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How to Mix Brown from a Limited Palette of Primary Colors

Mixing brown paint from red, blue, and yellow.
Mixing brown paint from red, blue, and yellow. | Source

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 can be mixed from the three primary colors.
Brown can be mixed from the three primary colors. | Source

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

Step 1

I started with three primary colors: Ultramarine Blue, Naphthol Red Medium, and C.P. Cadmium Yellow Medium.
I started with three primary colors: Ultramarine Blue, Naphthol Red Medium, and C.P. Cadmium Yellow Medium. | Source

Step 2

I mixed red and yellow together and got orange.
I mixed red and yellow together and got orange. | Source

Step 3

I added a little blue and got a light brown.
I added a little blue and got a light brown. | Source

Step 4

I made another orange and added a little more blue this time: I got a dark chocolaty brown.
I made another orange and added a little more blue this time: I got a dark chocolaty brown. | Source

Step 5

I made yet another orange and added Cerulean Blue Chromium. I got a nice brown with a nice warm hue.
I made yet another orange and added Cerulean Blue Chromium. I got a nice brown with a nice warm hue. | Source

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

  1. 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.
  2. Once you have your orange, add a little bit of blue, mix it in and see what happens.
  3. 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.

© 2013 Robie Benve

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Comments 2 comments

Robie Benve profile image

Robie Benve 3 years ago from Ohio Author

Carol, unfortunately muddy colors is one of the ways painters get to know about mixing browns, isn't it? The positive side is that there is a lot to be learned from muddying up the paints too - there I go: gotta see the positive always! ;)

Thanks a lot for your support and comment. :)


carol7777 profile image

carol7777 3 years ago from Arizona

Some good suggestions here...and I know about muddy colors. However I also stay away from black and mix my own browns. Great job here for painters to follow. Pinning.

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    Robie Benve profile image

    Robie Benve450 Followers
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    Robie:an artist believing in the power of positive thinking, she paints images intended to bring joy the viewer and loves to share art tips.



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