Pantone’s Color(s) of the Year: “Ultimate Gray” and “Illuminating”


Each year, the Pantone Color Institute studies trends and tendencies in society, marketing, fashion, and even politics to come up with what they call the “Color of the Year.” But this year they picked two colors. Those colors are “Ultimate Gray” and “Illuminating,” a light shade of yellow.

If anyone could have come up with a perfect summary of what we are looking at going forward into 2021, they couldn’t have done much better.

What Gray Symbolizes

A lot of people ascribe less-than-uplifting meanings to the color gray, and it’s not surprising, considering our language: “I’m in a gray mood.” “It’s a gray day.” Or, “My hair is turning gray!” But actually, given the right piece, the right shade, and on the right person, gray is a beautiful, refined, and versatile color. And, in combination with this year’s Illuminating yellow, it is a perfect complement.

Gray is the balance point between opposites: white and black. So, intrinsically, it expresses balance and harmony, and that alone makes it calming. But calling it “Ultimate” is amusing, because intrinsically gray is not a color that pretends to be ultimate in anything.

Spiritually, the color conveys dignity, humility, and integrity. In darker tones it could be seen as somber. But Ultimate Gray is a brighter and lighter version, and therefore has some vibrancy to it, making it a great foil for Illuminating yellow.

In the Munsell color system, (based on the 20th century research of A.H. Munsell into the science of color) all colors have four qualities: darkness, lightness, coolness, warmth. That means they all have varying amounts of white, black, blue, and red or yellow.

Ultimate Gray has a lot of white in it, and its base appears to be in a more blue/purple range, making it a cooler version of gray.

The Meaning of Yellow

If gray projects quietude and conservatism, yellow does the opposite. In Western cultures, it is associated with the sun, happiness, friendship, revival, and freshness. Whereas gray suggests boundaries, yellow is open-hearted and welcoming.

On the spiritual level, yellow is identified with the 3rd chakra, the solar plexus. The solar plexus is our connection with our determination and willpower. So, in a way, the combination of these colors says, “I am grounded, but by my will I am determined to overcome the darkness around me.”

(When I think about personal will, I always check myself to make sure that my willpower is somehow linked to a more Divine will so as to not spin off in an aggressive direction.)

But overall, yellows are symbolic of joyfulness and optimism and self-worth. Of all colors, psychologically they are said to project more happiness than the other colors in the rainbow. This is likely because we associate yellow with the sun, the bright warmth that brings new life.

Illuminating yellow, like Ultimate Gray, also has a lot of white added to it. That means it’s not too bold or saturated.

Who Can Wear These?

Everyone has some version of gray in their ideal color palette. Ultimate Gray would work best for someone whose overall coloring was in the middle-to-low contrast level. That means that the brightness and depth of color in their eyes, skin, and hair are of similar value.

Put another way, if your favorite colors are bright and highly saturated or warm and earthy, this shade of gray could look dulling on you because it doesn’t have the depth those colors do.

But it would be a knockout on someone whose hair was of the same shade. Wearing our hair color is a reinforcement of our overall visual expression. Our hair color changes over time to the lightest version of what it was.

So, Ultimate Gray would likely be similar to the hair color of someone whose original shade was a dark, cooler brown or maybe a softer black, but not likely jet black or reddish brown.

Yellows, however, don’t work for everyone. They can be tricky and dulling on those with very low color contrast in their skin, eyes, and hair. Yellows can turn them muddy-looking. Also, this Illuminating shade isn’t as vibrant as the more saturated yellows. Those are more forward. So, in general, it works best for someone with a medium level of contrast overall.

Unless your hair is an exact match, it’s probably best to wear Ultimate gray away from your face, and even then you would want to liven it up. A printed scarf that incorporates both colors worn with a gray or yellow top could be lovely. That would bring more vibrancy to your face.

An Alternative?

Now, if Ultimate Gray or Illuminating yellow seem dull to you, consider a more reflective version: silver or gold. Just keep in mind that the shinier the textile, the more drama it conveys. These particular yellow and gray are pretty un-dramatic, which, these days, is something of a blessing.

Also, a metallic version will read as brighter and lighter simply because it reflects light. The reason Ultimate Gray works with Illuminating is that it is a “flat” color, and therefore lets the energy and buoyancy of the yellow come forward.

Both of these colors bring a sense of clarity; one is grounding and balanced, the other is exuberant and soars. What a fabulous combination. And that gives us hope for 2021.

Do you wear gray and yellow? And do you wear them together? Would you consider wearing this combination? How will you change it to fit your complexion? What kind of items would you consider in the gray-and-yellow combo? Please share with us all.

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