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The Color Gray: Exploring Its Complex Symbolism and Meanings

Gray is a neutral color considered to be achromatic, meaning that it actually doesn’t have a color. This is because gray is made by mixing black and white. It’s the color of ash, lead and a sky covered with clouds that lets you know a storm is coming. But where did this color come from and what does it mean?

Here’s a quick look at the symbolism of the color gray and the history behind it.

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What Does the Color Gray Symbolize?

Gray stones

The color gray is a complex color, representing both negative and positive concepts at the same time. It’s typically associated with dirt, dinginess and dullness while at the same time being conservative, formal and sophisticated. It’s a timeliness color that usually stands for depression, sadness or loss.

Lighter shades of gray have similar attributes to white whereas darker shades have the mystery and strength of the color black minus its negative connotations. Light shades of the color are said to be more feminine in nature, while dark shades are more masculine.

  • Gray represents strength. Gray is a neutral color that represents strength and longevity due to it being the color of gravel, granite and stone. It’s unemotional, detached, balanced and impartial.
  • Gray symbolizes power. The color gray universally symbolizes power and influence since it’s known to evoke powerful feelings.
  • Gray represents old age. Gray is generally symbolic of old age and the elderly, since it’s associated with the graying of hair. ‘Gray power’ means the power of the senior citizens or the elderly.
  • Gray symbolizes intelligence. Gray is the color of compromise and intellect. It’s a highly diplomatic color which negotiates the distance between white and black. The phrase ‘gray matter’ usually means smartness, brains, intelligence and intellect.

Symbolism of Gray in Different Cultures

  • In Europe and America, gray is one of the least favorite colors and is most often associated with modesty.
  • In Africa, gray is generally considered to be the most stalwart of all colors. It represents a constant, strong foundation and also stands for maturity, stability, security and authority.
  • In China, gray symbolizes humility and unassumingness. In ancient times, the Chinese people owned gray houses and wore gray clothes. Today, the color can be used to describe something tarnished or dark, while also representing gloomy emotions and weather.
  • In Ancient Egypt, gray was a color found in the heron’s plumage which gave it a connection to the Egyptian gods. Since the heron was the guide to the underworld, the color too was greatly respected.

Personality Color Gray – What It Means

Girl wearing gray dress

Being a personality color gray means that it’s your favorite color and there are a number of common characteristics among people who love it. Although it’s not likely that you’ll exhibit each and every one of these traits, there are some that may be specific to you. Here’s a list of the most common character traits among personality color grays.

  • If you love gray, it means you’re a strong and steady person who likes to keep to yourself.
  • Etiquette and good manners are extremely important to you.
  • You don’t tend to have major likes or dislikes.
  • You’re a calm and practical person who doesn’t like to attract attention to yourself and all you’re looking for is a contented life.
  • You prefer to be in control of your emotions and avoid emotional pain by turning off them off.
  • You are sometimes indecisive and lack confidence. You tend to sit on the fence, finding it hard to make certain choices in difficult situations in your life.
  • You don’t like to get involved in others’ problems and prefer to mind your own business. 
  • You sometimes tend to isolate yourself because you try to protect yourself from the outside world. However, it can make you feel like you don’t belong or fit in anywhere.

Positive and Negative Aspects of the Color Gray

Gray is known to be a color that can balance your mind as well as your emotions. Since the color is so neutral, it has the ability to bring the feeling of stillness.

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On the positive side, gray can give you feelings of possibility, authority and the strength you need when you’re feeling down. Since it also represents structure, it can encourage feelings of a strong self and togetherness.

On the other hand, too much gray can make you feel bored, drab, sad and depressed. It’s quite hard to feel glamorous with gray and it doesn’t energize, rejuvenate, stimulate or excite. In fact, it can stifle your energy, making you feel dull and lethargic.

The Use of Gray in Fashion and Jewelry

Man with gray suit

Although the color gray was thought of as a drab, depressing color for clothing in the past, nowadays it’s quite the opposite. For many years now the color has become quite fashionable, signifying good taste. With its modern, fresh look and its compatibility with almost every other color, gray has taken the fashion world by storm and the best part about it is that it never goes out of style.

Girl in gray suit

The color gray looks best on people with cool undertones, but it works well with warm-toned complexions too, depending on the shade of the color. Medium shades of gray suit paler skin without giving an overwhelming look whereas lighter shades tend to look best on people with tan or dark skin.

History of the Color Gray

While the exact origin of the color gray is unknown, historical evidence shows that the word ‘gray’ was first used as the color’s name as early as AD 700. In the Middle Ages, it was the color commonly worn by the poor, associating it with poverty. Cistercian monks and friars also wore this color to symbolize their vows of poverty and humility.

1- Renaissance and the Baroque Period

The color gray began to play a very important role in art and fashion during the Baroque and Renaissance periods. In Italy, Spain and France, black was the color of the nobility and both white and gray were harmonious with black.

Gray was also often used for oil paintings which were drawn using ‘grisaille’, a painting technique by which an image is created entirely in shades of gray. It was first painted in gray and white on top of which colors were added afterwards. The purpose of grisaille was to be visible through the color layers and provide shading to certain areas of the painting. Some paintings were left with the grisaille uncovered which gave the painting the appearance of carved stone.

The Dutch Baroque painter Rembrandt Van Rijn frequently used gray as a background for almost all of his portraits to highlight the costumes and faces of the main figures. His palette was made almost entirely of serious colors and he used black pigments made of burnt animal bones or charcoal mixed with lime white or lead white to compose his warm grays.

2- The 18th and 19th Centuries

In the 18th century, gray was a highly popular and fashionable color used for both men’s coats and women’s dresses. Later on, in the 19th century, women’s fashion was mostly dominated by Paris and men’s fashion by London. Gray business suits began to appear during this time in London and replaced the very colorful palette of clothing that was used earlier in the century.

Women who worked in workshops and factories in Paris in the 19th century usually wore gray which is why they were called ‘grisettes’. This name was also given to the Parisian prostitutes of the lower class. Gray was a commonly used color for military uniforms since it made soldiers less visible as targets unlike those who wore red or blue. It was also the color of the Confederate and Prussian Army uniforms from 1910.

Many mid-19th century artists such as Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and James Whistler used different tones of gray to create beautiful and memorable paintings. Corot used blue-gray and green-gray tones to give a harmonious look to landscapes while whistler created his own special gray for the background for his mother’s portrait as well as one for his own.

3- The 20th and 21st Centuries

Geurnica replica gray color
Replica of Guernica

In the latter part of the 1930s, the color gray became a symbol of war and industrialization. In Pablo Picasso’s painting ‘Guernica’, it was the dominant color used to depict the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. With the end of the war, gray business suits became symbolic for the uniformity of thought and were popularized in books like ‘The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit’ which was printed in 1955. The book was made into a movie a year later and became incredibly successful.

In Brief

Gray is said to be one of the least popular colors in the world but surprisingly enough, many people consider it classy and often choose it as a backdrop to make other colors stand out. When using gray for interior designing or incorporating it into your wardrobe, remember to balance it out as this will help you avoid the negative effects of the color. With gray, it’s all about balance.

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Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.