The Beauty of Gray



When asked, I used to say that gray was my favorite color. Correctly, some would respond that gray is not a color, but the series of shades marking the region between black and white. Gray often represents a mixture of the two in pigment.

Examined more patiently and reflectively, and in a less technical way, gray is alive with color–but subtle color. Just look up “Payne’s grey” (note, U.K. spelling), and you will see.

Perhaps my childhood in Japan, as well as my adult experience in England, formed my appreciation for the beauty latent within the world of gray. I love James McNeil Whistler’s paintings, and especially those that employ fields of gray permeated with subtle color. Many of these were influenced by Japanese prints.

I consider these things as I reflect on the recent film, The Giver. Though people will say it starts “in black and white,” I think it can be described more properly as immersing us in a visual field of gray. The film is compelling, and not simply sentimental or youthfully romantic (which it might easily have been), because of how positive aspects of this gray world are thoughtfully presented. A thematically ‘black and white’ film would portray a more polarized contrast between the forgotten past of color, which included both conflict, hate and violence as well as their alluring opposites, and a hypothetical present world, deceptively gray, where—eerily— all seems well. A gray world might imply moral ambiguity rather than moral neutrality.

As we emerge from adolescence into adulthood, don’t we seek stability as we move away from the up-and-down emotional life of our teenage years? Don’t we assume that monastics—like us— seek something spiritually akin to a world of gray, enabled by their departure from our world of distraction, competition and self-promotion?

The Giver risks presenting a gray world as desirable, and then fearfully threatened and upset by a young man’s journey into the forgotten past. There is beauty to be found almost everywhere, in a world filled with heart-breaking contrasts of emotion and alive with color, yet even in one where affectively numb persons find everything appears in a field of gray.

I don’t question the value of the hero’s journey, nor its evocative results. Yet, I continue to muse about what made the gray world attractive to those who shaped and promoted it. Simplicity, even a morally reductionist simplicity, has abiding appeal.


Above: James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne: Blue and Gold—Southampton Water (1872). Note the reference to color in the title of a very gray-looking painting.

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