Shades and Tones of Grey
Grey (or gray, to give the American spelling) is not exactly a colour to inspire intense emotions - be they positive or negative. Grey as a colour is not associated with romance or fear or anger or beauty or - really anything at all except mediocrity. Grey may be considered as uninteresting and dull, or as average, and indeed is used as a metaphor for such terms. Perhaps this is because grey is devoid of much obvious influence from the brightest of colours - red, yellow, orange, purple. Perhaps also because it is considered the half-way point between the two most extreme of all 'colours' - black and white.
But grey IS interesting for its role in our lives, and because it is not a spectral colour - a natural wavelength of light. It is a colour achieved only through the combinations of other natural colours - three or more - creating a multitude of different shades and tones. It has been described as a colour, or as a non-colour, and even defined in dictionaries as 'a colour without colour'. The explanations will follow!
This page looks at the colour grey, how it is created in nature and by man, its many tones and their production in visual display units and in other media. It will also of necessity look at black and white - inextricably linked to grey as 'colours' created by the same combinations of coloured light - albeit in greater or lesser intensities. And just why have I put 'colours' in inverted commas?
- This is one of a series of pages looking at different shades and tones of colour. Four other pages have so far been produced. There is also a home page to this series which is referenced below. Links to other pages in the series can be found towards the foot of this page.
Unless otherwise indicated, all images on this page have been created by the author using 'Paint' or 'Photoshop' programmes. All can be generated in a matter of seconds
CREATION OF WHITE AND BLACK USING RGB LIGHT EMISSIONS AND CMY INK PIGMENTS
ARE BLACK AND WHITE COLOURS?
In nature, 'colour' is the manner in which our brains distinguish different wavelengths of light, perceived when they are emitted or reflected from an object or medium or a radiation source like the Sun or a burning flame. The longest wavelengths of light are perceived as red or orange, whilst intermediate wavelengths may be perceived as yellow or green, and short wavelengths are seen as blue or purple. But this is a rather simplistic view of the range of colours we see, as combinations of wavelengths in different proportions and intensities can create a vast range of detectable hues, shades and tones, some of which are identified as colours in their own right - turquoise, pink, mauve, brown, cream, magenta etc.
It is clear that any visible wavelength, or combination of wavelengths which we perceive can be described as colour. So how do black, white and grey measure up by this definition? First let us consider black.
Whether BLACK is a colour or not depends on our terms of reference. In terms of wavelengths of light, black is most definitely NOT a colour, because black, by definition, is the absence of any light. We see something as black, precisely because it is NOT emitting or reflecting any coloured light at all. As soon as light wavelengths of any colour are introduced, black ceases to exist.
On the other hand, black can undoubtedly be produced through manipulation of colour, in the form of pigments. Pigments are substances which absorb certain wavelengths of light while reflecting others. And if the right combination of pigments are combined together, then theoretically all wavelengths of light may be absorbed creating black. In such media as paint production and ink production, it is well known that this can be achieved by mixing together three different coloured pigments - namely Cyan, Magenta and Yellow (CMY*). Since black in this system is created by combining colours in the form of pigments, some would say that black itself could be considered a colour. However it can be countered that even though coloured pigments are used to produce black, it is only through the absorption of light by the pigments that this is achieved - ultimately, black is still being produced by an absence of coloured light).
On the other hand, however one describes black, WHITE most definitely IS a colour, because as we have seen, colour is not merely how we perceive individual light waves, but also how we perceive combinations of light waves. White is essentially how we visualise a combination of all wavelengths of light (or colour) at maximum intensity. This is illustrated above in the RGB system which uses Red, Green and Blue light to produce white. White could be described as the ultimate colour - the colour in which all other colours are combined together equally. The RGB system will be described in slightly more detail below.
(* In practice, the black produced by mixing together cyan, magenta and yellow is not perfect. It is also very expensive to combine inks in this way, so usually today a fourth black ink is added in printers - hence CMYK, in which the K refers to the black ink).
HOW WHITE BECOMES GREY
WHAT IS GREY?
It has to be said that speaking to physicists who study light, artists who use pigments, and the general public who have common usage of English, will elicit at least three different responses on the definition of colour. This page is primarily concerned with coloured light emission, rather than light absorption by pigments, so here white is considered a colour, and black is not.
What about grey? It may seem a strange question, but is grey - or gray - a colour? Pure grey is exactly the same combination of wavelengths as white, but at reduced intensity, Like white, it too incorporates all the colours of the spectrum - red, green, blue etc. Grey therefore IS a colour (though it could also be described as a shade of white, as we shall see).
However, in some dictionary definitions grey is described as an 'achromatic' colour - almost literally a 'colour without colour', meaning that like black and white, pure grey lacks any visible trace of the spectral colours even though we know they are present. Unlike any other colour, pure grey cannot be described as 'reddish' or 'greenish' or 'bluish' or any other adjective which implies the dominance of just one or two spectral colours (in the way that 'pink hues are obviously dominated by red, or mauve hues are dominated by red and blue, and olive is clearly a mix of green and yellow). Pure grey - like white - does not betray its colour make-up to the human brain, because the mix of hues is so uniform.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SHADES AND TONES
Differences in the definition of common words can always cause confusion, and this is particularly so in discussion of colours. 'Tone', 'tint', 'shade' and 'hue', are all common words which are used by artists and by the general public, but the terms are not always interpreted in the same way.
In this series of articles, I use the terms 'shade' and 'tone', and although the terms are often loosely applied, on this page there are good reasons for using the following definitions quite strictly:
- SHADES are colours in which the proportions of the component wavelengths of coloured light are the same. The quality which varies is intensity. To give an example, one shade of purple (made up of red and blue light) will be lighter or darker than another, but has exactly the same relative proportions of red and blue light.
- TONES are colours in which the proportions of the component wavelengths of coloured light are different. In other words one tone of purple will be more reddish or more bluish than another. The intensity may or may not be the same.
In the case of grey, such considerations are important in determining just how we should describe a particular grey.
RGB BLACK AND WHITE CODES
CREATION OF GREY USING THE RGB COLOUR MODEL
This page (and series) is primarily concerned with the creation of colour in visual display units, so in this section I explain the basics of the RGB system employed in monitors, cell phones, TVs, sat navs etc, and how 'grey' is created in these devices.
If light is simply the visible spectrum of electromagnetic radiation, and colour is how we perceive the individual wavelengths of light across that spectrum, then in nature the myriad of ways in which all these wavelengths of light can be combined, produces a multitude of shades and tones and colours. However, there is a limit to what the human brain can distinguish, and in practical terms it has been found that by combining just three wavelengths - Red, Green and Blue - we can create pretty much all the subtleties of colour which we can see. This is the basis of the RGB colour system which in its simplest form consists of many thousands of pixels (picture elements) in which the components of red, green and blue light - the three so-called 'primary colours' - can each be varied in intensity to create different hues.
The intensities of these three pixel colours can be codified as in the example below:
- 100% (R) : 0% (G) : 0% (B)
In this example there is 100% intensity red light, but no input of green or blue light. This therefore can be described as PURE BRIGHT RED. If the intensity of red light is reduced to 50%, the resultant colour is still pure red, but it will be darker. If blue is now added to the mix, as in the example coded below, then as we all know, the combination of red and blue makes purple so this code reflects a PURPLE colour:
- 50% (R) : 0% (G) : 50% (B)
The dominance of one primary colour, be it red, green or blue in such a combination of wavelengths, will make the final hue, reddish, greenish or bluish respectively.
- Now we come to the very special combinations of light wavelengths which make BLACK, WHITE and GREY. The characteristic features that black, white and grey all have in common is that all three primary colour wavelengths are present (or absent) in equal or roughly equal proportions.
In the case of BLACK there is zero intensity of red, green and blue light. In the case of WHITE all three colours are combined equally at maximum intensity. Black and white can therefore be coded as follows:
- BLACK 0% (R) : 0% (G) : 0% (B)
- WHITE 100% (R) : 100% (G) : 100% (B)
Which leaves us with GREY. As with the colour white, red, green and blue light are combined in equal intensities in a pure grey, though this can be any level between 0% and 100%. 'Pure mid grey' would be:
- 50% (R) : 50% (G) : 50% (B)
So now we will look at shades of pure grey associated with different intensities of red, green and blue light.
SHADES OF GREY
SHADES OF PURE GREY
In production of both black and white, the proportions of red, green and blue light remain the same - only the intensity is changed from 0% to 100%. Similarly, if the proportions of red, green and blue light remain exactly the same, but the intensity is varied between 0% and 100%, then we get various greys.
These are pure greys because no one primary colour takes precedence. And by the definition in the section 'The Difference Between Shades and Tones' , these can also be described as shades of grey, because the only difference between them is one of intensity.
Indeed, because they have the exact same proportions of primary colours that white has, they could theoretically also be described as shades of white!)
TONES OF GREY
TONES OF GREY
Proportions of red, green and blue in the above section are the same in each shade of grey. But proportions of the primary colours can easily be altered to introduce many subtle changes in the tone of grey - to make it slightly reddish, greenish, or bluish.
A few simple examples of this are given here in which the basic mid grey shade which we illustrated earlier is taken and respectively the amount of red, green or blue light is increased by 5% compared to the other two primary light colours. The influence of each primary colour can clearly be seen in the final tones of grey.
These tones are often categorised according to the dominant primary colour in the mix. Those which are distinctly reddish are described as being warm tones, whilst those which edge towards blue are described as cool greys.
WELL KNOWN GREYS
WELL KNOWN SHADES AND TONES OF GREY
Grey is not a colour which lends itself to many very beautiful names. Bright flowers, fruits and gem stones may give their names to other hues (as in rose red, apple green and sapphire blue) but grey is altogether a more sombre affair. Grey in nature and in human life tends to be associated with rocks and stones and cloudy skies, and with drabness, age, conformity and sober uniforms.
There are exceptions - glittering Silver rather oddly approximates more closely to supposedly drab grey than to any other colour. On the RGB scale the make up of silver is usually regarded as similar to that of pale pure grey 75% (R) : 75% (G) : 75% (B) shown earlier. But it is not possible to show silver simply as a codified mix of red, green and blue light. The metallic sheen of silver which makes this colour so special - like gold - results from reflection and is not possible to recreate with simple illustrations such as these combining red, green and blue - it requires careful manipulation of the image to simulate the reflectivity of metal.
In this section we see another precious metal - Platinum. Platinum is a very pale silver white in colour.
Ash grey is the colour of wood, reduced to a powdery form by intense combustion. Ash may also refer to volcanic rock, pulverised and disintegrated by extreme conditions of heat and pressure. It was first used as a colour term in English in the 14th century.
Battleship Grey is self-explanatory and is very similar to the pure mid grey shown earlier.
Slate Grey and Charcoal are two tones of grey which have a distinct bluish tinge in most representations. (Indeed although the illustration here shows charcoal as codified in many web pages devoted to the subject, I would suggest that natural charcoal - another form of burnt wood - is rather darker and less blue than this).
WELL KNOWN WHITES
AND SHADES AND TONES OF WHITE
If we can have shades and tones of grey, can we also have shades and tones of white? It's already been suggested that many greys may be seen as dark shades of white, but one glance at any paint manufacturer's chart will also show many pale colours listed as 'whites' - 'Natural White', 'Off White', 'Clotted Cream', 'Milk White', 'Sail White' 'Stone White', 'Apple White' etc. The distinctions between these commercial colours are chosen by the manufacturer, and are not universally accepted. Some may be regarded as whites, or they may be seen as very pale tones of another hue such as yellow or green or pink. The distinctions are often too fine to be clear on a page such as this, and so will not be given too much further attention.
But a few well known very pale hues are included to illustrate how the subtlety of changes in the intensity of red, green and blue change the final mix. Ivory shown here is almost pure white, In comparison, Magnolia shows a rather cooler, bluish tint as blue is the dominant primary colour in this tone. In Cream and Blond, red and green light are dominant. Red and green combine to make yellow tones, and both of these exhibit distinct yellowish tints.
NON-GREY COLOUR COMBINATIONS
THE LIMITS OF GREY
We have seen how in the RGB system, grey is a combination of all three primary colours of light. Of course the majority of colour tones will contain a mix of red, green and blue light in different proportions, but most cannot be described as grey. This is because in most colour tones just one or two primary colours will dominate over the others. And we can see it takes very little additional influence from one or two primary colours to move the final tone away from grey - the human brain easily detects even a small amount of colour. In all of these examples which are illustrated here, the difference in intensity between the three primary colours varies by no more than 10%, and yet none of these tones can be described as grey:
The first illustrates a tone which is dark, but because green is present at greater intensity than red or blue, the end result again is not dark grey, but Dark Green.
The second illustrates a tone in which red and blue are present at slightly greater intensity than green. As already mentioned on this page, red and blue makes purple or mauve, and even though green light is present at quite substantial intensity here, nonetheless the end tone is not grey, but Mauve.
The third example features high intensities of green and blue light, but even higher intensity of red light. Although this is not far removed from a light colour composition which could be described as grey, this combination in which red is slightly more dominant is so distinctive it forms the basis of a whole group of colours which we call Pink - the subject of my next page in this series!
GREY OR GRAY?
Finally, the spelling itself. Just as 'colour' and 'color' divide the English speaking nations, so do 'grey' and 'gray'. The term first appears in written English language in the year 700 AD, and the variation in spelling is apparent from the very origins of the word. Anglo Saxon 'Graeg' gave rise to Middle English 'grei' or 'grai'. In more recent times 'gray' became the more common spelling in America from about 1825. In the UK and the British Commonwealth including Canada, New Zealand and Australia, both versions have been used, but 'grey' became the standard spelling in the 20th Century.
In this page I have tried to explain the peculiarities of grey which make it such an unusual colour.
- It is a colour which in its purest form lacks any visual clue as to its make-up.
- It is a colour which almost seems to run counter to the very definition of colour as a bright rendition of the wavelengths of light - grey is neither bright nor is it characterised by specific wavelengths of light.
- It is the drabbest of colours derived from the most perfect mix of all the brightest colours in the rainbow spectrum of light.
What a paradox is grey!
Grey is a ubiquitous colour found in the clouds of the sky, the reflections of water in lakes and seas, and the rocks of the Earth's crust. Its companion 'colours' of black and white are to be found in the darkest emptiness of space and in the life-giving brilliance of stars. Without grey and black and white, the world we live in would be unimaginable, our visualisation of it would be impossible. And for all its association with boring monotony, mediocrity and decay, grey is a popular colour in the human world where too much brightness hurts the eye - grey suits, grey metal, grey concrete - grey is everywhere, and where would we be without it?
JUST FOR FUN - WHICH IS YOUR FAVOURITE GREY ?
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OTHER PAGES IN THIS SERIES
- Shades and Tones of Colour - Colour Creation
This is the home page to this series of articles on colour. It looks at the nature of light and colour, the history of colour creation, various methods of colour creation, and the difference between shades and tones
- Shades and Tones of Red
In the English language we have many words for different shades of red - scarlet, crimson, cerise, burgundy, and many more. But what are all these shades? And where do these evocative names come from?
- Shades and Tones of Purple and Mauve
A look at the various shades and tones of the colour purple, at mauve and amethyst, lavender and lilac, orchid and plum, and indigo and violet. How are these colours created in a visual display unit, and what is their history?
- Shades and Tones of Green
Green is perhaps the most tranquil, most passive, and the easiest on the eye of the three primary colours of light. In this page I look at shades of green in the RGB colour production system
- Shades and Tones of Yellow and Orange
Of all the spectral colours, yellow and orange are two of the most vivid and intense. Of course they are two colours which are also related to each other. Yellow, in the visible spectrum lies adjacent to orange. But how are these colours created?
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