Gray Matters

Monterey Dunes, Shot with Phone

Monterey Dunes, Shot with Phone

In which the artist embraces his fear of the dark or, rather, the gray and, rising to the light that is portioned out to him, braves all…

Excuse the phone photos, I forgot my camera, but you can see the gray, gray, gray. No sun whatsoever. Artists talk a lot about grays, or is it greys? “Nice use of grays”, “I like your grays.”, “He really knows how to use grays.” What the heck are they talking about? Try to look it up in a book or online and you will have very little luck finding out why gray matters.

Those of you who were fortunate enough to actually train at an art school or under a master will wonder what I am talking about. But for the rest of us, you know what I mean. What’s the deal with grays?

I don’t intend to give the hard-earned answer to that question in this post but I will say that today was a gray day; it was overcast. Perhaps you will remember my first rule of the Lewis Laws of Painting ;-), “Never paint when it is overcast.”. Yes, that’s the Law, and I never break that law. Well, sometimes I break that law, but I am always sorry when I do because the painting will always be flat and, well, gray! But after biking 6 miles to get to this location I was not about to do anything but break the first law.

Out of the Wind behind the Sign

Out of the Wind behind the Sign

Painting is all in the mind anyway, so a gray day allows the artist to embrace gray as an artistic challenge. Choosing a very limited palette of ultramarine blue, alizaron crimson, burnt sienna, yellow ochre and titanium white, and limiting my brushes to 4, a wide paint brush for blocking in, a rigger for details, a flat sable for smoothing, and a medium bristle for medium details, I set up behind a sign, out of the wind. Oh, did I say wind? Hey, wait, isn’t that one of the other Lewis Laws of Painting?: “Never paint in the wind because the canvas becomes a kite.”. Today was not only gray, it was windy, cold and windy, the kind of relentless chilly breeze that leaves your nose forming little icicles, leaving your cheeks red, and your legs stiff and needing 3 hours under big quilts to warm them up…

"Monterey Dunes" by Robert Lewis

"Monterey Dunes" by Robert Lewis

Mixing up a gray of all the colors and using a mix of odorless mineral spirits and Galkyd, very thin, the canvas was awash in a medium gray, a total commitment to gray, and an embracing the color gray without reservation. If we are going to paint using gray then so be it, don’t hold back. Basically, I painted the painting in grays first, then went back adding bits of color, working it right into the existing grays. It is interesting that this toning down over the whole canvas made the yellow ochre pop like a bright yellow.

So, after a couple of hours, I knocked the icicle off my nose, whacked my legs with my bungee cords to get them moving again, packed up this little 14″x11″ painting I call “Monterey Dunes”. Riding back to the studio on the bike I warmed up nicely and the gray feeling I had in my soul warmed to the idea of a cup of tea and quilts.