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How to Make Brown Paint (3 Common Shades)

Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she has learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.

how-to-mix-brown-paint-common-shades

I’ve been painting for many years; my current practice focuses on creating mixed media paintings using acrylics, paper, fibers, etc.

In this article, we’ll discuss how to mix brown from other paint colors using acrylics.

Things Covered in This Article

  1. What Colors Make Brown?
  2. How to Mix Brown Paint the Right Way
  3. How to Mix Brown From Two Colors
  4. How to Make Brown With Primary Colors: Dark Brown, Light Brown, and Reddish Brown
  5. Tips on How to Mix Colors
  6. A Bit of Color Theory: The Science of Color
  7. Additive Color Mixing vs. Subtractive Color Mixing
  8. A Color Mixing Exercise

What Colors Make Brown?

Brown is a relatively easy color to make, most painters have experienced making “mud” by mistake. But what if your goal is to mix a specific shade of brown?

The short answer to making brown is to mix the three primaries. Yellow, red, and blue make brown.

The short answer to making brown is mixing the three primaries.

The short answer to making brown is mixing the three primaries.

We all know that the three primary colors are blue, red, and yellow. However, depending on which tubes of paint you use when mixing, you’ll get very different results.

Keep reading for more info and for some mixing examples.

Color Bias

When mixing a brown, the first thing you need to figure out is if you are trying to get a warm or a cool brown. For example, a brick would be a warm brown, while chocolate is a cool brown.

Depending on what kind of results you are looking for, picking different primaries will give you different results, depending on their color bias.

Each blue has a different relative temperature, opacity, and color bias.

Each blue has a different relative temperature, opacity, and color bias.

Each blue has a different relative temperature, opacity, and color bias. Ultramarine blue, for example, is a fairly transparent hue, with a red bias that makes it a warm blue, so it’s warmer than cobalt blue but cooler than cobalt turquoise, which tends more toward yellow.

Some reds are warmer and lean towards yellow, like the cadmiums, others are cooler and lean towards blue, like the magentas. Warm reds will give you a warmer brown.

Some reds are warmer and lean towards yellow, like the cadmiums, others are cooler and lean towards blue, like the magentas. Warm reds will give you a warmer brown.

Some reds are warmer and lean towards yellow, like the cadmiums, others are cooler and lean towards blue, like the magentas. Warm reds will give you a warmer brown.

When you mix them with a blue, the reds with a yellow bias will create a very dull violet, while the reds leaning towards blue will make vibrant and intense violets, because they don’t contain yellow, violet’s complementary color.

Some yellows show a clear red bias, they are darker and lean more towards orange than true yellow. These colors will make duller greens because red acts as a neutralizer for greens.

Some yellows show a clear red bias, they are darker and lean more towards orange than true yellow. These colors will make duller greens because red acts as a neutralizer for greens.

Some yellows show a clear red bias, they are darker and lean more towards orange than true yellow. These colors will make duller greens because red acts as a neutralizer for greens.

You may want to experiment mixing different yellows with the same pair of red and blue and see how your brown changes.

Knowing the color bias of the primary colors that you add to the mix, and some practice, will help you predict in which direction your mix will go, hence what shade of brown you are creating.

See the color mixing exercise at the end of this article.

How to Mix Brown Paint the Right Way

When you want to mix brown, remember these three things:

  1. Brown on the color wheel is a shade of other hues, specifically a duller version of red, red-orange, orange, or yellow-orange.
  2. Because brown is a darker and duller shade of yellow-orange, orange, red-orange, and red, to know how to make brown, you need to learn how to dull and darken a color.
  3. An easy way to dull a color (lower the chroma or saturation) is by mixing it with its complementary color, the one opposite on the color wheel.

Quick Guide on Mixing Brown From Two Colors

Before getting into how to mix brown from the three primaries, let's talk about a nice shortcut.

Since brown is a shade of yellow-orange, orange, red-orange, or red, you can start from the main hue and make a shade by adding its complement, as in Table 1 below.

You can mix the different shades of brown by starting from different warm colors with a red bias and adding their complementary colors.

For example, if you start from a red, the complementary color that you want to add is green. You may use a green out of the tube, or mix your own from yellow and blue paint. My favorite pure green is the result of mixing lemon yellow with a bit of phthalo blue.

Table 1: Complementary Colors That Make Brown

To reduce the chroma or saturation of a color, mix it with its complement, the hue that is opposite on the color wheel.

ColorComplement

Red

Green

Red-Orange

Blue-Green

Orange

Blue

Yellow-Orange

Blue-Violet

How to Make Brown With Primary Colors

As we said before, red, blue, and yellow make brown. But there are several different reds, yellows, and blues, and each combination will result in a slightly different brown.

Below I show examples of how I mixed:

  1. Dark brown
  2. Light brown
  3. Reddish brown

At the end of the article, there is an exercise that you can do in your studio using the tubes of paint that you have.

Table 2: How to Adjust the Brown Mix

When mixing colors, keep adjusting by adding tiny bits of the needed hue, mix thoroughly, evaluate the result, keep adjusting until you reach the color you want.

If the mix looks too...Then add some...

Green

Red

Purple

Yellow

Orange

Blue

1. How to Mix Dark Brown

To make a dark brown mix, you want to start from three dark versions of your primaries. In the example below I used phthalo blue, a cool blue with very strong pigmentation, a little bit goes a long way; for the red, I picked pyrrole red dark, it’s a nice red, pretty close to true red, meaning that it’s not too cool or bluish, and not too warm, or yellowish. The yellow that I chose has a bit of a red bias and looks kind of yellow-orange, so I consider it a darker yellow, compared to lemon or light yellow.

Supplies:

  • Paints: phthalo blue, pyrrole red dark, and hansa yellow opaque
  • Palette knife
  • Paper towel
  • Mixing surface (palette or paper plate)
  • Painting surface (paper or canvas)

Method:

Squeeze out equal amounts of blue, red, and yellow.

  1. With a clean palette knife, take equal quantities of each color and mix them in a pile on the side. Clean the knife with a paper towel every time you touch a pure color, so that it does not contaminate.
  2. Look at the mix you obtained. It’s very hard to get the perfect brown on the first try.
  3. Keep adjusting the mix by adding tiny bits of the paint color needed to bring it closer to the wanted result. (see Table 2 above). Mine was very green at first - phthalo blue always tries to take over - and I had to add quite a bit of red and some yellow.
  4. Mix with the palette knife until all streaks from the original colors are gone.
  5. Evaluate and keep adjusting until you get to a nice dark brown, like the color of dark chocolate.
  6. Sometimes, when the mix is very dark, it’s hard to see the true hue of the mix. Add tiny bits of titanium white into a separate pile of the mix, the lighter color shows the true hue of the shade. If it’s too bluish or dark gray, it needs more of the warm colors.
Making dark brown from phthalo blue, pyrrole red dark, and hansa yellow opaque.

Making dark brown from phthalo blue, pyrrole red dark, and hansa yellow opaque.

2. How to Mix Light Brown

To make a light brown, start from a light blue, a light red, and a light yellow. They will make a nice bright brown that you can then lighten up even more using small amounts of titanium white.

Supplies:

  • Paints: cerulean blue, cadmium red light, cadmium yellow light, and titanium white.
  • Palette knife
  • Paper towel
  • Mixing surface (palette or paper plate)
  • Painting surface (paper or canvas)

Method:

  1. Squeeze out equal amounts of blue, red, and yellow.
  2. With a palette knife, move equal quantities of each color and mix them on the side.
  3. Evaluate the mix obtained.
  4. Keep adjusting the mix by adding tiny bits of the paint color needed to bring it closer to the wanted result. (see Table 2 above)
  5. Mix well using the palette knife.
  6. Evaluate and keep adjusting until you get to a nice orangy brown.
  7. To make a lighter brown or a beige, add tiny bits of titanium white into the mix. Titanium white is a very opaque white, add just a tiny bit at the time, or you’ll end up with a very chalky color.


Cerulean blue, cadmium red light, and cadmium yellow light make a nice light brown. If you add some titanium white, you can make it lighter and duller, like a beige.

Cerulean blue, cadmium red light, and cadmium yellow light make a nice light brown. If you add some titanium white, you can make it lighter and duller, like a beige.

3. How to Mix a Rich Reddish Brown

To make a reddish brown, I started from a blue that has a red bias, a warm red, and a bright, intense yellow.

Supplies:

  • Paints: ultramarine blue, cadmium red light, and cadmium yellow light
  • Palette knife
  • Paper towel
  • Mixing surface (palette or paper plate)
  • Painting surface (paper or canvas)

Method:

  1. Squeeze out equal amounts of blue, red, and yellow.
  2. Start mixing equal quantities of each color using a palette knife.
  3. Keep adjusting the mix by adding tiny bits of the paint color needed to bring it closer to the wanted result (see Table 2 above).
  4. Keep mixing with the palette knife until you reach a nice warm brown and all streaks from the original colors are gone.
Ultramarine blue, cadmium red light, and cadmium yellow light make a nice reddish brown.

Ultramarine blue, cadmium red light, and cadmium yellow light make a nice reddish brown.

Tips on How to Mix Colors

When you start mixing, it’s a good idea to start from the lightest color and add the darker ones, being careful to add only a small amount at the time, especially of the strongest, most pigmented colors. Keep adjusting slightly until you get to the shade you are after.

Mix through with a palette knife. Avoid having streaks of pure colors in the final mixture.

Mixing Tints and Shades

  • Tint: To obtain tints from a color, gradually add white. You can get a range of tints that go from pure color to white. Adding white reduces the chroma, so after a while, the mix becomes very chalky and very low in chroma. To keep the tint color more intense, lighten up with zinc white. Zinc white is a lot more transparent than titanium white. While you need to add a lot more zinc white to lighten up a color, it pays off in vibrancy.
  • Shade: The shades of a color are obtained by gradually mixing black or a complementary color into the starting hue. You can use black from a tube or mix your own “colorful back” from three dark primaries or by mixing ultramarine blue and burnt umber.
Three shades of brown paint.

Three shades of brown paint.

A Bit of Color Theory: The Science of Color

To see we need light, and we see color because of how the light hits a surface and reflects off the surface. We can see the light waves that are reflected, we don’t see the ones that are absorbed.

  • Red surface = reflects red light waves and absorbs others
  • Blue surface = reflects blue light waves
  • Black = absorbs all
  • White = reflects all

Painting can represent all visible objects with three colors, yellow, red, and blue.: for all other colors can be conpos’d of these three.

— Jakob Christof Le Blon, 1720s

Additive Color Mixing vs. Subtractive Color Mixing

When it comes to color mixing, there is a great difference between how the colors of light mix and how the colors of pigments mix.

How Colors of Light Mix (Additive Color Mixing)

Due to how our inner eye works, and how cones and rods in our eyes process light information, when you mix light of different colors, they get brighter and lighter—to the point that if you mix them all you see white light. This is called additive color mixing.

The primary colors of light are:

  • Red
  • Blue
  • Green

The secondary colors of light are:

  • Magenta = Red + Blue
  • Cyan = Green + Blue
  • Yellow = Green + Red

How Colors of Pigment Mix (Subtractive Color Mixing)

For pigments, the brighter, purest colors are the primary colors red, yellow, and blue. As we mix primary colors they become somehow duller and darker. This is called subtractive color mixing.

The primary colors of pigment are:

  • Red
  • Yellow
  • Blue

The secondary colors are obtained by mixing a couple of primaries.

  • Orange = Red + Yellow
  • Green = Yellow + Blue
  • Violet = Blue + Red

The tertiary colors of pigments, obtained by mixing a primary with one of the secondary colors next to it, are:

  • Red-orange
  • Yellow-orange
  • Yellow-green
  • Blue-green
  • Blue-violet
  • Red-violet

These colors are less pure and darker than the starting hues.

Color Mixing Exercise

The best thing you can do to learn how to mix any color is to practice as much as you can.

Yes, color charts are boring to make and you practice mixing every time you paint, but try creating some color charts using the tubes of color that you have available and testing how they behave when you mix them with each other.

Below is a photo of one exercise that I have done, and below are the steps if you want to replicate a similar chart.

Steps:

  1. I got a sheet of mixed media paper (a sheet from a canvas pad would be great too).
  2. I drew lines above and below of a ruler, then moved the ruler down about one centimeter and repeatedly draw a line above and below the ruler, until the page was full.
  3. Divide each wider strip into 6 or 7 rectangular spaces. They don't have to be perfect, but some measuring will help.
  4. Pick tubes of color from your stash, you may want to look for hues that are complementary. See Table 1 and 2 above for reference. Or you can mix the complementary colors as I did.
  5. On each strip, at one extremity paint one pure color, on the other side place the complement.
  6. Slowly, on a mixing surface, add a bit of the complement to the pure color and fill in all the intermediate rectangles by increasingly mixing the colors.
  7. Try to create even steps in the changes of hue from one end to the other of the strip.
  8. You'll end up with a nice array of potential browns, greens, and neutral colors that you can mix from the tube of colors you own.

Below is a chart that I did from my tube colors.

Color mixing exercise.

Color mixing exercise.

Keep these color mixing charts handy in your studio; when you need to mix a neutral color, they can provide a lot of info on how to achieve the brown or the green that you are after.

Additional Info and Resources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Robie Benve

Comments

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 15, 2021:

You did an excellent job showing how to mix the colors to achieve different hues of the color brown.