Brown. An elusive yet very earthly colour

Abstract: What colour is Brown? And, hierarchically, where does it rank compared to other colours such as blue or white? This short essay sheds light on how scholars and practitioners historically understood brown and all its nuances.

The word brown and the related hues were associated in baroque art literature with the colour of the ylem ­– of the earth and the soil – and with the ‘dead colour’ used as imprimitura for paintings.1 Not coincidentally, a brown pigment was produced with ground-up mummies, while all other browns were prepared from very earthly materials such as coal tar (asphalt), wood soot (bistre) and earths themselves, including Vandyke brown (humic earth), colcothar (synthetic iron oxide), burnt ochre (synthetic iron (III) oxide), burnt sienna (synthetic iron hydroxide) and all sorts of umbers (manganese and iron hydroxides).

While brown pigments are very earthly, in physics, brown is actually an orange colour with low lightness. The appearance of brown is viewed in relation to other colour stimuli, and it is therefore a related colour. This means that brown does not exist as a colour per se.2 Nonetheless, studies on colour perception have demonstrated that, in human vision, brown is an elemental colour sensation like blue or red.3 Indeed, Brown is one of the eleven basic colour terms that Brent Berlin and Paul Kay identified in their ground-breaking publication Basic color terms: their universality and evolution (1969). Brown is thus a very important colour in human vision, but its status and perceptual existence were not always universally accepted.

Brown, Purple or Green? Main Colour or Admixture?

Amazingly, Brown was long considered similar to purple. In some cases, the two colours were presented as belonging to the same chromatic group and in others as true synonyms. In early modern books on painting or art theory, pigments and dyestuffs were usually subdivided into seven basic colour categories. While the first six categories were clearly identifiable (white, black, yellow, red, blue and green), the seventh one covered the ambiguous macro area of brown-purple-violet colours.4 The number seven as much as the purple category (aloyrgon) was handed down from the Corpus Aristotelicum by Medieval scholars to Renaissance humanists, such as the French jurist Barthélemy de Chasseneuz (1480–1541), who in Catalogus gloriae mundi (Catalog of the World’s Glory, 1529) identified seven natural colours including purpureus in the list.5 Likewise, in his manuscript Methodi diversarum scientiarum et artium (c. 1560–90), the Bolognese naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605) deemed purpureus a main colour category. Around the same time, the poet Raffaello Borghini (1537–1588) and the painter Gian Paolo Lomazzo (1538–1592) described, seven main colours, including the category porpora/purpureo too.6 On the number and identification of main colours agreed the painter Nicholas Hilliard (c. 1547–1619) who, in A Treatise Concerning the Arte of Limning (c. 1598–1603), called the purple category “murrey” like the heraldic colour.7

As pinpointed by Doris Oltrogge “in the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the abstract concepts of brown or purple were slowly separated out”8 and she has even identified in Friedrich Brentel the Elder’s Mahlen und Illuminir Büchlein (1642) what is possibly one of the first appearances of brown as an independent pigment category. This shift is evident in many other manuals that replaced the main purple category with brown, including Willem Goeree’s Verlichtery-Konst (1668) and William Salmon’s Polygraphice (1672). Not coincidentally, the new status of brown occurred at a time when it was greatly appreciated by painters for shadowing.9

The autonomous life of brown as a main colour category did not always convince painters, though. In L’Academia Todesca (1675), Joachim von Sandrart (1606–1688) stated that “seven main colours were found in nature over time: white, blue, yellow, red, brown or purple, green and black, although the fifth one does not deserve this title because it is rather mixed with red and black”.10 Sandrart, thus, believed that brown/purple nuances were mixtures of red and black rather than “main colours”. This was the prelude to more modern colour-mixing theories, in which both purple and brown were no longer regarded as main colours but as admixtures.

The colour chart published in 1686 by the Fellow of the Royal Society Richard Waller (c. 1660–1715) bears testimony of this new understanding and also eminently illustrates how brown and purple were regarded as interchangeable colours at that time.11 Brown appears in his chart as a main yellow colour, but also as purple and even green admixtures.

Waller produced most of the seemingly brown tones by mixing red and blue pigments and subsumed them under the group purpurei mixti (purple admixtures) – the largest group in his chart. For instance, he called the admixture of azurite (Ciprium) and red ochre (Rubrica) “Brown/Boeticus”. To make things more complicated, Waller provided non-pigment names in four languages for the pigment “Umbria” (umber) – in his chart within the group of main yellows (lutei simplices) – describing its chromatic quality: fuscus in Latin, FaioV in Greek,12 Brun in French and “Browne” in English. Moreover, he located another brown colour within the group virides mixti (green admixtures) that he produced by mixing umber with black ink (Atramentum Sinicum) and named it “Chestnut colour”.

In the eighteenth century, some scholars and painters regarded brown as a main colour; among them, for instance, the mineralogist Abraham Gottlob Werner (1749-1817), the naturalist Jacob Christian Schäffer (1718-1790) and the art teacher Christian Friedrich Prange (1752-1836). Prange, in particular, supported his opinion by looking at “colour materials or coloured bodies on our earth”13 and listed accordingly three brown pigments: umber earth, Spanish brown or Cologne earth and brown ochre.14

Dirty, Murky and Tertiary Colours

Unlike in Waller’s colour chart, trichromatists ­– the supporters of a colour mixing theory based on three main colours (red, yellow and blue) ­– clearly discriminated the origin of brown, purple and green colours. They presented brown as a distinguished admixture from purple and green: While purple and green were admixtures of the primaries red and blue and blue and yellow, respectively, brown was ranked in trichromacy as an admixture of mixtures (i.e. a tertiary colour). In 1740 and 1771, the Jesuit Fathers Louis Bertrand Castel (1688–1757) and Ignaz Schiffermüller (1727–1806) defined all brownish colours, and in general, all colours produced by mixing three or more colours, as “dirty” (sales) and “murky” (trübe), respectively. Neither Castel nor Schiffermüller found a place for brown nuances in their colour systems.15 The reputation of brown colours was rehabilitated by another trichromatist, the English entomologist Moses Harris (1730–c.1788). Harris included several brown colour samples in his “Scheme of Colours” (1776) and named them for example “Olive brown”, “Cinamon”, and “Copper brown” [Fig. 1]. Harris also presented several brown nuances ranging from “brown purple” to “brown-orange” in another diagram: the “Compound” colour circle (1781).16 These last names clearly emphasize the tertiary essence of brown as a mixture of purple or orange with another colour.

Figure 1 – Moses Harris, “Scheme of Colours”, in: Moses Harris, An Exposition of English Insects (1776), Smithsonian Library, Cullman Library Rare Books, QL482.G7H315 1776 quarto, Public Domain Mark 1.0,

Names for Browns Except Brown

The few brown terms proposed by Harris give an idea of how difficult it was for early modern and modern scholars to name brown shades in vernacular languages. Waller could not find enough English terms for the brown samples in his chart. The majority of purpurei mixti (twenty-five samples) indeed lack a proper name in English. Moreover, of the eighteenth samples with English colour names, only two are brown to our modern eyes: “Brown” and “Earth Colour”. He gave further two brown-related terms to the “yellow” pigment umber (Brun and “Browne”) and named the green admixture “Chestnut Colour”.

Conversely, brown colour names were quite popular among entomologists and dyers. In Entomologia carniolica (1763), the naturalist Giovanni Antonio Scopoli (1723-1788) identified nine different brown shades and named them after well-known things: liver (hepaticus), nutmeg (moschatinus), clove (caryophyllinus), cinnamon (cinamomaeus), chestnut(castaneus), umber(umbrinus), bark(corticinus), coffee(caffeatus) and walnut (nuceus).

In the sixteenth volume of the Encyclopédie (1765), several brown names of contemporary teintes (dyes) are catalogued, many of which are presented as grey colours though, such as gris de castor (beaver grey) and gris-brun commun (common grey-brown). While the latter contains the term brun, other brown colour terms are linked to everyday things such as racine (root), noisette (hazelnut), feuille morte (dead leaf) and poil d’ours (bear fur). Interestingly, in the French dyeing industry, fauve (tawny) was one of the five main colours of this trade and as that represented the brown colour. Brown, as a name and as a main colour, was extensively represented in Prange’s Farbenlexicon (1782), in which the art teacher provided 105 colour names for brown hues, including two colours made – like Waller had previously done – by mixing a red and a blue pigment: Violetbraun (violet brown) and Braunviolet (brown violet) [Fig. 2].

Figure 2 – Christian Friedrich Prange, Tab. VI “Violette Farben” with the two first colums representing different shades of the colours Violetbraun and Braunviolet, in: Christian Friedrich Prange, Farbenlexicon (1782), Staat-, Land- Universitätsbibliothek, Dresden, Technol.B.168.m, Public Domain Mark,


To conclude, brown has alternatively been considered a primary, a secondary and a tertiary colour. Brown pigments were ranked as main colours, but painters knew they could obtain similar hues by mixing black or blue paints with red ones. Its elusive appearance, its fluid chromatism and its uncertain status in the colour hierarchy made brown to be often categorised as purple or even green. In the colour-mixing theory known as trichromacy, brown colours were finally relegated in the tertiary position with epithets like “dirty” or “murky”. Beloved by baroque painters for shadowing and named with fashionable terms by eighteenth-century dyers and entomologists, brown is a regrettably still neglected treasure trove of colour histories.

Text: Giulia Simonini

Empfohlene Zitation / Suggested citation: Giulia Simonini, Brown. An elusive yet very earthly colour, in: Spotlight, hrsg./ed. by Dimensionen der techne in den Künsten,, 03.03.2023 [Abrufdatum / Date of Access].

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Luisa Feiersinger (2023, 3. März). Brown. An elusive yet very earthly colour. Dimensionen der techne in den Künsten. Abgerufen am 26. Mai 2024, von

  1. Karin Leonhard, Bildfelder: Stilleben und Naturstücke des 17. Jahrhunderts (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2013), 85. []
  2. Mark D. Fairchild, Color Appearance Models, The Wiley-IS&T Series in Imaging Science and Technology (Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2013), 92. []
  3. C. James Bartleson, “Brown,” Color Research & Application 1, no. 4 (1976): 181–91, ; Kenneth Fuld, John S. Werner, and B. R. Wooten, “The Possible Elemental Nature of Brown,” Vision Research 23, no. 6 (January 1, 1983): 631–37, . []
  4. Doris Oltrogge, “Language and Psychology,” in A Cultural History of Color in the Renaissance (1400 to 1650), ed. Amy Buono and Sven Dupré, The Cultural Histories Series (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2021), 111. []
  5. Barthélemy de Chasseneuz, Catalogus gloriae mundi, laudes, honores, excellentias, ac praeeminentias omnium ferestatuum, plurimarumque rerum illius continens ; una & typis materias reco[n]ditas resolventibus, cum indice illustratus (Lyon, 1529), 94v. []
  6. Raffaello Borghini, Il riposo di Raffaello Borghini, in cvi della pittvra, e della scultura si fauella, de’ piu illustri pittori, e scultori, e delle piu famose opere loro si fa mentione; e le cose principali appartenenti à dette arti s’insegnano (Firenze: Giorgio Marescotti, 1584), 230; Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, Trattato dell’arte della pittvra, scoltvra, et architettvra di Gio. Paolo Lomazzo milanese pittore : diuiso in sette libri, ne’ qvali si discorre de la proportione, de’ moti, de’ colori, de’ lumi, de la prospettiua, de la prattica de la pittura, et finalmente de le istorie d’essa pittura : con vna tauola de’nomi de tutti li pittori, scoltori, architetti, & matematici antichi & moderni (Milano: Per Paolo Gottardo Pontio …, a instantia di Pietro Tini, 1584), 191. []
  7. Karin Leonhard, “Painted Gems. The Color Worlds of Portrait Miniature Painting in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Britain,” in Early Modern Color Worlds, 2016, 155. []
  8. Oltrogge, “Language and Psychology,” 115. []
  9. Philip Ball, Bright Earth : Art and the Invention of Color, first (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), 132–35. []
  10. “Nach der Zeit, hat man Sieben Haupt-Farben in der Natur gefunden, als Weiss, Blau, Gelb, Roth, Braun oder Purpurfarb, Grün und Schwarz: wiewol die fünfte diesen Namen nicht verdienet, und vielmehr aus Roth und Schwarz gemischet ist” Joachim von Sandrart, L’Academia Todesca. della Architectura, Scultura & Pittura: oder Teutsche Academie der edlen Bau- Bild- und Mahlerey-Künste, vol. 1 (Nürnberg: Jacob Sandrart, 1675), 87. []
  11. Richard Waller, “A Catalogue of Simple and Mixt Colours, with a Specimen of Each Colour Prefixt to Its Proper Name: By R. Waller, Fellow of the Royal Society,” Philosophical Transactions 16, no. 179 (1686): 24–32, . []
  12. Interestingly, this Greek term presumably means grey. See Robert J. Edgeworth, “Terms for ‘Brown’ in Ancient Greek,” Glotta 61, no. 1/2 (1983): 32. []
  13. “Die Farbenmaterialien, oder die gefärbten Körper auf unserer Erde” Christian Friedrich Prange, Farbenlexicon: Worinn Die Möglichsten Farben der Natur nicht nur nach ihren Eigenschaften, Benennungen, Verhältnissen und Zusammensetzungen sondern auch durch die wirkliche Ausmahlung enthalten sind ; zum Gebrauch für Naturforscher, Mahler, Fabrikanten, Künstler und übrigen Handwerker, welche mit Farben umgehen ; mit 48 illuminirten Tafeln und einer großen Landschaft (Halle: Hendel, 1782), 4. []
  14. Prange, Farbenlexicon, 356ff. []
  15. Louis Bertrand Castel, L’optique des Couleurs : fondée sur les simples observations, & tournée sur-tout à la pratique de la peinture, de la teinture & des autres arts coloristes (Paris: Briasson, 1740); Ignaz Schiffermüller, Versuch eines Farbensystems, (Wien: Bernardi, 1771). []
  16. Moses Harris, The Aurelian, or Natural History of English Insects; Namely Moths and Butterflies, Together with the Plants on Which They Feed, Etc. (London, 1766); Moses Harris, The Natural System of Colours Wherein Is Displayed the Regular and Beautiful Order and Arrangement, Arising from the Three Premitives, Red, Blue, and Yellow, The Manner in Which Each Colour Is Formed, and Its Composition, the Dependance They Have on Each Other, and by Their Harmonious Connections Are Produced the Teints, or Colours, of Every Object in the Creation, and Those Teints, Tho’ so Numerous as 660, Are All Comprised in Thirty Three Terms, Only (London: Laidler’s Office, Princes-street, Licester-Fields, 1781). []
Suche in OpenEdition Search

Sie werden weitergeleitet zur OpenEdition Search