What Colors Make Brown?

What colors make brown? Find out many ways to mix colors for brown. One of these might surprise you. It certainly did me.

What is the color brown?

Now have you ever really thought about the color brown? To be honest until a couple of years ago I hadn’t given it much thought. I just really thought of it as another color. We have reds, yellows, blues, greens, purples etc and I tucked it in with all of those. But it’s not like those colors. We tend to think of it as a separate color. Personally I almost never find myself mixing brown paint. My color palette always contains burnt sienna (a close second behind ultramarine blue) which I use a lot. However, I very often use burnt sienna to mix colors and don’t use it straight from the tube. But back to our browns – if we’re mixing brown paint we need to know exactly what brown is before we can create it!

Where is Brown on the Color Wheel?

Color wheel what colors make brown
Color wheel wheres brown

So let’s take a look at our color wheel. Around the outside we have all our different colors (or hues). Where is brown? Hmmm it’s not there. But the color wheel has all of the colors so it must be there somewhere.

If we take a closer look at our color wheel all of the colors are very saturated. They’re the brightest we can get to in paint. We know that brown isn’t bright so let’s redraw our color wheel and darken each of the colors on the outside.

color wheel what colors make brown
Color wheel – here’s brown!

Aha! So there are our brown colors! And if we place the wheels together which color is it the darker version of?

Color wheel - brown is a dark orange
Color wheel – brown is a dark orange

Orange! Brown is a dark orange!

Wow! I’d never thought of brown that way. Brown is a dark orange! But if you think about it it makes sense. We know brown is a ‘warm’ color so it makes sense it would be over near the reds and oranges. So now we know where brown sits on the color wheel we can answer the question ‘what colors do you mix to make brown?’.

What Colors Make Brown? Orange and Black make Brown!

So one way to mix brown is to take an orange and darken it with a little black. Let’s try it.

what colors make brown - orange and black
what colors make brown – orange and black

Yup. That looks brown. And if we put it next to our trusty burnt sienna they look almost identical. Now in practice I would never actually mix brown this way. If I needed a brown the color of burnt sienna I would get out some burnt sienna. But it’s handy to know that it can be done.

Red and Yellow and Black make Brown

Now if orange and black make brown can we mix brown with red, yellow and black? We know red and yellow make orange and orange and black make brown so will this work? Let’s try it out.

red plus yellow plus black make brown
red plus yellow plus black make brown

Yes indeedy it works. Good to know but it’s a pretty roundabout way of mixing so probably not too useful in real life.

Are there any other ways to mix brown? Let’s go back to our color wheel and look again.

Join Colors Across the Color Wheel to Find Out What They Make

A good rule of thumb with color mixing is that if you have two paint colors around the outside or your color wheel and draw a line between them you’ll end up with the color somewhere along that line. It’s not a hard and fast rule as pigments sometimes interact differently when they mix together but it’s a rough guide.

What colors make brown - blue and orange
What colors make brown – blue and orange

So looking at the color wheel we should be able to mix brown by picking two colors across from each other that cross through the brown section. The first one we’re going to try is red + yellow + blue. We know red and yellow make orange and if we join orange and blue the line goes through the brown wedge. This is the ‘classic’ recipe for brown so we’re pretty sure it’s going to work and the color wheel also says this. How well does it work in practice?

What Colors Make Brown? Red Blue Yellow Make Brown!

red yellow and blue make brown
red yellow and blue make brown

Pretty good! Yup that’s definitely a brown mix and it’s pretty close to our trusty burnt sienna.

Orange and Blue Make Brown

Back to the wheel? What other combinations could we try. Well let’s try blue and orange directly. We’ve kind of done this already with the red + yellow + blue but let’s see if this will work.

What colors make brown - orange and blue!
What colors make brown – orange and blue!

Another brown!

Red and Green Make Brown

Red and Green Make Brown
Red and Green Make Brown

What else can we try? Taking another look at our wheel we see that both red and green are the same distance from orange. So according to our rule if we mix them they’ll meet in the middle and make brown. And they do!

Red-orange and green make brown
Red-orange and green make brown
What colors make brown - red and green
What colors make brown – red and green

Yellow and Purple make Brown

Yellow and violet make brown
Yellow and violet make brown

Now things get little weird. If we look at our wheel then yellow + purple shouldn’t really make brown. They should make gray as they’re almost directly opposite each other. But let’s try them and see.

What colors make brown - yellow and violet
What colors make brown – yellow and violet

Well. At first sight they shouldn’t make brown but they do. Another one for the list. Let’s think a little bit more about this combination. We’re using our wheel as a guide but it’s not perfect. If we were combining different colored lights (different wavelengths) then yes, we’d get a perfect mix. But we’re not – we’re using paint. Paint is made up of ‘stuff’ that absorbs some wavelengths of light and reflects others and it does it in different proportions. An orange paint in theory should only reflect orange light and absorb everything else. In practice it reflects small amounts of all colors of light. Our brains then interpret these different wavelengths and call it ‘orange’.

So pigment mixing is complicated. And the reason yellow and purple can make brown is due to the slight bias of the yellow and purple towards orange. If you take a greenish yellow and and bluish purple you won’t get brown you’ll get something slightly the other side of the wheel.

What Two Colors Make Brown?

So now we know. We have a number of answers to the question ‘what 2 colors make brown’. We have

  • Orange and black
  • Orange and blue
  • Red and green
  • Orange and green
  • Yellow and violet

Oh and for the answer to ‘what 3 colors make brown’ we have

  • Red blue and yellow
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What Colors Make Brown – Different Shades of Brown

We’ve found a number of ways to mix a standard burnt sienna color but brown comes in many shades and variations. How do we mix those?

What Colors Make Dark Brown

Well let’s start with the obvious. Black is the darkest color so if you want to make dark brown then add some extra black. And this does work. Let’s try it with all our orange and black mix and our yellow and violet mix:

what colors make brown - vermilion and black
Add extra black to darken a brown
yellow violet and black make dark brown
yellow violet and black make dark brown

Yes that works. But black tends to gray down colors so are there other ways? What about our blue and orange combination? If we add a little more blue to our orange than before that should pull it darker. But our blue probably isn’t dark enough to make a really dark brown. What other blues could we try?

How about Payne’s gray? I know it’s called gray but it’s really a dark blue.

Orange and dark blue make dark brown
Orange and dark blue make dark brown

Actually that last one was a bit of a cheat. Payne’s gray is a combination of pigments – often ultramarine and black. That’s why it appears blue. So we’re really just using orange + blue + black for a dark brown. Just like we did in the previous section.

Similarly using a dark blue in our red+yellow+blue combination will also make a dark brown

red, yellow, dark blue make dark brown
red, yellow, dark blue make dark brown
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What Colors Make Light Brown – Light Brown Color

That’s the darks dealt with. What about the lighter browns? In other words what colors make tan or beige?

For most of our mixes we should just be able to add water (for watercolor) or white (for acrylics or oils) to lighten all of our browns. With watercolor the color hue shouldn’t shift when you add water. With oils and acrylics adding white can push the color to a slightly different hue. It’s something to watch out for and can be quite noticeable if you’re mixing a very red brown. Here’s the results:

orange, black and water/white make light brown
Orange, black and water/white make light brown

What Colors Make Brown – Gray Browns

We can think about color as having 3 properties. These are hue, value and chroma. I’ll describe these briefly below

Hue – The Name of the Color

The hue is the name of the color and corresponds to the colors on the outside of our first color wheel. These are generally the ‘name’ of the color red, green, yellow etc.

Value – How Light or Dark the Color is

Value is the name for how light or dark the color is. Conventions vary but I use the Munsell notation and measure value from dark – 0 to light – 10. You can think of this as how light or dark a color would appear if we viewed it in black and white. Black would be 0 and white would be 10.

Different Pigments have Different Values

Our colored pigments straight out of the tube don’t all have the same value. Some are very light. For instance yellow, even a very bright yellow is often a value 9. A blue on the other hand can be much darker. Ultramarine in watercolor is about a value 4. In oil paint it is even darker – about a value 2.

Chroma – How Saturated or Bright a Color is

This is the one that everybody goes huh? when we first encounter it. Chroma is how bright or intense a color is. A high chroma color would be something like a napthol red which hits a chroma number of 14 or 16. A lower chroma color would be something like yellow ochre which comes in around a chroma 6. And a completely neutral gray would have a chroma 0.

A Diversion into Defining Colors

I just want to take a minute here and lay something out. And this is the thing that takes a while to get your head around. But it all makes sense once you think about it for a minute.

Hue, Value and Chroma are independent

What I mean to say is that you can have a lower chroma color *of the same value*. You can gray out a color without it becoming darker. Of course you can also do both – you can lower the chroma and lower the value but you can do either one independent of each other. That was a confusing sentence – I think a picture is needed.

10R Value 4 strip
10R Value 4 strip

These red/browns in the strip are all a value 4 (there’s a black and white picture of them to prove it).

10R value 4 in black and white
10R value 4 in black and white

And they’re all the same hue (orange/red). But the chroma is changing from 2 to 12. And you can see that the color gets more saturated as it goes from left to right.

Low Chroma Colors are Very Common in Nature

This is important because in painting we often need lower chroma colors. A lot of colors in nature are low chroma – sometimes surprisingly so. An example I often come across is the color of sand. If you ask anyone what the color of sand is they’d likely say ‘yellow’. If you take a look at the picture below and ask yourself what the color of the sand is you’d also say ‘that’s yellow sand’.

how to make brown - the color of sand
how to make brown – the color of sand

But let’s isolate that color and take a look at it without its surroundings.

Hmmm. Doesn’t look quite so yellow now.

But it’s still a yellow! It’s just a very low chroma yellow. That’s our color of sand. It’s definitely in the yellow part of the wheel but it’s just very very grayed out (or low chroma if you want to use the proper lingo).

Paints Straight From the Tube are Often High Chroma

Part of the reason I’m bringing this whole chroma thing up is this. A lot of the paints that we buy are extremely high chroma straight from the tube.

We need to be careful of the chroma when painting because our paints can be much higher chroma than the objects or scenes that we’re painting. We often need to tone them down (or lower their chroma) for them to be convincing.

You Can’t Mix Higher Chroma!

And all this was for this point.

You can’t mix a higher chroma color from 2 lower chroma colors

If you need a higher chroma color than you have on your palette you can’t mix it. (I’m sure there is an exception to this rule but it’s very rare and I can’t think of one off the top of my head) This is why all our favorite pigments have such high chroma. You can’t mix them!

Back to the Subject – What Colors Make Brown?

All that digression was for this: browns aren’t just high or low value – they can be high or low *chroma*. And we need them more often that you’d think. A lot of the colors we’ve mixed so far have been high chroma. But how do we mix the low chroma ones?

Complementary Colors

We know that if we mix complements (reds and greens, blues and oranges, yellows and purples) we should get a gray. We know that brown is a dark orange so we *should* be able to lower the chroma by adding in its complement – blue. Let’s try it – to the brushes!

Well. Yes it’s possible but it’s a bit hit and miss. Adding a complement in can swing the hue quite a lot and we probably don’t want that. Now don’t get me wrong using complements in painting is a great technique to have in your armory as they, well, complement each other. But we’re talking about mixing a specific color here and adding in complements can get fiddly.

Adding Black or Gray to Lower Chroma

We want to make a color grayer don’t we. So why not just add gray? If we have say a value 5 brown (like burnt sienna) we could add in a value 5 gray and it will get grayer yes? Sounds plausible – to the palette!

So we now can mix a whole range of low chroma browns!

Well that does work quite well. For the watercolor swatches we don’t have gray of course. I’ve added in a little black (which makes the color darker) and then a little water to bring the value back up again.

A Note About Primary Colors

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned primary colors, secondary colors, or tertiary colors. The standard thing that we were all taught at school is that red blue and yellow are the three primary colors. We then have the secondary colors – orange, green, and purple. And the tertiary colors are mixtures of all three. It’s the standard color theory but we don’t need to think about colors this way. There’s nothing special about red, yellow, and blue. They’re just light of different combinations of wavelengths.