Grey matters

Paul Henry, The fisherman’s cottage (1916-17)

Grey skies were a too common occurrence this summer in Ireland which is perhaps what inspired me to choose the colour grey for this post. The grey of those all too frequently seen clouds this summer brings Paul Henry’s paintings to mind. It impresses me the way he managed to render the beauty of clouds and natural light so typical of Irish landscape.
Grey is not a colour per se but a light value situated between white and black, both of which are also non-colours. By adding an equal amount of a complementary colour such as yellow or blue let’s say to white and black, grey can be made warmer or cooler. There are therefore countless greyish colours depending on the colour added.

A colour naturally associated with sadness, solitude and dullness in terms of emotions, grey is used to describe a situation that has no clear moral value or when the boundaries or rules are not quite clear: a ‘grey area’. Grey is the colour of ageing, although the only visible evidence of that is in hair colour gradually fading. The colour can also evoke a sense of emptiness and nothingness: when you think for example of the only thing left after a fire is grey ash that can cover everything… yet to see this is restful and gives a sense of serenity and quietude.  In 2002, Nigerian artist Olu Oguibe captures this idea in an art installation at the Scene Gallery in New York following 9/11.

Giovanni Girlamo Salvoldo, Mary Magdalene (1535-40)


Pebble grey, pearl grey, cement grey, French grey, platinum grey, alumimium grey, concrete grey, stone grey, signal grey, ash grey, dove grey, chrome, silver, moss grey,  glaucous grey.


Beige grey, olive grey, metallic grey, mouse grey, steel grey, iron grey, cadet grey, elephant grey.

Joan Eardley, Catterline in Winter (1963)


Davy’s Grey, charcoal, basalt grey, anthracite, umbra grey, graphite, pewter, slate grey.

In the world of interiors

Grey is quite a sophisticated colour and has become recently quite trendy due to the variety of its subtle tones. It gives a clean simple look to any room and is best exemplified by the Gustavian style. Swedish king Gustav III (1746-1792) introduced the neoclassical elegance of the French and Italian courts to his Scandinavian realm.  The local artisans integrated this new decorative style with their own Nordic traditions to produce pieces painted in muted, distressed neutral tones. The choice of stony and greenish greys or bluish white and buttery yellows were popular. The light tones may have been reminiscent of the Swedish landscape, and were certainly appealing to the Swedish temperament.  To create this Timeless and restrained style, Annie Sloan chalk paints, Paris grey and Paloma are ideal.

Out there now

  • The elephant grey tumbler from the linear stem collection by designer Orla Kiely.
  • The autumn/Winter 2012 collection by fashion designer Benan Sahin for Trussardi.
  • The silversmith and jeweller Stuart Cairns has an amazing collection of vessels first exhibited in Belfast in 2006. My favorite is the silver vessel pinned with thorns.

In the Natural World

Native to North America, Eurasia and North Africa, the grey wolf is the largest of its species. It is the sole ancestor of the domestic dog and is about the same size as a German shepherd. Its winter fur is long, bushy and molted grey but can also range from white to browns.

The African grey parrot can be found in western and central Africa. It is the largest and most popular parrot. Its feathers vary in colour from white to ash grey to charcoal with a contrasting scarlet red on its breast.

Elephants are the largest land animal on the planet and their skin is typically greyish in colour.

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1 Comment

  1. Muriel Sanchez

     /  October 8, 2012

    Talking about fifty shades of grey!


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