top of page

Gray Matters: How Gray Changes How We Think

Gray is not a popular color. For many, it is considered drab, boring, non-committal and ‘safe’ - the very essence of conformity. On average only 1% of people surveyed select gray as their favorite color [1]. But if we look a little closer, we will see that it is a rich, complex color that forms not only the basis of our perception of the physical world, but it can also affect how we think. Like an Éminence grise (grey eminence - a powerful authority operating ‘behind the scenes’) the color gray has been psychologically proven to quietly influence how we interpret and understand people, places and events.

In the human visual system, the retina communicates with the brain by means of three different channels: one achromatic signal: black-white, and two chromatic signals: red-green and a yellow-blue [2]. The achromatic channel provides information about variations of perceived lightness in the visual environment. This helps us to determine the volume, shape and surface qualities of objects, as well as providing information about spatial relationships, light direction and intensity. As such, it is probably the most important and fundamental component of vision, one found in all vertebrates, regardless of their differing color vision capabilities. In the visual arts, the perception of lightness is referred to as value or tone, and is the key element to realistic and three-dimensional imagery. A common practice in western painting, from the Renaissance until the late 19th century was to begin a painting with a completely tonal image, known as grisaille (from the French: gris, ‘gray’), after which successive layers of transparent colors (glazes) were added to complete the image.

Stages of an oil painting from grisaille (left) to glazing with color (center and right). Image courtesy of Louis Smith at

Because of the importance of the initial tonal structure of the image, not only to indicate form and volume, but also to establish the overall compositional design, or drawing as these were collectively known, an aesthetic philosophy and preference for tone over color developed that sparked a centuries long debate. This rivalry between disegno and colore, or drawing and color, dominated artistic theory and practice from the Renaissance to the late 19th century. In disegno, tone was primary, and color secondary, as it was applied after all the hard work and decisions were made (composition and form). In colore, color was primary and could do all the tonal and compositional heavy lifting directly, without the need of a separate tonal layer. The powerful Art Academies of Europe, the official arbiters of taste and culture, sided with disegno, with their focus on drawing, perspective and anatomy. The Academies considered art to be an intellectual pursuit, based on rationality, and as such embraced classicism with its emphasis on the ideal rather than the actual, the timeless rather than the transient. Value – which revealed the underlying form or substance, became the basis of their technique. Colore, concerned as it was with color, was considered too emotional and sensual, focused too much on the surface and secondary qualities of an image. In fact, color (and painting) was not even taught in the Academies - that was often left to the individual art ‘ateliers’ (studios), whose teachers were often members of the Academy. The rationalistic/classical emphasis on the essential and the abstract, as well as the disdain for the incidental and particular, finds a similar corollary in photographers who favor black and white (greyscale) images over color. Many well-known photographers from Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson to Richard Avedon and Sally Mann, chose to work almost exclusively in black and white. For many, black and white photography captures the ‘essence’ of an image and stimulate the imagination of the viewer (to fill in the missing information). Color on the other hand, is seen to be a distraction - focusing more on the surface and the immediate impression. As the famous American photographer Elliot Erwitt once said, “Color is descriptive, black and white is interpretive”. This emphasis on the abstract and essential, turns out not to be as arbitrary as it may seem.

Migrant Mother. Dorothea Lange. (1936)

Social psychologists have empirically demonstrated that tonal images, because of their ‘psychological distance’ from perceived reality (the real world of color), evoke what are known as higher-level construals in people [3]. Construals (from the verb to construe) are the ways in which we interpret and understand the world. In psychology, these are divided into higher and lower levels. Higher-level construals are psychologically more distant to us in many ways (temporal, spatial, social etc.) and therefore evoke a more distanced, ‘bigger-picture’ style of thinking that favors abstraction and broader, more general categories. Lower level construals on the other hand evoke a style of thinking that is more concrete, descriptive and detail oriented. Consider Dorothea Lange’s iconic image of a migrant mother: worried, hungry and desperate, but the pillar of support for her children. As a black and white image she is seen as the embodiment and essence of a ‘mother’ - supporting her children. In color however, the image might reveal a red-headed woman with green eyes and bright blue shirt and pink nail polish. This could change the meaning for us as she now becomes a more concrete type of person, related to our own associations of people. The color makes her more specific, and idiosyncratic, and a bit less universal. Tonal images, reduced as they are to shades of grey, are more removed from the concrete, and encourage us to think more in terms of abstractions and generalities.

Through the underlying forms of our visual world, captured in the grisaiile of painters and the images of photographers, to the construals of psychology – the power of grey to shape our thought is anything but boring.


[1] Heller, E. (2009). Psychologie de la couleur - Effets et symboliques. Editions Pyramyd. Paris.

[2] Hunt, R.W.G, (1996). Why is Black-and-White so Important in Color?, Proceedings of the Fourth Color Imaging Conference: Color Science, Systems, and Applications, IS&T/SID, Scottsdale, AZ

[3] Lee, H., Deng, X., Unnava, H., & Fujita, K. (2014). Monochrome Forests and Colorful Trees: The Effect of Black-and-White versus Color Imagery on Construal Level. Journal of Consumer Research, 41(4), 1015-1032. doi:10.1086/678392


© 2016 Carl Jennings -

bottom of page