Life is always better with a spot of color. However, while shades like blue, red, green, and purple get all the love, there is one color that gets overlooked — brown. Almost universally regarded as dull, brown is actually more important than you think.
It’s one of the most dominant colors in nature, the shade of chocolate, coffee, and good, strong liquor. It can come in many different varieties and create a sense of natural warmth and comfort. Therefore, if you plan on picking up painting, you have to know what colors make brown.
You’d think that figuring out what colors make brown would be simple. But sadly, this isn’t the case, thanks to the inherently complicated nature of colors. Colors are difficult to understand sometimes, because they’re not inherently part of an object.
Instead, colors are an aspect of an object that depends on the qualities of light that the object reflects. Our eyes then pick up said reflection and translate it into something our brains perceive as different colors.
This is only possible thanks to our retinas. A retina is a thin layer of tissue located at the back of the eyes, near the optic nerve. It contains specialized cells called rods and cones, both of which play a huge role in processing color. When light hits our eyes, it passes through the retina, directly to the rods and cones.
These cells convert the lightwaves into neural signals, which they transmit into the brain via the optic nerve. Once in the brain, specialized cells in the visual cortex will sort those signals into recognizable things. For example, if the object we’re seeing is round, then the cells in the cortex that specialize in recognizing shape will activate to tell us that the object is round.
Depending on the color of the object we’re seeing, different cells will activate to help us discern them. The human eye can successfully recognize three types of light waves — long, medium, and short. It also has specialized cells that can distinguish between black and white wavelengths.
These cells work together to help us understand the three fundamental aspects of color:
• Hue: refers to the dominant or primary color in the group. Primary colors are a set of colors that can be used to create all other shades. We recognize 3 hues as primary colors — red, yellow, and blue. It’s precisely the amount of one or more primary colors in a shade that determines its hue.
• Saturation/Intensity: saturation or intensity is the amount of brightness, or vibrancy you find in a color. If a shade is particularly dull, then you’d say that it has a low saturation.
• Color Value: this term signifies the amount of light or darkness within a shade. It’s particularly relevant to brown, since it helps us distinguish between different shades of brown, like mocha, chestnut, or chocolate.
The Complexity of the Color Brown
So, now that you know the complexity of color vision, you may be wondering — how does it apply to brown? What makes the color brown stand out among the others is that it’s not a primary color at all. It’s a composite color — meaning that our perception of it hinges on the three factors we mentioned above.
As we established, the human eye translates different light waves into colors. Since these waves aren’t uniform or constant, they exist on a spectrum. In other words, everything you see is not a pure color. This is why you’ll perceive a combination of yellow and red wavelengths as orange.
Brown in particular is a combination of a variety of different wavelengths, cluttered so close together our brain can’t tell them apart as distinct colors. Instead, they present as one shade. Things get even more complicated when you factor in color value and saturation.
Not only do these two elements help us determine the intensity of the color brown, but also the amount of light or dark wavelengths present in the combination. And it is the amount of light or dark in a color that helps us differentiate between different shades of brown.
What Colors Make Brown?
Like we previously stated, brown is a composite color. In other words, making it requires a lot more work than creating other secondary and tertiary colors. But this extra work isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it means you have several ways of getting those brown tones your masterpiece is missing.
All you have to do is figure out which shade of brown you’re looking for.
1. Making Brown with Primary Colors
Primary colors are the most important colors not just in nature, but in your painting set as well. Physicists will tell you that red, green, and blue are the three primaries.
However, when it comes to material colors and painting, we recognize red, yellow, and blue as the primaries.
These colors serve as a kind of base for everything, meaning that when you mix them together in different quantities, you can get all the other colors on the spectrum — including brown.
To get a basic brown, all you have to do is mix the three primaries in equal parts. If what you need is a brown with some reddish undertones, feel free to add more red paint to create different shades of brown. For colder notes, up the amount of blue to get shades like cedar or umber.
2. Using Secondary Colors
Primary colors alone can get you a basic brown as well as a few shades in between. However, if you really want to play with your notes, then you’re going to need something more complex: secondary colors.
Secondary colors occur when you mix two primary colors together. These include purple, green, and orange, and their creation is a result of a simple formula.
• Blue + red = purple
• Blue + yellow = green
• Yellow + red = orange
So, how can you use these colors to make a basic brown? Simple. Use equal parts orange and blue or equal parts of red and green to make brown.
However, if you want to play with your shade range, you can also tweak the ratios to get different variations. For example, if you adjust the amount of purple in the mix, you can create the brown with purple undertones, also known as the eggplant shade.
3. Complementary Colors
Since they’re the third entry on this list, you may think complementary colors are the most complicated of them all. However, the term just refers to colors that sit directly opposite each other on the color wheel, regardless of their intensity. In short, they’re the complete opposite, yet work well when you use them alongside each other.
Both primary and secondary colors have a complementary pair you can use to create varying shades of brown. For primaries, these include:
• Green and red
• Blue and orange
• Purple and yellow
Meanwhile, secondary complementary colors are:
• Blue and orange
• Yellow and purple
To get a basic brown, simply follow the same principle as with secondary colors — mix equal parts of two complementary colors. However, if you want to explore the true depths of brown, feel free to tweak those amounts.
How to Do Different Shades of Brown
So now that you know how to get all the brown hues under the sun, it’s time to move on to phase two — getting different shades of brown. To reiterate, shades refer to the color value or the amount of light or darkness present in the colors. Therefore, you’re going to need white and black paint to create them.
1. How to Make Light Brown
To get a light brown you will need to start with primary colors. After you’ve mixed them to create a basic brown, you can add a bit of white. Keep adding more white paint until you reach your desired shade. However, be sure to add the white in stages.
Too much white paint will quickly desaturate your color, and you will have to work overtime to darken it back.
2. How to Make a Darker Shade of Brown
Now when it comes to making a dark brown, things are a little bit more complicated. Obviously, you will need to start with primary colors and add a bit of black paint to darken it.
But the tricky part here is that black paint is actually an amalgamation of many different colors. Therefore, depending on the brand, the color can contain multiple pigments.
All this means that when you’re using black paint to make a darker shade of brown, you run the risk of changing the pigment. Therefore, the safer option is to use secondary colors to deepen the shade of our brown. This will not only allow you to control the hue and color value but also achieve the appropriate pigment.
For example, if you use blue and orange together to get your brown, add a little bit more blue for a darker shade of brown. You can also use purple to darken your browns, especially if you want them to have a cooler pigment. Another great option is green and blue, which works especially well when you’re painting mountainous landscapes.
For a warmer brown, you can add yellow, red or orange. All three colors can add depth to your painting, and make the scene appear brighter and more natural. But remember, always add these colors in stages. If the shade doesn’t work, you can always add more — what you can’t do, is take out excess color when you’ve mixed it in.
Making Brown with Different Materials
As you can see, brown is a pretty tricky color to get right. But believe it or not, brown’s complexities don’t end there. Not only does getting the right kind of brown depend on your knowledge of colors, but it also depends on your materials.
Different kinds of painting instruments, like acrylics and watercolors, will require different ratios of different shades in order to get the kind of brown you’re looking for. So, let’s examine once again what colors make brown and how to get it using different materials.
1. Making Brown with Acrylics
Acrylic paints are some of the easiest to work with. They’re very versatile and will stick to almost any surface if it’s wax-free and oil-free. Plus, they blend very well, meaning that you can endlessly experiment with them to get the shades you’re looking for.
When it comes to brown in particular, it’s usually advisable that you get it as a part of your standard acrylic set. However, if you don’t have it on hand, you can easily create it using the methods we’ve outlined above.
• To start off your mixing process you will need a few tools — namely a paintbrush, a palette, and a palette knife. You will also need some water to clean your paintbrushes and keep your shade even.
Having a bit of scrap paper on hand is also a good idea since you will be able to use it to test your shade to see how it comes through. Lastly, make sure your primary colors and your opaque white paint are ready to go.
• Using a palette and palette knife, start by mixing equal amounts of blue, red, and yellow. Once you‘ve mixed these colors properly, you should get a basic, muddy brown color.
Your shade of brown will vary greatly on the pigment of your primary colors and whether or not you got the ratios right. To adjust the color value of your shade, simply add a bit of white paint to the mix until you’re satisfied with the result.
• After you’ve finished mixing your brown, use the scrap paper to see how it comes out when painted. Acrylics can look different when they’re on a palette and when they’re on paper. Therefore, before applying them to anything, it’s a smart idea to check if your brown matches the shade you had in mind.
2. Making Brown with Watercolors
Watercolors are a notoriously tricky painting material. They can only stick to specific surfaces, and require a high level of skill, leaving you with no room for mistakes. However, the complex beauty of watercolor art alone makes them worth the hassle.
So if you’ve decided to make a watercolor piece, be prepared to do a bit of extra work, especially when it comes to mixing brown. Because, unlike acrylics, getting the right shade won’t just require the colors themselves — rather, it will also involve getting the right amount of water in the mix.
To create your perfect watercolor shade of brown, be sure to follow the following steps:
• First, grab a pallet or a tray to do your color mixing. Start by making a small puddle of water on the surface and then add the color. Keep in mind that the less water you add to the mix, the more intense the color will be.
Another option is to create your brown directly on the canvas. But this method is something only skilled artists can do, since you can’t undo any mistakes once you add the colors to the canvas.
• Once again, you can use a combination of orange and blue, or yellow and red to create your brown. When it comes to adding lightness to the shade, you can do this in two distinct ways — with white watercolors or by adding more water.
However, remember that water doesn’t truly brighten the brown. Rather, it desaturates it, making the brown duller and more washed out.
• Like with acrylics, before you apply your finished brown to the canvas, make sure to test it out first. Watercolors can look very different once they dry up on the paper.
Therefore, before committing your brown to canvas, test it on a piece of scrap paper first. If you’re satisfied with the result, make sure you wet the area to which you plan to apply the color, before putting in those strokes.
The Significance of Brown in Art and Fashion
All this talk about what colors make brown may leave you wondering — why all the fuss? Why is brown so important? It has the reputation of being one of the dullest and boring colors which many rank as their least favorite.
But if you look around, brown dominates our landscape. It’s the color of the earth beneath our feet, of tree bark, and some of the warmest and tastiest foods. In short, brown is synonymous with nature. Therefore, it’s not surprising that artists and designers have used it to generate positive feelings of warmth and simplicity.
People have used brown in art since prehistoric times. Since early humans didn’t have access to many materials to create their artwork, they tended to use whatever ingredients they had lying around to create cave art. This usually included things like walnuts, clay, and iron oxide — all of which are naturally brown.
Brown continued to dominate artwork in subsequent centuries. However, the way artists used this color depended on the time and style of the period.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, artists used brown tones to create dark backgrounds with brighter foregrounds. In paintings where a human subject was the focus, earthy tones usually represented humility and intellectualism.
When it comes to fashion, brown has a similar status to the color black. It’s a neutral shade you can pair with any other color. Since it exudes warmth and comfort, it’s often a very tasteful way to accentuate the body’s silhouette.
Nowadays, brown is more popular than ever, thanks to the minimalism boom that’s been sweeping the fashion world ever since the mid-2010s. And seeing how easy it is to match different shades of brown with each other and with other colors, the craze is unlikely to die down anytime soon.
Why It’s Important to Know How to Mix Brown
To sum up, brown is a significant part of the world around us. While it may not dominate prominent pieces of art or fashion, it serves as a good base you can use to create almost anything. Therefore, if you’re thinking about developing your painting skills, you need to learn how to create it.
Knowing what colors make brown is the first step to understanding color theory, how it works, and how you can apply it to your artwork. That knowledge, in turn, will develop your artistic technique and allow you to experiment with a broader range of shades.
But beyond developing your skills as an artist, knowing what colors make brown saves you money. Instead of spending fat stacks on expensive art supplies, you can use the basics to create whatever shade you need. Plus, if you know the exact ratios for the shade of brown you’re looking for, you’ll also be wasting less paint.
All in all, on its own, brown may be one of the most unexciting colors in the color spectrum. However, it certainly has the power to make everything else that much more vibrant.