Hiding in plain sight

Alexandra Loske celebrates our most unappreciated colour, brown.

What do you associate with browns? Uniforms, camouflage, army gear? Monks’ robes, dirt stains, mudcovered revellers at a particularly rainy Glastonbury Festival? Or golden sunsets, worn leather satchels, the wide range of hues of coffee, chocolate, tea? Browns are underrated, overlooked, and have many negative connotations, from the association with poverty, faeces and filth, to blandness and uniformity. Yet, along with the green of vegetation and the blue of the sky (see ROSA Issue 1), brown, in its very broad spectrum of tones, is probably the most prominent colour in the natural world. It is the colour of earth itself, of wood, of rock, trees in autumn, animals’ skins, feathers, and pelts, and of many humans’ skin, hair and eyes. It is the colour of the parched Sussex landscape while I am writing this article, during the historic heatwave of summer 2022.

Brown is a colour range whose beauty is often underestimated: often used as a unifier, background, underpaint, or a neutralising tint that leaves the stage to others. As such, it is underappreciated, and historically much less written and talked about than other colours. But when we start looking into the language of brown, an intriguing, even poetic story begins to emerge, which goes right back to creation myths and the earliest human artistic activity: earth, clay, dust, sand, ochre, umber, sepia, buff, khaki, russet, fallow, chestnut, auburn… the lexical field of brown is rich, ancient and warm.

Personally, I have a blind spot about dividing colours into warm and cold, but I have yet to come across a brown that I would emphatically describe as cold. Browns are warm colours that tint our lives, our history, our landscapes, our art. Were we made from clay? No, but creation myths of many cultures tell the story of humans made from earth and returning to it, and making vessels from clay has been a hugely important part of human history.

Where is brown on the colour wheel?

One reason why brown is such an anonymous colour is because it is not on the visible spectrum, or the range of optical colour. Newton’s 1704 colour wheel comprises seven colours, representing the rainbow spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet), omitting browns. You have to look hard to find browns on a simple painters’ colour wheel based on the tri-chromatic model Yellow, Red and Blue. Yet, in the world of physical colour, brown can be created from the primaries and the secondaries, so – unlike white and black – it can be classed as a proper colour.

Within 60 or 70 years of Newton publishing his optical colour wheel, the British entomologist Moses Harris felt the need to create colour wheels for artists and illustrators that helped capture the many different shades of browns and greys in the natural world. He published a double colour wheel in an extraordinarily rare book, The Natural System of Colours (between 1769 and 1776), comprising a total of 660 different shades. These were much more realistic and useful depictions of the colour world we live in, and helped artists paint the many subtle shades of browns, greens and blacks in the insect world. In one of his books on British insects, full of glorious hand-coloured illustrations of flies, moths, bees and butterflies, he included the colour wheel pictured opposite, recognising the importance of those many darker, muddier shades of the natural world. In a similar manner, the Scottish botanist Patrick Syme expanded, translated, and edited an 18th-century German list of geological colours, Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours (published 1814 and 1821), which comprised ten colour groups, finishing with browns. Syme lists ten browns, which give a good impression of the wide range of colours that browns can carry and contain: Deep Orange-coloured Brown, Deep Reddish Brown, Umber Brown, Chestnut Brown, Yellowish Brown, Wood Brown, Liver Brown, Hair Brown, Broccoli Brown (‘clove brown mixed with ash grey, and a small tinge of red’), Olive Brown , and Blackish Brown. Those naturalists clearly knew the importance of browns.

Brown pigments: Earth and its earths

Technically there is no need for pure brown pigments, as the combination of all primary colours in the paint box creates a sludgy shade of brown. However, Earth itself gave humans some beautiful browns, in the form of earth pigments. Umbers and ochres are among the earliest colours humans sourced, modified and painted with, often on rock, bark or wood. They were quite literally under our ancestors’ feet, in almost every part of the world. Ochres, a combination of silica, clay and oxides, are particularly plentiful in nature, and come in a range of hues, from yellow to red, but always with that warm, earthy glow that puts them into the wider circle of browns. Umbers contain manganese oxide, making them darker and more intense, veering less into the red and yellow range. Humans began altering the shades of these pigments early on: roasting them creates so-called ‘burnt’, darker versions. Other early browns were created from charred wood (bistre) or sourced from cuttlefish (sepia).

Are you my mummy? Controversial browns

From the 16th to the late-19th century an organic pigment named Mummy Brown was traded and used widely in Europe. Disturbingly, it was what it said on the tin: a blackish-looking, pitchy, transparent brown that was made from the groundup remains of Egyptian mummified bodies (of humans and animals), including the bandages and embalming substances. It was highly sought-after as a pigment for creating flesh tones and subtle shading in paintings and was also used as a glaze. Obviously, there were a finite number of real Egyptian mummies available, and when demand outstripped supply, Mummy Brown was ‘faked’ using the dead bodies of slaves and prisoners. Some Pre-Raphaelite artists used the pigment with gusto, but Sussex-based artist Edward BurneJones once ceremoniously buried a tube of it, realising the moral and ethical implications of the pigment. True Mummy Brown is no longer available, but a pigment of the sinister-sounding name Caput Mortuum (literally meaning ‘dead head’, alluding to skulls) is often confused with it. However, Caput Mortuum is an inorganic pigment based on haematite iron oxide, which gives it a reddish appearance. It is also known as Cardinal Purple, as it was used for painting the robes of important figures in early modern times.

Browns in art

So where do we find browns in art? The simple answer is: almost everywhere, but often they are hiding, sometimes in plain sight. It requires great skill to create and model browns, as you are effectively painting shadows and light, but there are some outstanding artists in history that managed to squeeze every bit of golden glow out of the colour of earth. For me, no one ever did it better than Rembrandt (1606-1669), who dramatically staged his figures, many of them with faces looking like parched landscapes, against earthy backgrounds, glowing mysteriously. One of the best examples is his self-portrait at Kenwood House in North London. There are other great examples of artists using the powerful effect of a paired down brown palette. Just think of Picasso and Braque embracing Cubism, presenting us with images that suggest brick buildings crumbling, a world falling apart, turning to dust, or reconfiguring itself. Closer to home, look at how beautifully

Eric Ravilious (1903-1942) used light shades of brown to depict the Sussex landscape, combining them with pale greens and self-referencing chalky whites. My professional career as a museum curator began when I discovered and fell in love with the etchings of Brighton-based artist Robert Charles Goff (1837-1922). For the majority of his prints, many of them showing Brighton and Hove, he used traditional sepia-coloured ink, and it is surprising how well this warm colour depicts waves battering the West Pier, seascape nocturnes, or steaming harbours and urban scenes.

Looking around my house, I am quite astonished to find that several of the Fergus Hare paintings I live with are very brown indeed. Not just a small landscape with trees and farm buildings at dusk – where you would expect it – but also a moonrise, all subtle golden browns with a hint of pink, and a small inky brown moon seen through a telescope. In my mind these are blue paintings, which attests to the chameleon-like nature of brown. Hare cut his teeth on browns and ochres, using them extensively in his landscapes, with Burnt Sienna as a ground colour, to let the warmth of it come through. When learning to draw as a teenager, he copied Old Master drawings in brown ink.

These days he often paints on brown paper, or straight onto bare linen, letting the material’s natural tan colour become part of the composition, something he has in common with some Fauvists.

Browns and the Baron

And what about ROSA’s cover artist, The Baron Gilvan? Before I knew anything about his life story, I looked at the earthy hues and shapes in his work and associated them, firstly, with 1970s interiors, where brown was often used to offset the psychedelic oranges and yellows. Secondly, I thought of tangled branches, broken fences, or trees that weave their way out of his unconscious and into his work. When I read his interview, I learnt that he spent formative years near the Käfertal forest in Germany and was inspired by the deep dark woods of German landscape and folklore. This makes complete sense to me: wood and the woods are hugely complex and potent themes in German culture, and I am not surprised they have left a mark on Gilvan’s semi-abstract paintings.

Alexandra Loske is a curator at Royal Pavilion & Brighton Museums and the author of Colour: A Visual History (Tate, 2019).