Spotlight on: Raw Umber

Raw Umber

From the history of pigments to the use of colour in famous artworks and emergence popular culture, every colour has a fascinating story. This month we explore the story behind Raw Umber.

Umber, a dark brown, is part of the prehistoric palette of earth pigments alongside red ochre, yellow ochre, calcite white and carbon black ochres. These pigments were found in a natural state and mixed with rudimentary binders then painted, often in the shadows deep inside caves.

It is often thought that Raw Umber is named after Umbria, the mountainous region in central Italy where it was first extracted in the 15th century, however, another theory is that the name Umber bears a connection to this colour’s use in the painting of shadows. Much like the word umbrella, it shares the Latin root for shadows; ‘umbra’.

Although Umbria was the first major region where Raw Umber was sourced commercially, this type of iron oxide and manganese clay soil is found in many parts of the world, and the finest grade of Raw Umber is said to originate from Cyprus. When found in its natural form it is referred to as Raw Umber and when heated at high temperatures it becomes Burnt Umber which has a darker red hue.

The Medieval palette included Umber, however, it favoured a brighter spectrum of colour combinations, such as Azurite (blue), Cinnabar (red) and Verdigris (green), so Umber wasn’t favoured. However, later during the Renaissance when artists were painting more naturalistic scenes in comparison to graphic images typical of Medieval painting, the earthiness of Umbers and Siennas were brought back into the fold, such as with the Early Netherlandish master Hieronymus Bosch, when he introduced Raw Umber in the shadows of his famous triptych ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, 1503-1515.

Raw Umber’s greatest association in the use of shadows is found in the Baroque Chiaroscuro style of painting. Chiaroscuro, Italian for ‘light-dark’, is a visual technique that champions extreme contrasts in light and darkness to create a dramatic effect; usually with a bright light shining on the figure and a dark background from which the figures emerge. Artists using this technique were Caravaggio (‘Supper at Emmaus’, 1601), Rembrandt (‘Self-portrait as the Apostle Paul’, 1661) and Vermeer (‘The Milkmaid’, 1650).

Raw Umber became a more attractive alternative to black in the use of shadows which we can see in Vermeer’s ‘The Milkmaid’ where the semi-transparent brown is seen applied to the background’s wall to provide a warmer shadow than that achieved using black painting alone.

During the 19th century Raw Umber’s popularity decreased when the Impressionist developed approaches to the painting of shadows that relied on neither black nor umber. The Impressionists, such as Monet, used elements from the relatively new theory of complimentary colours. For example, violet to create shadows; violet being the complementary of yellow, the colour of sunlight. Other shadows and browns were made from mixtures of red, yellow, green, blue in combination with new synthetic pigments such as cobalt blue and emerald green. Even in later years such is the impact that Salvador Dali discusses his aversion to Raw Umber in his book ’50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship’ (1948).

Despite these historic fluctuations in popularity for Raw Umber this versatile colour continues to be a go-to in many painters’ palettes; for under-painting, monochromatic works, and the rendering of shadows from which its name derives.