"We develop a modulation theory model based on a Lagrangian formulation to investigate the evolution of dark and gray optical spatial solitary waves for both the defocusing nonlinear Schrodinger (NLS) equation and the nematicon equations describing nonlinear beams, nematicons, in self-defocusing nematic liquid crystals. Since it has an exact soliton solution, the defocusing NLS equation is used as a test bed for the modulation theory applied to the nematicon equations, which have no exact solitary wave solution. We find that the evolution of dark and gray NLS solitons, as well as nematicons, is entirely driven by the emission of diffractive radiation, in contrast to the evolution of bright NLS solitons and bright nematicons. Moreover, the steady nematicon profile is nonmonotonic due to the long-range nonlocality associated with the perturbation of the optic axis. Excellent agreement is obtained with numerical solutions of both the defocusing NLS and nematicon equations. The comparisons for the nematicon solutions raise a number of subtle issues relating to the definition and measurement of the width of a dark or gray nematicon."