grey area

Since Newton excluded the monochrome from his colour wheel, perhaps few shades have been so misunderstood as grey. The colour of gloom and melancholy, grey is shunned as depressing, dismissed for its uninteresting monotony, castigated for being drab and dull. But when we make “grey” a synonym of blandness or uniformity, might it be a sign that we just aren’t looking properly?

While the bright blue sky of a hot summer’s day might feasibly be described as uniform, a grey sky is rarely so. In this photograph of Skye from Applecross, swathes of diffused light veil the land in an infinite variety of greys. Caught in an atmosphere of lightness that seems something akin to sleep, the sharp peaks of the Cuillin hover between water and air, as if they are about to be washed away. These are greys that defy the weight of stone or earth. Greys on the brink of a wave, on the wisp of a cloud.

Which grey defines this image of Loch Fyne’s birch-covered braes? We might describe the cold, wind-swept water as slatey, but this slate-shade is riven with silvery peaks and charcoal troughs. And what about the trees, whose branches are alive with greys for whose barely-there wintery strangeness it seems hard to find a name? What do we call this bark or that lichen, which colour words could capture the desiccation or decay of last year’s growth, the light boughs’ knowledge of the coming spring?

Grey is a searching shade, a colour of questions: Where have we been? Where are we going? What happens next?

Grey is mysterious, complex, full of ambiguity. Grey prompts us to look carefully, to examine things closely, to interrogate what we are seeing. And perhaps it is only through the close attention that grey forces from us that we can ever hope to gain any sort of insight. “The owl of Minerva,” Hegel wrote, “spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk.” Might enlightenment, in fact, be grey?

Kandinsky said “in grey there is no possibility of movement.” Like so many odd things Kandinsky said about colour, this claim is easily refuted.

We might say, rather, that grey is the ultimate colour of movement, because it is permanently impermanent. Grey is the shade that defines time’s passing, whose subtle shifts remind us that one hour is never quite the same as the next. That drift of mist will lift. This moment above the treetops will not come again.

Grey is the place where colour starts.

Grey is a field without fence or boundary, within which we can try to understand what colour means.

Grey is not vivid or bold or brilliant. It is not a shade of startling contrasts. But grey nonetheless surprises. It allows us to see things differently.

In many languages, for many cultures, one of the first visual differentiations to be made is not between one colour and another but between dullness and luminosity. It is often said that grey encapsulates the former quality. Wittgenstein famously stated that “whatever looks luminous does not look grey.”

Is this scene of quietly shimmering surfaces not luminous?

If we looked a little harder, might we not find the most remarkable luminosities in grey?


Images by Tom and words by Kate. The starting point of this photo essay was David Batchelor’s thought-provoking short book The Luminous and the Grey (2014) which is highly recommended.