what colors make brown
Art Supplies Painting

What Colors Make Brown

In this article I will look at several ways how to make brown. If you would like to know what colors make brown, read on. I will examine several different ways to mix brown, and then show you my favorite method. Shades of brown are probably the earliest colors ever used in paintings. Brown is the color of there earth and can evoke a natural calm feeling. It is usually a neutral color and is great in the background as it compliments bolder colors. One of the best things about brown, especially if you are mixing itself, is that it contains many different pigments. This allows it to compliment a very wide range of colors. Similarly to the way I did in my What Colors Make Orange article, I am going to explain some of the science behind brown. Then I am going to show you the results of my experiment mixing browns from different primary and secondary colors.

What Colors Make Brown?

how to make brown
Bearded Old Man Wearing a Brown Cloak, Jan Lievens, 1631, Oil.

Brown is probably one of the most common colors in paint manufacturing. This is because so many of the natural minerals used to make paint are brown. It is also quite easy to mix and mix another color, and end up with a shade of brown. You can see the results of this in my article on the color orange.

At its most basic level paint is really just crushed up dirt, rocks, or other coloring agent mixed with a carrier. The carrier can be acrylic polymer, oil, egg, water, wax, or casein. So it is no surprise that some of the earliest paints were brown. Earth tones were readily available to the early artists. The appeal of these shades has continued through art history and they are still popular today. Colors like ocher, sienna, iron oxide, and umber are all earth based pigments.

There is also another way to make brown. Brown can be made by mixing two complimentary colors together.


What are complimentary colors?

color wheel
Color Wheel showing primary and secondary colors.

Complimentary colors are colors that sit across from each other on the color wheel. Complimentary colors tend to enhance each other when they are placed next to each other in a painting. Complimentary colors can be broken down into the following pairs of primary and secondary colors:

  • Red and Green
  • Blue and Orange
  • Yellow and Purple

If you mix a color with it’s compliment it will tend to make brown. So mixing red and green will make brown. So will mixing blue and orange, and yellow and purple. There are many different pigments and shades of each of these base colors. As well, many of the secondary colors can be mixed as well. That means there is an almost infinite range of browns that you can make. So if you are asking yourself what colors make brown? Then know that the easiest way how to make brown is mixing complimentary colors.

Primary and Secondary Colors

what colors make brown
Brown Horse in the Stalls. Théodore Géricault

As I mentioned earlier, one of the easiest ways to make brown paint is by mixing complimentary colors. In the simplest terms a complimentary color is usually a primary and a secondary color. A primary color is one of the three colors that all other colors can be mixed from: red, blue, and yellow. A secondary color is a mix of two primary colors that fit in between the primary colors on the color wheel: green, blue, and yellow.

For the experiment in making brown paint that I tried, I mostly used two complimentary colors. Having said that you can also use three, four, five, or even more colors to make brown. In fact, as I will explain later, mixing the three primary colors is one of the best ways to make brown.

Tubed Brown Paint

Brown paint is very common and usually one of the more inexpensive pigments. That is because brown minerals are one of the most common colors in mother nature. It is very expensive to mine a vibrant cobalt blue or cadmium red, but brown earth colors like ocher, sienna, and umber are quite common. Having said that, there are also quite a few brown paints like Quinacridone and Nickel-Azo gold that are actually quite expensive. Some of the more common brown paints are:

  • Raw Sienna
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Raw Umber
  • Burnt Umber
  • A range of Iron-oxide based pigments

Here are some of the pre-tubed brown paints that we like.

Mars Yellow

Golden Open Acrylics and Sets – $19.69

from: Blick Art Materials

Many Iron oxide based paints have the name Mars in them. In this case “Mars” is the roman god of war and an agricultural guardian. This is because iron is prominently used in both weaponry and agricultural tools.

Mars Yellow is actually a very warm brown. It has hints of red and yellow and it is a very beautiful brown paint that can be used in a range of applications.

Raw Sienna

Winsor & Newton Galeria Acrylics and Sets – $7.23

from: Blick Art Materials

Raw sienna is a cool, yellowish brown. It is formed from Iron-oxide, with a hint of manganese oxide in its natural state. It is very similar to yellow ocher and it is definitely one of the lighter shades of brown.

Raw Umber

Liquitex Professional Heavy Body Acrylics and Sets – $7.20

from: Blick Art Materials

Raw umber is a cool brown with a greenish hue. It is darker then many of the other earth pigments. Its cool tone make it a great choice for backgrounds and underpainting.

Burnt Sienna

Gamblin Artist’s Oil Colors – $28.50

from: Blick Art Materials

Burnt sienna paint has the same chemical make up. The difference is that when the pigment is heated it turns into a warm and rich reddish brown.

Quinacridone Gold

Michael Harding Artists Oil Colours – $35.99

from: Blick Art Materials

This is one of my favorite browns. It is borderline an orange, as it has lots of yellow and red in it. It is quite a bit more expensive then many of the browns made from earth pigments. But the radiance that it gives off is worth it in my opinion. It has a cool effect of appearing more brown when applied thickly, then red or even yellow when it is thinned or stained.

How To Make Brown

what colors make brown
What Colors Make Brown


Base Colors

I used several different colors during our experiment to make brown paint. I tried to use a version of each of the primary and secondary colors that was well balanced. This means that it was right in the middle of its section on the cool wheel. The colors that I chose were also a good balance between warm and cool. While these are the six colors that I chose to mix brown paint, you can definitely experiment with other base colors. Using warmer or cooler colors will give you all kind of different shades of brown. You can also add black to darken your colors. White will lighten them. Finally, grey will mute the color and make it less vibrant. This is useful if you want the color to recede into the background.

Pyrrole Red

Pyrrole red is a bright warm and opaque red that uses the PR254 Pigment. It is created using Diketopyrrolo pyrrole pigments and is a great substitute for cadmium red medium. I used the golden heavy body acrylic product. Most paint manufacturers have a similar color in their lineup. It is often called vermillion hue, especially by oil paint manufacturers. It is also a great paint to use if you are experimenting with how to make orange.

Phthalo Green (Blue Shade)

This is a very cool green. Phthalo is made from the synthetic Phthalocyanine dye. It is quite dark and powerful when applied thickly, but if it is thinned or mixed with water it can make a very rich bright green.

Permanent Green Light

This is a glassic green. Very similar to what most people would think of when you say “green”. It is a mix of different yellow and green pigments. I wasn’t originally going to use this color for my green. As you will see in experiment in how to make brown, I needed to substitute the phthalo green for this color.

Cadmium Yellow Medium

Once of my favorite colors to use. It is a bright, warm, and opaque yellow. It is quite powerful so it will take a fair amount of the color you are mixing it with to overcome the yellow. This was definitely a winner in my experiment in making orange paint.

Permanent Violet Dark

Made from Quinacridone pigment this is a beautiful medium purple. The problem with many tubed purple paints is that the tend too much towards blue or red. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but for this experiment in mixing brown paint I wanted a purple that was right in the middle of red and blue.

Cadmium Orange

Probably one of the most vibrant colors I have ever used. Cadmium orange shares many of the same characteristics as cadmium yellow. You can also find pyrrole orange, which is also very bright without the cadmium content if that is something you are concerned about.

Ultramarine Blue

A classic warm blue. Traditionally this color was made from lapis lazuli, which is actually a semi-precious stone. You can still find true lapis lazuli blue, but it is probably one of the most expensive paints you can buy. Today, most ultramarine blues are made from a synthesized pigment. Cobalt blue is another similar alternative that is also very vibrant.

The results of my experiment in making brown

To figure out what colors make brown, I combined made four different primary secondary combinations. I was only going to use three sets, but my first mix didn’t really work so I added a fourth. Finally, I experiment with combining the three primary colors to make brown paint. The results were very interesting as you will see later.

For each mix, I added the darker color to the lighter color with a palette knife. Then I scraped the palette knife across a sheet of white paper.

Phthalo Green + Pyrrole Red

This was the first way I mixed brown. Green and red is the most basic way to brown. As you can see in the image above, I ended up with a very dark brown. This color was so dark, that it actually almost looked like a dark grey-purple or a black. This is because there was too much blue and not enough yellow in my green. I would not recommend using these two pigments to make brown paint.

Permanent Green Light + Pyrrole Red

My second attempt at mixing brown with green and red. This time it was much more successful. This made a slightly cool medium brown that I was much happier with.

Cadmium Yellow Medium + Permanent Violet Dark

This was actually my favorite brown mixed from only two colors. It came out very warm and rich. It is probably because the base colors both contain very rich bright pigments. Cadmium yellow and the quinacridone in the violet are both very rich. This would be quite a potent color so keep that in mind if you are mixing it with anything else.

Cadmium Orange + Ultramarine Blue

This made another warm rich brown. Using a warm blue with a bright cadmium orange gave the color lots of warmth.

The best way to make brown

These were only four different combinations of making brown. You can absolutely try it on your own using any combination of a primary color and a secondary color. There are hundreds if not thousands of combinations that you could try, so experiment away to find the best way to mix brown paint.

After trying with two colors, I decided to add a third. Here are the results of that experiment.

Ultramarine Blue + Cadmium Yellow Medium + Pyrrole Red

This ended up being my favorite way to make brown. It gave me so much more control in adjusting the color to be exact hue that I wanted. If it was too yellow, I could just add a little more red and blue. The trick with mixing brown, is that if you find it starting too look too much like one color, you add it’s compliment to balance it back out.

  • Brown too red: Add more green (blue + yellow)
  • Brown too orange: Add more blue
  • Brown too yellow: Add more purple (blue + red)
  • Brown too green: Add more red
  • Brown too blue: Add more orange (yellow + red)
  • Brown too purple: Add more yellow

You can also add black or white to your mixed brown. This will give you an even greater range of browns. I hope that this experiment was helpful and has helped you learn how to make brown.