Neutral gray is a characterless, indifferent, achromatic color, very readily influenced by contrasting shade and hue. It is mute, but easily excited to thrilling resonances.
—Johannes Itten, The Art of Color
Neutral in Context
When I’m not thinking about color, I’m likely thinking about words. Lately, I spend much of my time writing and editing science content for students from third grade through high school, and when talking about science, it’s necessary to distinguish general definitions of words from context-specific definitions. For example, consider how force and power are used in everyday speech and how they are used in physics. Force as strength or military might is a correct definition of the word, but it’s not correct—or helpful—when calculating or describing an object’s acceleration. Wait! That’s the extent of the physics analogy! Let’s look at some knitting.
The word neutral has multiple definitions, each of which is suitable for and helpful in certain contexts. There are two primary definitions for neutral when speaking about color. First is what I call the Interior Decorator, or everyday, definition: without, or appearing to be without, color. To define the term, some design websites just list “neutral colors”: beige, black, brown, gray, and white, then go on to discuss “warm neutrals” and “cool neutrals.”
When I teach color theory, I provide an alternative to this definition to help students understand and work with color. Technically, only white, black, and all the grays between are without color. Really without color. As in, possessing no hue. Having nothing from the color wheel in them. A synonym for this meaning of neutral is achromatic, and I’ll refer to this as the technical definition from this point on.
So let’s talk about these browns.
Neutral vs. Achromatic
Color-aid cards help separate the everyday definition from the technical definition. By looking at the backs of these brown Color-aid cards, I learn that from left to right, they are: red-orange with a lot of black added, yellow-orange with gray added, and orange with gray added. They’re colors that can be described as neutral because due to the amount of black or gray added, they’re closer to truly neutral black and gray than to their base hues. They’re neutral according to the everyday definition, but they’re not achromatic. Colors like these are often called near neutrals on the more meticulous design websites, and I think this is a helpful term.
These gradient sets from Neighborhood Fiber Co. are a helpful example of near neutrals versus neutrals. On the left is Shades of Umber, the colors of which are dyed using increasing concentrations of brown and black. Because brown is not without color, these aren’t neutrals, but they’re close. Although there’s some yellow or orange in there, these colors don’t read as yellow or orange because there’s so much gray or black in them. On the right is Shades of Gray, the colors of which are dyed using only increasing concentrations of black. There’s no color in there, so these skeins are achromatic.
Returning to the Rothko Sweater picture above, the only neutral in the project is the semisolid black. The brown is probably orange with a lot of black added, and the gray has hints of both brown and blue—the yarn is HazelKnits Divine, and the gray is Quill, which is described as “varying shades of gray to black with a hint of brown and a final dusting of blue.” Both are near neutrals.
I’ve used near neutrals, particularly near-blacks, in a lot of my designs. For the original version of The Sermon, I used a series of five cool blacks dyed by Neighborhood Fiber Co. Each color was first dyed in a jewel tone, then overdyed with black.
I have more near-black designs underway, inspired by the Rothko Chapel and Ad Reinhardt. I affectionately refer to these designs as the Unmarketables.
Working with Neutrals and Near Neutrals
I don’t provide this information just to be exacting, although I love being exacting (and it’s my job). Using the technical definition of neutral will improve your ability to choose colors. Choosing an achromatic color will not create a new interaction (contrast of hue, complementary, or warm-cool, which I’ll discuss in Part VI). It will just create light-dark contrast and be “excited” by the surrounding colors. I talk about this in more detail in Part III.
If you add a near neutral to your work, you’ll create new interactions among your colors, although the interactions will be more subtle than they would if you added colors that contained less black or gray. Design websites often mention “warm grays” (that contain a little bit of yellow or orange) and “cool grays” (that contain a little bit of blue). Here’s an example of a warm gray from the Ralph Lauren paint collection, with the informative name of Mercer.
To differentiate these from true gray, I recommend using Color-aid cards, which contain several shades of gray. You can hold a skein of yarn next to these grayscale cards to determine if there’s color in there. By identifying near neutrals and differentiating them from true neutrals, you can use both to their best effect in your knitting.
Using Near Neutrals as Complementary Colors
Because the root of most browns is orange, yellow-orange, or red-orange, their complements are tones, tints, or shades of blue, blue-green, and blue-violet. You can achieve the power of complementary colors by pairing your near neutrals with blue! If you love browns, pull all the blues off the shelves of your yarn shop, and you’ll find a combination that pops. Here are three pleasing brown-blue combinations using Color-aid cards (each of which also has light-dark contrast).
I’ve used brown and blue in several pieces, including my first published design: Neiman.
Knowledge is power, and practice makes better. Be exacting, be technical, and watch your color choices sing.