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How do you make different shades of brown with primary colors?

How do you make different shades of brown with primary colors?

Brown is a tertiary color made by combining the primary colors red, yellow, and blue. By varying the proportions of each primary color, you can make a wide range of brown shades, from light tan to dark chocolate brown. Here’s a look at how to mix and match primary paint colors to create different browns.

Understanding Brown Color Theory

In the traditional RYB (red, yellow, blue) color model, brown is made by combining all three primary colors. Here’s how the primary colors mix together to make brown:

  • Red and yellow make orange
  • Yellow and blue make green
  • Blue and red make purple
  • Red, yellow, and blue together make brown

The more primary colors you mix together, the darker and murkier the brown shade becomes. Adding white will lighten the brown to make tans and beiges. Adding black will darken the brown into richer chocolates and coffee shades.

Different ratios of the primary colors result in an endless variety of brown hues. For example, mixing mostly red and yellow makes reddish browns, while blending mostly yellow and blue makes olive or greenish browns. The brightness or dullness of the individual primary colors used will also affect the tone of the finished brown.

Making Light Browns

Light brown shades like tan, beige, and cream can be made by mixing small amounts of the primary colors red, yellow, and blue.

Start with a white base and add very small amounts of 2-3 primary colors. Increase the red and yellow to make warm peachy beiges. Boost the blue and yellow to create cool, ashy tans. Here are some examples of light brown shades you can mix:

  • Add a tiny bit of red and yellow to white to make cream
  • Mix a speck of red, yellow, and blue into white for light tan
  • Add more yellow for warm sand colors
  • Use more blue for cool, mushroom browns

The more white you use in relation to the primaries, the lighter and softer the brown hue will be. Limit each primary to no more than a 20% proportion for light browns.

Creating Medium Browns

Medium shades of brown can be mixed by combining equal parts of the primary colors red, yellow, and blue.

Start with a neutral white, grey, or tan base. Then add the 3 primary colors in equal proportions, about 25-35% each. Adjust the amounts of each primary to create different brown variations:

  • More red and yellow for burnt sienna or orangeish browns
  • Increase yellow and blue for olive and mossy greens
  • Boost red and blue for plummy, red-violet browns

Avoid letting any one primary color dominate for rich, balanced medium browns. Adding a touch of black will also help mute and darken the brown.

Mixing Dark Browns

To make dark shades of brown, increase the proportions of the primary colors close to equal amounts while reducing the white or neutral base.

Here are some tips for blending deep, dark browns:

  • Start with a dark charcoal, grey, or black base
  • Add at least 30-40% of each primary – red, yellow, and blue
  • Reduce white to less than 20% of the mix
  • Add white, black, or complementary colors like orange and blue to adjust the tones

Using more saturated, intense primaries will also create deeper browns. Boost specific primaries to skew the color for a redder, yellower, or bluer dark brown.

Brown Shade Primary Color Mix
Mocha brown 60% red + 20% yellow + 20% blue
Chestnut brown 40% red + 40% yellow + 20% blue
Chocolate brown 33% red + 33% yellow + 33% blue

This table shows some examples of how to mix primaries to create different dark brown shades.

Using Brown Pigments and Paints

Premixed brown pigments and paints provide an easy shortcut for brown mixing:

  • Raw umber – Cool, greenish dark brown made from natural iron oxide pigment
  • Burnt umber – Reddish, rusty dark brown made by heating raw umber
  • Raw sienna – Warm medium reddish brown pigment
  • Burnt sienna – Darker, more intense reddish brown
  • Sepia – Neutral rich brown made from cuttlefish ink

You can mix these convenient browns with other colors like yellow, blue, white, and black to create custom brown shades.

Tinting Browns with White or Black

One easy way to vary brown shades is by tinting with white or black:

  • Tint – Mix brown with white to lighten the hue. Adding 10-40% white will make softer tans and beiges.
  • Shade – Combine brown with black to darken the color. Adding 10-30% black will create deeper chocolate browns.
  • Tone – Grey down intense browns by mixing with both white and black. This mutes the brightness for more subtle neutral browns.

Start with a premixed brown like burnt umber or raw sienna, then gradually add white to tint or black to shade until you achieve the desired new brown color.

Brown Color Mixing Recipes

Here are some example brown color mixing recipes to try with the primary colors red, yellow, and blue:

Brown Color Mixing Recipe
Cream 10% red + 10% yellow + 80% white
Beige 25% red + 30% yellow + 45% white
Rust 50% red + 35% yellow + 15% blue
Hazelnut 45% red + 30% yellow + 25% blue
Espresso 35% red + 35% yellow + 30% blue + 20% black

Feel free to adjust the primary color ratios as needed to obtain the exact brown tones you want. Having a range of brown hues will expand your color mixing palette.

Using Complementary Colors to Neutralize Browns

The color wheel opposite brown is blue. Adding blue to brown will dull and neutralize the shade for more sophisticated, greyed browns.

Try mixing in the complement blue to create:

  • Muted clay browns
  • Dusty taupes
  • Smokey charcoal browns

Start with a base brown like burnt sienna or raw umber. Then blend in small amounts of blue (no more than 30%) until you achieve a more refined, neutral brown.


Brown may seem like a boring, mundane color at first. But with the right mix of primary colors, you can enliven and enrich brown to create elegantly earthy hues.

Remember these tips when learning how to mix different shades of brown:

  • Use red, yellow and blue as your primary color building blocks
  • Add more red and yellow for warm browns
  • Boost blue and yellow for cool, greenish browns
  • Increase all 3 primaries equally for rich, dark browns
  • Lighten up with white to make beiges and tans
  • Shade down with black for deeper chocolate hues
  • Gray it down with blue as a neutral complement

Mastering a spectrum of brown tones will give your color mixing skills more depth and dimension. Whether you’re painting a landscape, designing a website, or choosing interior decor colors, put these brown blending techniques to work!