How to Mix Brown from a Limited Palette of Primary Colors
What Is a Limited Palette?
Painting with a limited palette means restricting the number of colors available for painting.
While it might feel intimidating at first, be reassured that you can mix pretty much any color starting from a limited palette of three primaries plus white.
The main colors you'll need are blue, red, and yellow.
There is no need to use black.
What Colors Do I Include in a Limited palette?
When I set up my limited palette, I like to include a lighter, and usually warmer, and a darker version of each color.
For blue, I squeeze out two different blues, one darker and one lighter, like ultramarine blue and cerulean blue.
For the yellow you can get a cadmium yellow deep and a cadmium lemon light.
For the red a cadmium red and quinacridon magenta.
Cadmium colors are very opaque, that means that when mixing, they are pretty strong and powerful.
For whites you can also go more opaque or transparent. An opaque white (i.e. Titanium White) will make the mix flatter and less translucent. A transparent white (i.e. Zinc White) will require more white to lighten the color, but it would retain the hue better.
You can mix your own black from the three primaries: I get my black mixing a little red and a little yellow with ultramarine blue. Another shortcut to get black is mixing ultramarine blue and burnt umber or burnt sienna.
Mixing Brown from a Limited Palette
All You Need Are Three Primary Colors
The bottom line is that to mix brown from a limited palette you need to mix the three primary colors. For a lighter shade of brown you can add white.
I usually don’t like to use black, because black flattens the paint too much, and in nature pure black hardly exists. However, you can use it to darken a color if you so want.
Brown from Green and Red
As they teach you in primary school, to get brown you need to mix green and red. That sounds simple enough, though the shade of brown you get depends from what green and what red you mix, and in what proportions.
BROWN = GREEN + RED
As we all know green is achieved mixing blue and yellow.
GREEN = BLUE + YELLOW
That means that brown is the mixing of the three primaries, in different proportions.
BROWN = (BLUE + YELLOW) + RED
Green is a very tricky color to mix. Depending on what hues you are mixing and in what proportions you get totally different greens.
Brown from Orange and Blue
In a similar way, you can make brown from a mix of orange and blue.
BROWN = ORANGE + BLUE
Now we know that orange is yellow with a little bit of red
ORANGE = YELLOW + RED
So if brown is obtained mixing orange and blue, that means that brown is a mix of the three primaries.
BROWN = (YELLOW + RED) + BLUE
Blue is the only color which maintains its own character in all its tones... it will always stay blue; whereas yellow is blackened in its shades, and fades away when lightened; red when darkened becomes brown, and diluted with white is no longer red, but another color – pink.— Raoul Dufy
All Kinds of Browns
There is no right answer for brown. You can mix and match different reds, blues, and yellows, and get all kinds of shades of brown.
Depending on the kind of primaries that you are starting from, you can get greenish browns, golden browns, reddish ones, etc.
Example of Mixing Brown from Orange and Blue - Step by Step
Tips on Mixing Brown from Primary Colors
Mixing blue, yellow, and red is like mixing orange and blue, or green and red.
It does not matter which colors you mix first. In the example I started by mixing a dark orange, obtained mixing red with a little yellow.
How to Mix Brown
- Mix a beautiful red orange using the palette knife. Avoid mixing big quantity of paint with your paintbrushes, you would ruin the brushes and also it would create streaks of color in the brush, that come out unexpectedly while painting.
- Once you have your orange, add a little bit of blue, mix it in and see what happens.
- The more blue you add, the darker your brown.
If you start from a lighter orange, adding a little blue you get a lighter greenish brown, kind of a golden color. This is a great starting for skin tones when you are painting portraits.
A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, and some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people.— Edgar Degas
Muddy Up with Purpose
It is not so difficult to get brown by mistake.
When painting, always pay attention on keeping your colors clean. If you don’t clean your brush in between colors, you end up involuntarily creating a muddier version of the color you are painting.
The same thing happens when you are painting two complementary colors next to each other, the area where they mix or overlap becomes muddy. This is particularly evident when using watercolors, for their transparency.
An Example of Paint Set You Could Buy, It Comes With: Naphthol Crimson, Ultramarine Blue, Phthalo Green, Titanium White, Cadmium Yellow, and Burnt Sienna
Questions & Answers
What colors do I mix to get golden brown?
Brown is really nothing else than a dark, dull orange.
You can think of golden brown as a dull, dark yellow-orange.
To achieve that color from a limited palette of three primaries, start with yellow.
Add small quantities of red and blue, very conservatively, mixing at every step to see how far you've gone in one direction or the other.
Add a bit of red to get you closer to orange; with a bit of blue, you move toward greens or blues.
To get golden brown, get some pure yellow and add a little bit of red. Be aware that it's hard to make a dark color lighter; move slower from light to dark.
Once you have a nice golden orange, add a tiny bit of blue or violet to the mixture; this will make it duller. Be aware that some colors are ultra strong, for example, any green or blue with phthalo in them are very opaque, and a small quantity goes a long way.
In short: to make a golden brown start from yellow, mix it to a light orange, then dull it down a bit.
© 2013 Robie Benve