who knows me, knows I have a deep obsession with the color grey. It took me years to figure out that gray mutes my Synesthesia  so that the sounds I hear are less intense.  So I find colors on the less saturated end to the spectrum more relaxing.  Its why the majority of my clothes are grey.  It might seem odd for an artist to wear what many see as a drab color, but there are so many shades of grey--each unique in their own way that I find them fascinating and underrated.  

So for my first in a series on the history of pigments, I thought it appropriate to start with one of the most revolutionary colors; Paynes Grey. 


A swatch of paynes gray watercolor paint showing the color variations available. 

Paynes Grey is named after the color's inventor: William Payne.  He was born in London in 1760 and was a watercolor artist.  While the exact date of the invention of the color is not known, the best guesstimate we have is the early 1800's, since there is evidence of his using the color in paintings exhibited after then.  

Untitled river scene by William Payne that utilizes Paynes Grey.

When discussing grey, most color theory students often assume that creating the color is a simple matter of mixing black and white.  But in reality most grey shades are a combination of multiple hues.  In the case of Paynes grey color was a mixture of lake, raw sienna and indigo (Artist's Pigments: c.1600-1835) and resulted in a dark blue-ish grey color.  

What made this color so revolutionary is that there was no black being used.  Up to this point when artists wanted to desaturate a color (reduce its intensity) they would often use black to create a tone or white to create a light tint.  Payne's use of this blue-grey to get a softer more subtle spectrum was so revolutionary and became so popular that eventually a commercial paint was created using his formula.  The first recorded instance of the name being used was in 1835 and by 1912 it had earned an official place in the Color Standards and Color Nomenclature book.

What's fascinating about this particular grey is that it looks quite blue on its own, but when placed with other colors the simultaneous contrast can force more towards the black or grey end of the spectrum.  While the use of Paynes grey in watercolors eventually went out of vogue, it had lasting impact upon how artists viewed and approached their color mixing.  Which in turn, led to a rebirth of exploration of monochromatic works.  The most famous of these is Picasso's "Blue Period" paintings where he utilized many blue leaning greys used to create contrast and depth.  Comparing the colors in Picasso's painting below to Payne's above we can see a great many similarities even though they are stylistically very different.

Portrait of Angel Fernández de Soto  (also known as The Absinthe Drinker) by Picasso from his blue period.  

Portrait of Angel Fernández de Soto (also known as The Absinthe Drinker) by Picasso from his blue period.  


Modern formulas normally use a combination of Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna to achieve the same hue; but there is a great amount of variation in both the starting hues and the proportions so its always best to test your color when jumping between brands and/or mediums as not all Paynes grey will look the same.  

From a hex code perspective Paynes Grey normally falls right around #536878 but can be in reality any of the wide range of greys shown here:

Paynes Gray hex range from Color Hex.

My challenge to you now is to look for the Paynes Grey in your world.  Its there, all around you in all manner of things that you've probably never even noticed. I hope that you will feel a small amount of marvel that so much of our colorful world owes a debt to this one man, who did something so simple and complex as invent a shade of grey.

Paynes Grey Chairs Stacked Up.