What Colors Make Brown? How to Mix Browns

How to mix brown
In an effort to make brown, new painters sometimes just mix a little of everything together and hope for the best. Hoping for the best is not a good plan, even if you get lucky sometimes. Mixing a range of browns does not have to be a mysterious shot in the dark, however. There are several benefits to learning to mix neutral colors (both browns and grays).

  1. Less waste. Without a methodical approach to mixing neutral colors some mixture are sure to miss there mark. Unused colors are a wast of money, time and effort.
  2. Simplify the palette. Working with a smaller set of colors on the palette makes remixing colors simpler. It also imparts harmony among all the colors in a work of art. There is nothing wrong with purchasing a tube of paint brown paint. This author uses Raw Umber from time to time. Still yet, there is something quite right about developing the skills to mix specific browns.
  3. Become a better artist. Besides neutrals, the world is full of other dull colors. Being able to purposefully create colors of varying intensity is a required skill for representational artists. Those that are able to mix a range of browns can use the same approach to dull down other colors. Dull colors are important because they help the brighter ones to stand out in a work of art.

How to Mix Brown – The Short Answer

The three primary colors (red, yellow, blue), when mixed, make brown. It is the ratio, as well as the specific pigments used, that determine the specific neutral color these hues will make.

Primary colors mixed to make brown

The Long Answer to Mixing Brown

The complete answer to mixing brown is complex and touches on several color theory concepts. Before diving into the rabbit hole that is color theory, let’s review a few terms…

VOCABULARY

  1. Primary colors are colors that can’t be mixed from any other colors. They are the reds, yellows, and blues.
  2. Secondary colors are the colors made by mixing pairs of primary hues. Oranges, greens, and purples are the secondary colors.
    • Red and yellow make orange.
    • Yellow and blue make green.
    • Blue and red make purple.
  3. Complementary colors are pairs of colors across from each other on the colors wheel. Just as black and white are opposite values, complementary pairs are opposite colors. Side by side, complementary colors help each other to stand out and appear more intense. Conversely, when mixed, they are like positive and negative numbers, canceling each other out. They reduce the brightness (intensity) of one another. So, besides combining to make brown, complementary colors help the artist control intensity.

Color mixing as an equation

A variety of browns are made by mixing the different complementary pairs together. So, what are the complementary pairs:

  1. Blue and orange are the colors of the sky (blue sky and orange sunsets).
  2. Yellow are purple are the colors of royalty (kings wear gold crowns and purple robes).
  3. Red and green are the color of roses, strawberries, holly, tomatoes and yes, Christmas.

It is worth noting that the intermediate colors (also called tertiary) form three additional complementary pairs: red-orange/blue-green, yellow-orange/blue-violet and yellow-green/red-violet.

Think of brown as mixture of primaries and/or a combination of complements – two sides of the same coin. Since a secondary color is a combination of two primaries, and the complement to any secondary color is the primary color not used to make that secondary, then combining complementary colors is the same as mixing a third primary into the first two primaries.

The image below illustrates what happens when the three main complementary pairs are mixed together.

Mixing complementary colors to make brown

Notice that the complementary pairs above do not make the same brown. This is because the green, orange, and purple were not mixed from the same set of primaries.

See also: Color Theory

Using Warm and Cool Primary Colors

The palette below shows a set of primary colors only. Note that there are two reds and two blues – a warmer and cooler version of each hue.

Warm and cool primary colors

A cool red mixed with a warm blue make a brilliant purple. Here, Alizarin Crimson is the cooler red while Ultramarine Blue is the warmer blue. Color temperature is relative. Though blue is a cool color, within the family of blue hues, there are warm and cool variances.

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Using both warm and cool primary colors allows the artist to mix the broadest variety of colors, including neutrals like brown and gray.

Below are the pigment combinations used to create the secondary colors above.

Pigment combinations used to mix secondary colors

Color Theory Bonus Knowledge

Brown and gray are close cousins. Just as brown can be thought of as the three primaries mixed together, so too, can gray. The color pencil illustration below demonstrates how a greater amount of blue in the mixture results in grey while a more equal combination of primaries makes brown.

Mixing browns and grays with colored pencils

In a perfect world, all tubes of paint would have the same, predictable mixing power and equal amounts of primary colors. When mixed, these colors would always make brown.

See also: Warm vs. Cool Grays

Unfortunately, the color mixing world is not perfect.

Depending on the grade of paint, some pigments may overpower others, requiring an adjustment to the approximate ratio used when mixing brown. This is common for “student” grade paints.

Optical Color Mixtures

Some media is less forgiving than others. Watercolor comes to mind. Many watercolor artists mix color in their paintings instead of on their palettes. This type of mixture is called an optical mixture. To do so, one must know what ratio of colors to use when optically mixing neutral. The stakes are higher.

See also: Optical Color Mixing

If an oil painter makes a mistake with a physical mixture of paint, then the paint is wasted. If a watercolor artist makes a mistake with an optical mixture of paint, then the artwork itself is a failure.

The watercolor illustration below is a great visual aid for understanding how these colors “add up” to brown. Can you see the small triangles of secondary colors around the brown hexagon in the center?

Mixing brown with watercolor

Conclusion

I have never heard anyone say, “My favorite color is brown”. But neutral colors like brown are clearly important. Much of the world is muted in color with only punctuations of intensity. Remember to use complementary relationships for better neutrals. Now get out there and paint the world brown!

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Ashley Bane Hurst is the Visual Art Department Chair at a public arts magnet school. He received his B.F.A. in 2002. Since that time Ashley has participated in numerous shows, executed figure paintings and portrait commissions in oil paint, pastel, charcoal and sepia and been recognized in the national Arts for the Parks contest for landscape painting. Ashley has also completed freelance illustrations and designs for production. Ashley enjoys creating a variety of art but enjoys seeing others grow in their own art just as much. He has been teaching drawing and painting for over ten years and enjoys sharing his instruction through TheVirtualInstructor.com.

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