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The Color Brown: Natural, Neutral, & Necessary

Updated: Sep 22, 2022

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In our continuing focus on the importance of colors in all forms of art, this month I’d like to discuss a new color, a truly important one in the worlds of art, interior design, and fashion. A compliment for all other colors and a warming and secure color in its own right – I bring you the color, Brown.

The word itself comes from the old English “brún”, denoting any dusty or dark shade of color. Considering it is not a primary or secondary color and does not appear on the painter’s color wheel, brown has had a strong effect on history and is very popular in modern forms of art & design. Let’s start by looking at its origins.

Around From the Beginning

Unlike the color blue, which was quite a late developer, brown has been a color integrated into the world of art from the very beginning. The earliest pigment used in painting is ‘umber’, a natural pigment that is reddish-brown and dates back to 40,000 BC.

It was popular in pre-historic times, being used in many different artworks, and in France, many animal paintings from over 17,000 years ago were found in the Lascaux caves, all of them painted in Brown.

It was the Greeks that introduced the world to the reddish-brown ‘sepia’ color, which comes from the ink sac of Sepia, a common cuttlefish. The ancient Romans were also keen users of ‘sepia’, and it was a popular color for long periods, used by famous artists like Leonardo De Vinci and Raphael during the renaissance period.

In many periods of history, Brown was associated with the poor, particularly when it came to clothing. In Ancient Rome, brown clothing was linked to barbarians and the lower classes, with the upper classes avoiding it due to the stain of poverty. It generated similar feelings in the Middle Ages, for example, Franciscan monks would wear brown robes as a sign of humility.

The Re-Emergence of Brown

During these dark periods where brown was seen as a lowly color, it disappeared from most art until late in the 15th century when the arrival of oil painting led to its return, with the use of 4 core variations – raw umber; raw sienna; burnt umber; burnt sienna.

Its return to popularity increased in the 17th and 18th centuries and Rembrandt was a regular user who loved to use brown to produce chiaroscuro effects and utilized umber because it helped the paintings to dry quicker. He also pioneered using a new brown pigment, Cologn/Cassel earth, which was made from 90% organic materials like peat and soil.

This leads us into the 19th century and potentially one of the most famous works of art that used brown as its inspiration, Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Shoes’. He uses dark brown to reflect the humility of the subject, indicating the hard life that the owner of the shoes likely suffered. It’s a perfect example of what brown can symbolize.

Museum, V. G. (n.d.). Vincent van Gogh - Shoes. Van Gogh Museum. Retrieved February 4, 2022, from
Vincent Van Gogh's "Shoes"

An Earth Color That Symbolizes So Much

We’ve talked about how the color brown has been used down the years but it’s by understanding what it symbolizes that we can start to understand why artists and designers use it.

We start with how it moved on from the days when it was considered a symbol of the poor but has retained a sense of the inexpensive, of being simple and in many ways, wholesome. Think about how it’s used in the simple brown paper bags to carry your lunch or as the color in wrapping packages.

Ultimately, we always come back to the fact that brown is a natural color and synonymous with the earth, making it a comforting color. You’ll find it in both art and interior design when someone is trying to make the audience feel at ease and relaxed. It’s a popular color in bathrooms, often combined with wood. Paintings that draw on brown for their inspiration can be found in home libraries and sitting rooms.

Warmth is another reason people will use brown in crafting and design. Many bedrooms use brown for this reason, and you’ll find a lot of furniture in different shades of brown for the same reason. A dark brown will sometimes be used as a substitute for black in a painting to convey a similar effect but with added warmth.