Brown: a common colour that’s far from ordinary

Brown is one of the most common shades to be found on earth, and is often overshadowed by the bright lights of more vibrant colours on the spectrum. So far, so dull – right? Wrong. From ancient tomb excavations to strict social class distinctions and the future of sustainability – brown’s story is anything but boring. 

Read on for a colour story that’s full of intrigue and order. 


A common colour 

We humans perceive the colour brown probably more than any other on a daily basis. It’s everywhere: it is the most common eye, skin and hair colour in the world; it’s widely found in the natural world – in earth and soil, plants and trees; it’s the colour of much food and drink such as chocolate and coffee. Pigments for brown are also among the oldest: paintings using raw umber – a natural clay pigment – have been found to date back to at least 40,000 BC.  


A dress code for the poor

In the realm of textiles and clothing, brown became the colour associated with the humble and lowly across Europe. In the Middle Ages, brown robes were worn by Franciscan monks as a sign of their humility and modest lifestyle. And what began as probably a means to get by (coloured inks were more expensive and brown vegetable-dyed cloths were cheaper to produce), became a stamp of social standing. In Ancient Rome, brown clothing was worn by the citizens of low classes and even those considered to be ‘barbarians’. The old term for an urban poor civilian, ‘pullati’, literally translated as ‘those dressed in brown’. By the statute of 1363, lowly working-class English citizens were required to wear russet, a coarse woollen cloth that was dyed with woad and madder to turn it grey or brown.

Charles Bianchini, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Master of the St. Elizabeth Panels, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Sepia tones from deep-sea sources

One of the most unusual sources of brown is that of sepia. The term comes from the Greek word for cuttlefish. A reddish-brown pigment has long been created from the ink sac of a species of cuttlefish since the Ancient Roman period. There are consequently subtle differences between sepia shades, due to the various diets belonging to the cuttlefish depending on where they were found, and also where the inks were made. Sepia has been used since as a medium for drawings – most famously, Leonardo da Vinci used sepia-toned coloured washes – and later still, sepia became the term given to the method of toning photos with a faded brown tint. This process uses chemicals such as sodium sulfide or polysulfide toners, and today a sepia effect can be achieved digitally with duotone – a method that combines a grayscale image with another colour.

Read our Colour Story on Sepia here., CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
David Sim from London, United Kingdom, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Digging up the dead

A second surprising – and rather morbid – source of brown pigment originates in the medieval period, when the remains of mummies were ground up for archaic medical procedures (potentially due to them containing the substance bitumen – believed to have medical powers). During this process, the rich consistency of the powder was observed, but it was later, during the 16th and 17th centuries, that a paint source was created from the ground-up corpses of exhumed Egyptian mummies (both humans and cats). It was known as ‘Mummy Brown’, and was given commercial status as artist’s paint.

Edward Burne-Jones, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mummy Brown was particularly popular amongst the Pre-Raphaelite painters of the mid-19th century, such as Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The ground powder would be combined with myrrh and white pitch to produce a brown pigment. Its transparency meant that it was a good medium for glazes, shading and colouring natural flesh and hair tones. Used until the Victorian era, Mummy Brown dropped out of favour as it became more expensive, and when artists began to realise how the pigment was sourced (Edward Burne-Jones was rumoured to have buried a paint tube of Mummy Brown in his garden when he found out). Its story doesn’t end there, though. Mummy Brown took an even more macabre turn when demand surpassed supply, and people were found to have made black market versions of the pigment from the ground powder of recently deceased corpses of criminals or slaves. If you come across the paint today, you’ll be pleased to know that the pigment is now made up of quartz, kaolin, goethite and hematite.

Rembrandt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Rembrandt, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Painting light and shade

After its popular use among Renaissance artists, brown was utilised by subsequent painters in a monochromatic way. It became an important colour for realism in portraiture – in shades such as Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umber – and to create shading and in subtle shifts from light to dark. During the 16th and 17th centuries it became common to paint onto a surface that was tinted brown, rather than white. Dark pigments, including that of brown, were significant in Rembrandt’s palette. He favoured Vandyke Brown when sketching out initial compositions of paintings, using it in combination with other earth pigments to give his works their recognisable broody, dark background glazes. Named after Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck, who also regularly employed the shade, Vandyke Brown is most often made from bituminous earth or a black pigment mixed with calcined natural iron oxide.

Check out our Colour Story on Vandyke Brown here.

Meanwell Packaging, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

A more organic future

Today, brown’s sombre and lacklustre past has been turned on its head, as the colour is increasingly associated with the rise of sustainable and eco-friendly products, from bamboo toothbrushes to recyclable cork to brown paper bags. When brands are using brown in their visuals, they are targeting an audience made up of people who are tuned in to the climate crisis and ecological aware of lessening their impact – think organic products, re-fill shops and recycled goods. What was once deemed as ‘lowly’ has come full circle. Brown’s resourcefulness, availability, low-cost and cohesion with the natural world has made it a colour of ‘less than’ in the past, but it is precisely this that has made it one of the most important colours in the modern world helping to push forward environmentally ethical change.

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