The Color Brown: Natural, Neutral, & Necessary

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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.


"Daughter's of Melanin" by Tiffany Richardson


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 utilised 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 symbolise.



Museum, V. G. (n.d.). Vincent van Gogh - Shoes. Van Gogh Museum. Retrieved February 4, 2022, from https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0011v1962
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.



Brown is also the most sensible of the colors, generating a sense of structure and stability. In many ways it can be considered a serious color, effectively being ‘down-to-earth’. You certainly would not expect to see a celebrity coming down the red carpet in a brown outfit looking to make a fashion statement.


Instead, Brown is reserved for a smart individual, the reliable person that you can trust, and trust is a strong emotion that comes from the color. If you want to generate a feeling of safety and put someone at ease, because one might associate it with history and stability, it is the ideal choice. There is no greater example of this sense of dependability than the UPS logo, which use brown to generate a deep trust in their service.


However, the darker versions of the color brown can generate negative feelings and emotions for the individual. When overused in home decoration it can create a sense of gloominess and lack of energy or motivation. It is important to use the color carefully and offset it with others to balance out its effect.



You should also be very conscious of how you use brown in art or interior design dependent on where you are hoping to showcase your work, as many countries have wildly different reactions to the color.


- In India, it is considered the color of mourning

- In China, it’s a sign of fertility

- In North America, it is considered dependable and practical

- Whilst in South America it has the opposite effect and is never used in a sales situation


Allowing Other Colors to Shine


Brown is not often seen as a leading color in the world of art but is regularly utilized by artists and interior designers as a background color that allows more dominant colors to shine and take center stage. It is considered not just a natural color but a neutral one as well.


One of the first examples of this is the Greeks, who used the original brown pigment of umber, then lightened it up to paint as a background on storage jars and vases. They used this new tan color as the base to paint impactful black figures on top.


Brown combines well with green, generally being used as the perfect combination to create a sense of nature and interestingly in modern times they’ve taken on the role as primary colors for all things associated with recycling – again a theme of returning to earth and kindness to nature.


Versions Of Brown


Brown does have some variety and interior designers, in particular, makes good use of some of these options.


Beige: a light hue of brown, it reflects conservativeness, reliability, and practicality. It’s also associated with stability and loyalty.

Ivory: most would assume ivory sits with other whites, but it sits in the category of brown. It is seen as a calming and sophisticated color.

Light brown: this shade represents honestly, sincerity and friendliness.

Tan: Tan symbolizes nature and simplicity, as well as being timeless and ageless.

Dark brown: this can actually be depressing and sad, but still a strong color. It has an association with being materialistic.


Never The Front Man but Forever Important


We can certainly conclude that whilst brown might never top the charts as the most popular color, artists are using the color more than ever. It is a stable and warm color that when used in moderation can really add to a work of art or room, whilst occasionally even being the star.


Let me leave you with my favorite fact about the color brown – for several hundred years, despite being naturally, European artists used a brown they called ‘mommia’, named because it was quite literally ground-up Egyptian mummies!


If you’d like to look at works of art with the color brown that are not made from crushed corpses, please visit our shop, and select the perfect piece for you.




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