Grey: The History of an Underrated Dull Colour

A large amount of grey pebbles on the ground
Behold the awesome that is grey!

After our colour orange history post, we’re taking a look at the other end of the scale. Grey! The colour that’s a bit on the overcast side of things.

But we think it gets a bad reputation for no real reason. It can look marvellous in the right situation and is also a fantabulous hair colour, making folks look noble and distinguished.

So, we’re here to have a gander and lay forth the brilliance of grey.

A Brief History of the Colour Grey

Grey has been around for a fair old while. In English, its first recorded use as a word was back in AD 700.

In Anglo-Saxon it was grǣġ, which in Middle English was grai/grei.

Around antiquity and up into the Middle Ages, poor people would often wear wool. So as a colour, it’s often attributed to poverty and dreary working life.

In fact, Cistercian monks and Franciscan and Capuchin friars would wear grey as a symbol of their chosen poverty and general minimalism.

However, it was during the Renaissance and Baroque eras that grey had a bit more to play in society than keeping lazy poor people from being naked.

The royalty of the day would wear black, which grey complements rather magnificently. So it found a home amongst the superior rich people of the world.

Then came the 18th century and fame! Grey became massively fashionable. Suddenly it was all over dresses and, for geezers, waistcoats.

Wealthy folks would adorn themselves with fancy silks and satins.

It also became a common item amongst the military, particularly during the American Civil War with the Confederate Army.

The Prussian Army also adopted grey as its colour scheme of choice in 1910.

And that all paved the way for grey’s association with industrialisation and war in the 20th century.

In England, we can’t help but associate grey with stunted architecture. Giant high-rise apartment blocks to stuff gross poor people into.

The type of cheap, easy builds that characterise a nation not out of the grips of WWII’s rationing. A ’60s build, build, build faze to get homes up, even if they did look awful.

These buildings are still fairly common around our way in the poorer regions of the North West.

Although Manchester’s city centre architecture is often magnificent when it’s allowed to be. And there are some greys in amongst the many modern buildings.

What’s the Difference Between Grey and Silver?

Now, onto the point of silver! Grey is a mixture of black and white. Whilst silver has black and white… but with a metallic tint going on.

That’s about it. Silver has a better reputation than grey, of course, but we think they’re both rather fantabulous and interchangeable.

Public Opinion on the Colour Grey

50 Shades of Grey has probably had more impact on a colour than any other movie in history. All of a sudden, it isn’t as dull as you once thought!

But the colour is also often associated with drab, boring things. Stuff like:

  • Neutrality
  • Conformity
  • Boredom
  • Uncertainty
  • Old age
  • Indifference
  • Modest

Think of an overcast day on a Monday morning. For many people, it doesn’t fill them with the spirit of being alive.

Clouds even have the power to affect people’s moods, with a mass of wet weather rain heavy clouds making people depressed.

Also think of terms like, “That’s a grey area, darling!” It all adds up to a a rather negative opinion of the colour and how it fits into the world.

This isn’t helped by how grey is often associated with ageing.

For many people, their hair will change to this colour as they get older. This is of some concern for many, who’ll dye their hair back to the original colour.

We don’t get this. The grey/silvery look suits men and women very well.

For example, check out former F1 driver David Coulthard. But a mere whippersnapper at 50, his hair was greying in his early 40s. To much great effect.

Greying runs in British F1 driver history, as his former teammate Damon Hill (60) also sports a fetching silver fox look.

We’ve also seen some young women actively dyeing their hair grey and sporting that as a groovy look. Sometimes with a purplish tinge.

Take Eva Galperin, the super groovy cybersecurity expert who’s making a name for herself online. Check out the epic bangs!

Also, there were some epic insights into cybersecurity for you. Don’t get cheated by fraudsters, you hear!?

Good! So, we suggest you all challenge the idea grey is an undesirable colour.

It is everywhere in society and, when used properly, it can be a most glorious thing. Drab? Don’t talk nonsense! Fab, more like!

Furthermore, you should associate the colour with grey matter.

That’s the stuff in the human brain, which is the informal term, yes, but a loving one all the same. And it’s an indication of intellectualism.

And being smart isn’t drab at all, eh? Unless you get hungry.

The Colour Grey in Food

Food! Grey! Grey food! It happens and some of it is more silvery than outright grey, but it’s all the same. Sort of.

Some of the most impressive grey foodstuffs includes:

  • Mackerel.
  • Sardines.
  • Plenty of fish, really!
  • Grey salt.
  • Grey owl cheese.
  • Mushrooms (sort of).
  • Mushroom soup!
  • Oysters.

And probably some other stuff we’ve missed, but they’re the ones we can remember.

Now, can you imagine having fresh mushroom soup with some oysters? Doesn’t that make you say, “Hell yes!”?

Indeed, that is the excellence of grey foodstuffs for you. Go forth and eat.

The Colour Grey in Art

There’s an entire artistic method named after oil painting in grey—grisaille. It’s a method of painting in varying shades of grey.

Take Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1526-1569) and his rather startling technique.

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

The technique became popular in the 16th century, with the Pénicaud family regular practitioners.

Think also of Whistler’s Mother, the moribund piece from 1871 so legendarily included in the Mr. Bean film in 1997.

And in the 20th century, Alfred Leslie and Chuck Close continued the tradition. In fact, many abstract painters latched onto grey with a kind of fervent mania.

That includes artists such as Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Agnes Martin, Brice Marden, Mark Rothko, and Gerhard Richter.

Behold an example from Mr. Rothko (1903-1970) called Untitled (Black on Grey) from the year of 1968 of Our Lord.

Untitled (Black on Gray) by Mark Rothko

After suffering an aortic aneurysm in mid-1968, it’s perhaps unsurpising this was one of Rothko’s first paintings after his recovery.

The painting is, indeed, about death. Nice, eh?

It’s also impossible to ignore Pablo Picasso’s much-celebrated Guernica (1937), the large oil painting on a canvas.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

This was a depiction of the Spanish Civil War and the imagery is now considered highly powerful anti-war stuff.

The 2018 book The Truth Is Always Grey: A History of Modernist Paintin by Frances Guerin takes things a step further.

A senior lecturer in the School of Arts at the University of Kent, she takes up the argument for why so many artists in the 20th century went grey.

But, guess what? Game developers have also jumped onto the bandwagon to spread the dreary cheer throughout gaming land. Hurray!

The Use of Grey in Video Games

In the world of video games, the mesmerising FAR: Lone Sails (2018) employs regular use of grey in its art direction.

It’s the prominent colour throughout the experience, a melancholic hue hanging over your character’s every move.

Then there’s the beautiful CHILD of LIGHT (2014) from Ubisoft, a 2D RPG that’s drenched in grey melancholia throughout.

NieR: Automata is also resplendent in so much grey it should be illegal!

Curiously, many early games console were also decked out in grey. Nintendo’s NES and SNES had a rather undramatic grey plastic hue. As did the Game Boy.

Given how vibrant the SNES’ games were around this time, it does make a curious disparity between the console’s looks and what it was able to play.

Sega’s Dreamcast and Sony’s PlayStation also went for the same look with their respective consoles.

But for some time, Sega championed a jet black look with the Master System, Mega Drive, and its Game Gear. This was no doubt to differentiate itself from main rival Nintendo.

Returning to games and we also can’t go any further without mentioning Bethesda’s epic Skyrim (2011).

The title is just awash with greys and whites. It’s arguably one of the most downbeat looking major AAA titles ever, boasting searing grey wildernesses everywhere.

And yeah it’s a fantastic classic that gamers love. That’s thanks to the grey, that is. Nothing to do with gameplay.

Grey is Greyt!

Look at the Great Grey Owl. Look at it! It’s grey. And it’s great!

So, okay. Our ranting about grey has gone on for a while. We get not everyone will hurl themselves at the colour willy-nilly.

Some people want to be loud in pink shirts and garner attention through other fantabulous clothing items.

What we’re saying is don’t be afraid of grey. It is good. Embrace it and you’ll lead a happier and more stimulating life.

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