# What color is brown?

Obviously it’s brown, but where on the color scale does it belong? It’s been represented on the computer as dark yellow, but sometimes there are red-browns and green-browns, and if it’s just dark yellow then what is tan?

Well, in painting, you get brown by mixing two colours opposite each other on the colour wheel. So it’s not on the colour wheel at all.

Brown is orange plus black. Perhaps this picture will give you an idea of where it fits in the “color scale.”

Brown

Bnorton, think not so much of a 2-D color scale, but rather a 3-D color sphere.

The equator is ringed by the colors of the visible spectrum. Each pole is pure black, absorbing all wavelengths of light. The center of the sphere – at its very heart – is pure white, reflecting all wavelengths of light. All parts of this sphere represent gradual gradations in color from one point to the next.

Where you’d find brown would be at or near the surface of the sphere, and in the region halfway between the red-orage-yellow area and either of the black poles.

“Tan” can mean a lot of things to different people, but to me it’s close to “khaki” … maybe a tough more orange. In any event, lighter versions of brown can be found on the color sphere by starting in the brown region and “drilling down” maybe halfway towards the white. That’s where you’d find the tans and khakis, in close proximity to one another.

Figure 10 on this page roughly demonstrates how the “red” slice of a hypothetical color sphere would look.

A couple of years ago I helped the owner of the local hardware store move the paint section to another area. We took the outdated paint upstairs to a storage area. Among the "helpers"was the salesman who sold the paint to the hardware store. Being the salesman he was he offered to sell me the 50 or so gallons of old paint for a really low (cough cough )price. I told him if he could mix it all together and make it barn red we could probably do buisness. He said no. If he mixed it all together it would just be brown.

In painting class, we were taught to mix brown through the three primaries, blue, red, and yellow. Usually, the brown you’re looking for is either a “red” brown or a “yellow” brown, which means more red or yellow, respectively. Rarely will you want a brown with a lot of blue in it. When translating colors from the real world to the painting world, everything becomes an offshoot of red, yellow, or blue. Grays are considered blue. Black is considered purple. And brown, mostly, is considered a yellow.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his Bemerkungen über die Farben (Remarks on Color), said: “Wenn man… nennt Braun ein schwärzlich-rötlich-Gelb” (We may call brown a blackish-reddish-yellow).

Wittgenstein also asked: “Was heißt es, ‘Das Braun ist dem Gelb verwandt’?” (What does it mean to say, “Brown is akin to yellow?”

Heißt es, daß sich die Aufgabe, ein etwas bräunliches Gelb zu wählen, ohne weiteres verstünde? (Oder ein etwas gelblicheres Braun.) Die färbige Vermittlung zwischen zwei Farben.

(Does it mean that the task of choosing a somewhat brownish yellow would be readily understood? [Or a somewhat more yellowish brown.] The colored intermediary between two colors.)

‘Gelb ist dem Rot vervandter als dem Blau.’
(“Yellow is more akin to red than to blue.”)

Further on, Wittgenstein ponders:

Warum reden wir nicht von einem ‘reinen’ Braun? Ist der Grund davon bloß die Stellung des Braun zu den andern ‘reinen’ Farben, seine Verwandschaft mit ihnen allen? — Braun ist vor allem nur Oberflächenfarbe. D.h.: es gibt kein klares Braun, sondern nur ein Trübes. Auch: Braun enthält Schwarz.—(?)—Wie müßte sich ein Mensch benehmen, daß man von ihm sagen könnte, er kenne ein reines, primäres, Braun?

(Why don’t we speak of a “pure” brown? Is the reason merely the position of brown with respect to the other “pure” colors, its relationship to them all? — Brown is, above all, a surface color, i.e. there is no such thing as a clear brown, but only a muddy one. Also: brown contains black—[?]—How would a person have to behave for us to say of him that he knows a pure, primary brown?)

Was heißt ‘Braun enthält Schwarz’? Es gibt mehr und weniger schwärzliches Braun. Gibt es eins, was gar nicht mehr schwärzlich ist? Es gibt gewiß nicht eins, welches gar nicht gelblich ist.

(What does “Brown contains black” mean? There are more and less blackish browns. Is there one which isn’t blackish at all? There certainly isn’t one which isn’t yellowish at all.)

‘Braunes Licht’. Angenommen es werde vorgeschlagen, ein Lichtsignal auf der Straße sollte braun sein.”

(“Brown light.” Suppose someone were to suggest that a traffic light be brown.)

Wenn ein Rötlichgrün bekannt wäre, der sollte im Stande sein, eine Farbenreihe herzustellen, die mit Rot anfinge, mit Grün endet und, auch für uns, etwa einen kontinuierlichen Übergang zwischen ihnen bildet. Es könnte sich dann zeigen, daß dort, wo wir etwa jedesmal den gleichen Ton von Braun sähen, er einmal Braun, einmal Rötlichgrün sähe. Daß er z.B. zwei chemische Verbindungen, die für uns die gleiche Farbe hätten, nach der Farbe unterscheiden könnte und die eine ‘ein Braun’, die andre ein ‘Rötlichgrün’ nennte.

(Someone who is familiar with reddish green should be in a position to produce a color series which starts with red and ends with green and constitutes for us too a continuous transition between the two. We might then discover that at the point where we always see the same shade of brown, this person sometimes sees brown and sometimes reddish green. It may be, for example, that he can differentiate between the colors of two chemical compounds that seem to us to be the same color, and he calls one “a brown” and the other “reddish green.”)

That’s about all I can find that Wittgenstein had to say on what the nature of brown might be. As for the problem of a traffic light being brown, that’s no problem at all. I have seen samples of theatrical lighting gels in lots of different colors, and they include browns like “chocolate.” That’s right; a light shining through these brown gels will indeed produce a brown lighting effect. You could make a traffic light in this color and it would look like a brown light.

Speaking of brown light, there is the fact that your computer screen can display the color brown, which somehow comes through as photons to your eye and thence to your brain which perceives the color of this stream of photons as “brown.” But what has to happen in terms of physics for this light to be interpreted by your brain as what we call “brown”?

(I’m starting to think like Wittgenstein here, if he could have lived to see modern computer monitors.)

I started playing around in Photoshop to see what kind of color values I could get for brown. I tried to match what I call “crayola brown.” I tried to make this because for many people, when someone says brown, it is the first color they think of. (for obvious reasons)

The values I got were :

R: 85
G: 78
B: 3

Subtractive:
C: 57
Y: 100
M: 52

For a computer monitor, brown in mostly red and green. For paints, it is mostly yellow, with lesser and equal values of cyan and magenta.

Of course, all this is completely subjective. That’s my take on it.

Here’s a Color wheel from Visibone.

Here’s a neat color lab where you can click on colors on the left and see how they look next to each other.

Peace.

When I took art class in high school, we made browns by mixing together different quantities of secondary colors (green/purple/orange). Tan was brown plus white.