Grey days, with low cloud or haar (sea mist), when there’s minimal colour in the landscape are not “dull days” to me, but “interesting greys”. A challenge to find the subtle changes of colour, the gentle variations in tone (value).
I started thinking of “interesting greys” after looking at paintings by Whistler in the Tate Britain gallery in London one visit, where the whole painting is dominated by shades of grey. For example:
Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea,
Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, and
Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Cremorne Lights
Paintings I’d most likely walked past before, but spoke to me then, and still do.
I know it was at least 11 years ago now, because in October 2009 I did a Painting.About.com project in the style Whistler (see it on the web archive here).
In his Ten O’Clock Lecture of 20 February 1885, Whistler wrote: “He [the artist] does not confine himself to purposeless copying, without thought, each blade of grass, as commended by the inconsequent, but, in the long curve of the narrow leaf, corrected by the straight tall stem, he learns how grace is wedded to dignity, how strength enhances sweetness, that elegance shall be the result.”
Taking this to greys, I think it’s not confining ourselves to neutral greys, to greys mixed with black and white, but to explore those greys that have a touch of blue, green, yellow, pink, purple. The greys that happen when we mix complementary colours together — yellow/purple, red/green, and my favourite orange/blue — and can happen when we scrape remnant colours together on our palette (depending on what’s there). Add lots and lots of white to get pale interesting greys.
It’s important to make notes about what colours youre using for your interesting greys so that you can replicate them. Imperfectly mixing colours on the canvas/paper, rather than on the palette, can give compelling variations, as in this sheet done by a participant in one of my Higham Hall workshops.
Think of grey not as a constant hue, but a variable.