Gray is a neutral, a combination of black and white. Figuring out the colors that go with gray should be pretty easy, right?
If you read my color wheel chart article you know how to combine colors based on their position on the color wheel. But you will not find gray on the color wheel. So you can’t use that as a guideline.
Gray doesn’t show up on the color wheel for the same reason that black and white don’t. Neither has chroma. Neither has hue. And Gray is just the combination of the two.
So how does this affect gray color schemes?
Let me turn this on its head: There is no such thing as a gray color scheme. Gray goes with everything, but it is these other colors that determine the scheme.
What you really need to do is determine a scheme for these other colors, based on the color wheel, and then add gray.
What if you only want one other color? Then pick any color. Gray will go with it, but you do not really have a color scheme. You have a color plus gray.
Now I will throw in a wrinkle.
Gray plus a color is what is known as a tone of that color. A color plus white is a tint. A color plus black is a shade.
Will gray go better with a tone than with a tint? Will it work better with a full chroma color than with a tone?
If I have a gray wall is it better to use bright, vibrant fabrics, or muted tones of that color?
I’ll be evasive again. It depends. On you.
What is your purpose of this mix? What do you want to achieve?
Your bright, full chroma colors will stand out against a gray, and they will tend to wake up a room. More neutral colors will keep the feeling subdued, relaxed.
It also depends on the total quantity of gray. A mostly gray room probably needs the brighter colors to avoid boredom. A room with just a little gray might benefit from using tones to avoid over-stimulating the eye with too much chroma.
Now lets think in terms of light and dark colors. I am not here referring to tints and shades, but to the effect of certain hues upon the eyes. Most the reds, yellow, green, and the lighter blues are all obviously bright colors. What I am referring to as dark color are those colors that are on the ends of the visible spectrum. As they transition toward the invisible spectrum they seem to lose their light.
Even in full chroma they just don't seem as light as the red, yellow or green.
For these dark colors I would tend to mix gray with the full-chroma hues, and be less inclined to go with a tone or a shade, for fear of looking too dark.
There might be reasons why a dark palette is needed, in which case ignore this advise. Or you might pick enough chroma from the other colors in your scheme that you can afford to have grays and shades of the darker colors. I'm just warning you to be wary of getting too dark when associating with grays.
Now lets discuss what gray is best for your color mix.
Since gray is a mix of white and black, you can have a gray that is mostly white, or one that is mostly black, and everything in-between.
You also have a lot of colors that are called a gray that are really very strong tones. What I mean by strong tone is a color mixed with a whole lot of gray to the point that the gray dominates. It is more tone than color.
Sometimes you will hear people refer to a gray as being a warm gray, or a cool gray. In the case of a warm gray you are really looking at a gray mixed with a warm color, such as yellow. The little bit of color imparts its character upon the gray.
My rule for using a gray that is actually a strong tone is to use a strong tone of one of the other colors in your color scheme, or use it in place of one of the colors in your scheme. If your scheme calls for magenta, but you just can’t seem to fit it in, replace the magenta with gray mixed with just a smidge of magenta.
In the end the colors that go with gray are dependent on your own tastes and needs. Gray mixes well with everything, but which gray and how much gray is a judgement call that is beyond that ability of this or any article.
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