Grey is an achromatic color, meaning it has no hue and falls neutral on the color wheel. Unlike colors with hue that can be located at specific angles on the color wheel, grey does not have a fixed position and sits outside of the color wheel between black and white.
What is the color wheel?
The color wheel is a circular diagram that shows the relationships between colors based on hue. Primary colors of red, yellow, and blue sit equidistant around the wheel at 0°, 120°, and 240° respectively. Secondary colors of orange, green, and violet fall halfway between the primaries at 60°, 180°, and 300°. Tertiary colors fill in the gaps between the primary and secondary colors.
Colors are arranged on the wheel according to their hue or position on the spectrum. Hue refers to a color’s shade and is what distinguishes one color from another. For example, blue and yellow have different hues. Tones of the same hue sit next to each other on the color wheel. As you move clockwise or counterclockwise around the wheel, the hue transitions smoothly between the different colors.
Where does grey fall on the color wheel?
Unlike colors with hue, grey lacks its own hue and does not have a fixed position on the color wheel. Grey contains equal values of the three primary colors red, yellow, and blue, making it an achromatic color. This means grey has zero saturation, or purity of color. With no dominant hue, grey appears neutral.
On the color wheel, grey sits along the central axis that runs vertically through the center between black and white. While black and white reside at the poles, grey exists along the continuum in the center, representing the mixture of black and white in varying proportions.
Darker shades of grey with more black sit lower on the axis, while lighter tints of grey with more white appear higher. As an achromatic color and mixture of black and white, grey by nature has no set hue and does not belong to any specific location on the circumferential color wheel.
How is grey created by mixing colors?
While grey contains a balance of all three primary colors red, yellow, and blue, it can also be created by mixing complementary colors that sit opposite each other on the color wheel. Complementary colors are those that cancel out each other’s hue and create an achromatic neutral when blended.
Some examples of complementary colors that can mix to produce grey include:
- Red and cyan (located at 0° and 180°)
- Yellow and purple (located at 60° and 300°)
- Blue and orange (located at 240° and 60°)
By visually mixing complementary pigments or light wavelengths, the hues neutralize to produce a shade of grey. The specific grey tone depends on the relative proportions of the complementaries. Equal parts create a neutral medium grey, while varying ratios make darker or lighter greys.
Where does grey fall in relation to primary, secondary, and tertiary colors?
On the standard color wheel, primary colors sit equidistant around the wheel at 0°, 120°, and 240°. Secondary colors fall halfway between adjacent primaries at 60°, 180°, and 300°. Tertiary colors fill in the gaps between primary and secondary colors.
Grey lacks its own hue and inherently falls outside the circumferential sequence of chromatic primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. It resides along the central grey axis that runs vertically through the color wheel from top to bottom.
However, greys can be plotted relative to the hued color wheel using tints, tones, and shades:
- Tints: Add white to a hue to make it lighter while retaining the color. Greys become tints of primaries, secondaries, and tertiaries.
- Tones: Add grey to a hue to mute the color. Greys become tones of primaries, secondaries, and tertiaries.
- Shades: Add black to a hue to make it darker. Greys become shades of primaries, secondaries, and tertiaries.
For example, a light grey with a hint of blue would be a tint of blue and fall on the wheel near blue at 240°. A medium greyish-orange would be a tone of orange and sit near orange at 60°. A dark reddish-grey would be a shade of red and reside close to 0°.
How does shade affect the position of grey on the color wheel?
The lightness or darkness of a grey is referred to as its shade. As grey becomes darker it moves down the central axis, and as it lightens it moves up the axis.
On the standard color wheel, the bottom and top poles represent pure black and pure white respectively. In between sit greys of all shades from dark to light.
|Darkest neutral grey with zero lightness. Located at the bottom pole of the color wheel axis.
|Very dark grey closer to black than white on the color wheel axis.
|Darker neutral grey halfway between black and white on the axis.
|Mid-range neutral grey balanced between black and white on the axis.
|Lighter neutral grey halfway between medium grey and white on the axis.
|Lightest neutral grey with full lightness. Located at the top pole of the color wheel axis.
While different grey shades do not have specific locations on the circumferential wheel, their positions relative to black and white are meaningful on the vertical grey axis.
How does adding white or black affect the position of grey?
Adding white or black pigment to a grey directly impacts its lightness and darkness, moving it up or down the central color wheel axis.
- Adding white: Makes the grey lighter, increasing its tint. Lighter tints sit higher on the axis closer to white at the top pole.
- Adding black: Makes the grey darker, increasing its shade. Darker shades sit lower on the axis closer to black at the bottom pole.
For example, starting with a medium grey, adding white would shift it upwards towards white, making it a light grey. Adding black would shift it downwards towards black, making it a dark grey. The grey moves vertically between the poles according to how much white or black pigment is added.
How does adding color affect the position of grey?
While greys lack inherent hue, color can be added to shift their appearance towards a certain primary, secondary, or tertiary hue on the wheel. The grey maintains its neutrality but picks up subtle chromatic tones.
- Adding purple makes a grey shift closer to purple (300°) on the wheel
- Adding orange makes a grey shift closer to orange (60°) on the wheel
- Adding green makes a grey shift closer to green (180°) on the wheel
The more saturated chromatic color that is added, the more the grey takes on that hue while remaining largely neutral.Greys influenced by specific hues can be plotted relative to those colors’ locations on the circumferential wheel.
How does tone affect the position of grey on the color wheel?
Tone refers to the lightness or darkness of a color. For grey, tone impacts where it falls along the vertical axis within the poles of black and white.Greys have five principal tones:
|Light, closer to white on the axis
|Between light and medium grey
|Mid-range, balanced between black and white
|Between medium and dark grey
|Dark, closer to black on the axis
The lighter the tone, the higher its position on the vertical axis. The darker the tone, the lower its position. Tone moves grey shades up or down between the poles.
Grey is an achromatic color that lacks defined hue and saturation. On the color wheel, grey resides along the central vertical axis, between the poles of black and white. While grey does not have a set location or belong to a hue family, its shade and tone affect how high or low it sits between the poles. Adding color, white, or black shifts grey relative to primary, secondary, and tertiary hues around the circumferential wheel.