The Unexpected History of Payne’s Grey

The Unexpected History of Payne’s Grey

Payne’s Grey is made up of a mixture of pigments that combine to make an alternative to black. It is usually very dark in masstone, and reveals very blue undertones when diluted. Payne’s Grey can be found in almost every oil, acrylic and watercolour range – proof of its popularity. This article explores where the colour originated, and how it can be used in the palette.



The History of Payne’s Grey

Payne’s Grey was created by the British painter William Payne. William Payne was born in Exeter, Devon, in 1760 and found acclaim in London as a watercolour tutor. Along with the creation of Payne’s Grey, he is also credited with the technique of splitting a wet brush to make different marks for foliage, and using the side of a dry brush to make rock-like textures in the foreground (perhaps we can think of him as an 18th century Bob Ross?). He was criticised by the ‘serious’ painters of the time for apparently reducing painting to a step-by-step, easy-to-use approach. It should be noted, however, that his mark-making methods were not new. Chinese landscape painters were certainly using these techniques with their brushes in the 15th century, if not long before.

His primary legacy, however, is the colour Payne’s Grey. It is a deep, stormy grey with a distinctly blue undertone. The ‘original’ colour, used by Payne himself, appears to have been a mixture of Prussian Blue (some sources say it was Ingido), Yellow Ochre, and Crimson Lake:


Mixing Payne’s Grey using William Payne’s formula


What is lovely about looking at William Payne’s work is that you can see how he used the colour he created. In the river scene below you can clearly see how he used Payne’s Grey in high concentration in the foreground, and applied more and more diluted as the distance recedes from view – a very effective way of evoking a sense of depth.


Watercolour painting by William Payne, date unknown


His paintings may not be well-known today, but it’s interesting to reflect on the legacy that this British painter continues to have. The vast majority of watercolour, oil, and acrylic ranges carry Payne’s Grey, evidence of its continued demand. Today, a ready-mixed Payne’s grey varies from range to range, so its hue is not consistent across brands.


Colour Mixing

First, I have a confession– I’ve never liked Payne’s Grey. I’ve never found it a very useful or interesting colour. This is probably due to my preference for single-pigment paints and my avoidance of ‘convenience mixtures’ (a term for paints that contain a mixture of pigments which perhaps carries a little prejudice?). However, I often find that in the process of creating these articles I fall in love with the colour I’m writing about. So, what it is about this colour that so appeals to artists? I tried it in mixtures to find out.

Because of its blue undertones, my first instinct was to mix it with some yellows to see what greens it makes. Its deepness was very useful here, as it made some very dark, leafy greens. Because it already contains two or more pigments, adding yet another pigment makes relatively ‘muddy’ mixtures. This can be very useful, but it’s something to be aware of if you prefer clean, glowing mixes. Overall, I didn’t feel that Payne’s Grey was offering anything that a deep-bellied blue like Prussian Blue couldn’t do.


Mixing greens in the palette with Payne’s Grey


The most harmonious mixtures I found were made by adding more of a certain pigment that the colour already contains. For example, if you know that your Payne’s Grey contains Carbon Black (PBk7) and Prussian Blue (PB27) then you can adjust the tube colour by adding more of those existing pigments. This strategy means that you can subtly adjust the temperature and hue of the original colour without adding new pigments into the mixture. This can result in some very controlled colour-work.


Adding various amount of Prussian Blue and Carbon Black to Payne’s Grey


This is less colour mixing, but colour ‘adjusting’. It adds an extra dimension to the colour, and really highlights how knowing which pigments are in your paints can be so helpful.

William Payne really set a precedent, because it’s not the last time we find colour collaborations between paint-making companies and artists. Davy’s Grey, for example, was first made by Winsor & Newton for artist Henry Davy. More recently, Daniel Smith collaborated with artist Laurin McCracken to make McCracken Black watercolour. I would love to know how you use Payne’s Grey, please let us know by leaving a comment.



Further Reading

Pigment Stories: Ultramarine Blue and French Ultramarine

How to Make Oil Paint – a Faster Method

Venetian Red: the Red Earth Pigment That Evokes the Italian Renaissance

Making Your Own Oil Paint With Jackson’s Pigments


Shop Payne’s Grey on


Evie Hatch

Evie’s interests lie in the history and characteristics of artist colours and materials. This research plays a large part in her art practice; she loves investigating traditional techniques and makes her own watercolour and oil paints. Evie graduated in 2016 from Camberwell College of Art with a degree in Drawing. She is currently studying Art History at the Courtauld Institute, London.