William Payne’s first career was as a draughtsman, making maps and other strategic documents for the Board of Ordnance in the Tower of London. He was also a fine artist, successfully exhibiting his watercolors from the age of 16. By 1790, he had become one of the leading watercolor masters in England, a fact that was not lost on fellow artist and critic William Pyne, who wrote in an 1824 review:
"Mr. Payne’s drawings were regarded as striking novelties in style. His subjects were brilliant in effect and executed with spirit—they were no sooner seen that admired, and almost every family of fashion were anxious that their sons and daughters should have the benefit of his tuition. Hence for a long period, in the noble mansions of St. James Square and Grosvener Square and York Place and Portland Place, might be seen elegant groups of youthful amateurs manufacturing landscapes, à la Payne."
The remarks were not intended altogether as kindly. Pyne, as did many other professional artists, disdained Payne’s shortcut approach to teaching watercolor, which, in order to satisfy his wealthy though not necessarily talented clients, sacrificed the rudiments of drawing and composition for a method of painting that was easy to learn and quick to go on the sheet. His reputation nonetheless survived, and today Payne is known not only for his marvelous watercolors but also for his numerous innovations. Among these is the use of a dark bluish gray instead of black for shadows, which, when mixed with other colors mutes the tone without diminishing its vibrancy. The idea revolutionized watercolor painting, and the color is still in wide use today under the name that honors its inventor: Payne’s gray.