The quintessence of neutrality, GREY can represent either mediocrity or moderation. Serenely lodged dead center on the color wheel, and falling midway on the value scale from black to white, grey can sometimes appear to occupy no position at all.
In our observations of the sky, dark clouds and light mists form the nebulous limits of grey. Dawn and twilight each describe a fleeting passage. But a grey day can seem an eternal limbo. Grey weather can feel tedious and dull compared to the uncanny brilliance of snow and ice or the crackling drama of a summer thunderstorm. Depending upon temperament and circumstances, the asylum of grey will either soothe or irritate our anxious souls.
Despite our best efforts with henna and hydrogen peroxide, the effects of aging on human hair has not escaped notice. Enough at least for grey to be associated in popular culture with the geriatric set — from éminence grise to the Gray Panthers. Since those of advancing years are generally held to take fewer risks, and since the color itself hews to a middle ground, grey has also come to be affiliated with bureaucracy and bourgeois conservatism — from “The Gray Lady”, hoary moniker for The New York Times, to The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a fifties novel about an average businessman in postwar America.
Whether because we understand grey to abstain from any particular hue or to incorporate all of them together, and thus to eschew, or moderate, their sentiments and unruly passions, grey connotes disinterested intelligence. The cerebral identification gains strength from the appearance of our brain tissue, as described in Gray’s Anatomy [no relation], and continually referred to by Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot as his “little grey cells”. So it comes as no surprise that in extraterrestrial mythology we find the Greys, evidently an older and wiser race than the more common little green men. Nor should it alarm us unduly that, among a number of apocalyptic scenarios on offer, our hubris could lead us to “grey goo”, nanotechnology metastasizing into global ecophagy.
Useful for giving materiel and personnel a uniform aspect, a visual “glue”, the color’s strong association with metals and machines appeals to grey-haired generals. When applied, grey disembodies, standardizes, institutionalizes. It can cloak the military in conceptual camouflage, signaling commitment to a middle way, alignment with the status quo, the appearance of rationality and order. Military deployment of grey, however, is tactical, not ideological. Thus, it comprises merely one stratagem in a gamut of “drab” colors, drawn from desert and jungle palettes, used for much of the dirty work, together with arrays of snappy “dress colors” suitable for pageantry and honors.
Grey presents epistemological difficulties in a culture dependant upon binary procedures to advance ideas and actions. With black and white we can understand clearly their dual role: they operate as absolute terms [the presence of all "x" / the absence of all "x"] as well as category descriptions of objects and attributes that approach the ideal they represent — or that use the ideal metaphorically. Grey proves more difficult. By definition a mixture, it can enjoy no pure state, even conceptually, despite its privileged central home. While black and white work in opposition to each other, grey works in opposition to the pair, and in the process becomes plural, as in “shades of grey”. In discussions of age, grey often aligns with white. In discussions of purity, however, grey is grouped with black. “Grey water”, for example, is dirty, even if not to the same extent as “black water” [or Blackwater, for that matter].
The territory of gaps, overlaps, and shifting and ambiguous borders, “grey areas” can set us adrift in ethical, political, and legal dilemmas. On the other hand, by challenging absolute terms, the “not-white” and the “not-black” offer another way to think about difference — as a matter of nuance, of degree — and perhaps allow for an understanding of the “other” that need not depend entirely upon opposition to the self.
Not even the spelling is settled; it can vacillate between “grey” and “gray”. Some painters have tried to codify the variance in order to differentiate between tints and tones mixed from complementary hues and those derived solely from the combination of black and white. While perhaps too technical and esoteric a distinction to warrant adoption by the general public, they do describe pathways along very different axes. In theory, once one reaches the center of the color wheel the results should be exactly the same [an absolute after all]. But, as we know, painters must deal with pigments, impure and idiosyncratic. The combinations of various complementaries will always provide differing results. Likewise combinations of various “whites” and “blacks”.
Anyone who has ever tried to match color swatches knows the difficulty: no matter how neutral a grey, every mixture has a pinkish, bluish, or greenish cast. The difficulty is exacerbated because our perception of color is contingent. Our vision does not register hue by measuring wavelengths of light — our brains don’t have sufficient computational power for that — but rather by calculating the difference in reflected wavelengths from adjacent surfaces. The vagaries of our perception of value, from light to dark, is easier to account for; it shifts according to the angle of the surface in relation to the light source and to the eye.
The mechanical eye of the camera also records hue and value in relative terms, by available light. But in photography it is possible to compensate by setting benchmarks for light exposure and color balance with a grey card, set to middle grey, whose light-reflecting properties observe established industry standards.
In the monochromatic technique of grisaille, grey can stand completely on its own, as key player in an intellectual mode of painting that approaches drawing, or bas relief. Conversely it can serve as the structuring underpainting for translucent glazes. Since the eye registers hues in relative terms, de-saturated grey enhances the vibrancy of any nearby colors, and can be used to create softly luminescent pearl-like effects.
One of the beauties of grey for the painter or the designer is its discretion and tact, quietly providing an apparatus to modulate the technical constraints of saturation and value. If highlights and shadows fall across a grey background their effect is compressed, rendering the forms they describe more abstractly. By contrast, if dark or light figures are juxtaposed in advance of a grey field, the suppression of hue in favor of value will heighten the dramatic impact. The structure of a composition can be focused and clarified — or blurred to the extent that it almost evaporates.
[ colors, Culture, grey, issue_1, mark cottle, volume_1 ]