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what colours make brown

What colors make up brown? How to mix brown colors

When trying to make a brown, aspiring artists sometimes just mix a little bit of everything and hope for the best. Hoping for the best is not the best plan, even if sometimes you get lucky. However, mixing different shades of brown doesn’t have to be a mysterious shot in the dark. Learning to mix neutrals (browns and grays) has several advantages.

  1. Less waste. Without a methodical approach to mixing neutral colors, some mixes are doomed to failure. Unused colors are a waste of money, time and effort.
  2. Simplify the palette. When working with fewer colors on the palette, it is easier to mix colors. It also gives harmony to all the colors in the work. There is nothing wrong with buying a tube of brown paint. This author uses Raw Umber from time to time. But it is quite normal to develop the ability to mix some brown colors.
  3. Become a better artist. In addition to neutrals, the world is full of other matte colors. The ability to target colors of different intensity is an essential skill for performance artists. If you know how to mix different shades of brown, you can use the same method to shade other colors. Muted colors are important because they help the lighter colors stand out in the work.

How to mix brown – short answer

The three basic colors (red, yellow and blue) combine to form a brown color. The proportion and the specific pigments used determine the neutral color obtained from these shades.

Long response to the brown mixture

The complete answer to the question of mixing browns is complex and involves several color theory concepts. Before we dive down the rabbit hole of color theory, let’s clarify a few concepts…..


  1. Primary colors are colors that cannot be mixed with others. They are red, yellow and blue.
  2. Secondary colors are colors created by mixing pairs of primary colors. Orange, green and violet are secondary colors.
    • Red and yellow form orange.
    • Yellow and blue make green.
    • Blue and red make purple.
  3. Complementary colors are pairs of opposite colors on the color wheel. Just as black and white are opposite values, complementary pairs are opposite colors. Complementary colors that are side by side stand out and appear more saturated. Conversely, when mixed, they are like positive and negative numbers and cancel each other out. They reduce the brightness (intensity) of the other. Thus, complementary colors not only combine to create a brown, but help the artist control the intensity of the brown.

By mixing different complementary pairs, you can create a variety of shades of brown. So what are complementary pairs :

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

It is interesting to note that the intermediate colors (also called tertiary colors) form three other complementary pairs: red-orange/blue-green, yellow-orange/blue-violet and yellow-green/red-violet.

Think of brown as a mixture of primary colors and/or a combination of complementary colors: two sides of the same coin. Since a secondary color is a combination of two primary colors and the complement of each secondary color is a primary color that is not used to create a secondary color, combining complementary colors is like mixing a third primary color with the first two.

The following figure shows what happens when the three main complement pairs are mixed.

Note that the above complementary pairs do not produce the same brown color. This is because green, orange and violet were not mixed from the same set of starting materials.

Use of warm and cool primary colors

The palette below contains only one set of basic colors. Note that there are two reds and two blues: a warmer and a cooler version of each shade.

Cool red mixed with warm blue gives a bright magenta color. Here, alizarin crimson is a cooler red and ultramarine blue is a warmer blue. Color temperature is relative. Although blue is a cool color, there are warm and cool variations within the blue family.

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The use of warm and cool primary colors allows the artist to mix a variety of colors, including neutrals such as browns and grays.

These are the pigment combinations used to create the secondary colors.

Additional knowledge of color theory

Brown and gray are close relatives. Just as brown can be represented as a mixture of the three primary colors, so can gray. The crayon drawing below shows that more blue in the mixture results in gray, while a more uniform combination of primary colors results in brown.

In an ideal world, all tubes of paint would have the same predictable mixing strength and the same number of base colors. When mixed, these colors would always produce a brown color.

Unfortunately, the world of color mixing is not perfect.

Depending on the type of paint, some pigments may predominate over others, which makes it necessary to adjust the approximate ratio when mixing brown paint. This is characteristic of “student” class colors.

Optical color mixtures

Some media are less tolerant than others. Watercolor comes to mind. Many watercolorists mix colors in their paints rather than on a palette. This type of mixing is called optical mixing. To do this, one must know what proportion of colors to use when optically mixing neutral colors. The stakes are higher.

If an oil painter makes a mistake in the physical mixing of colors, the painting is wasted. If the watercolorist errs in the optical mixing of the colors, the artwork itself is wasted.

The following watercolor illustration is an excellent 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?


I’ve never heard anyone say, “My favorite color is brown.” But neutral colors like brown are really important. Most of the world has muted colors with slight variations in intensity. Remember to use complementary ratios to get the best neutral color. Now go out and paint the world brown!

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