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Is terracotta more red or brown?

Terracotta is a type of clay that is known for its distinctive reddish-orange color. But is this clay hue actually more red or more brown? The answer lies in examining the properties of terracotta, including its pigments, firing process, and use in art and architecture over time.

The Color Spectrum of Terracotta

Terracotta clay gets its signature color primarily from iron oxide, a pigment also known as rust. Iron oxide occurs naturally in clay deposits and produces shades of red, brown, orange, and yellow when fired at high temperatures. The amount of iron oxide and the firing temperature impact the final color of terracotta.

On the color wheel, terracotta’s hue falls between red and brown. It shares qualities of both but cannot be defined as strictly one or the other. The exact shade can range from a vibrant orange-red to a more muted reddish-brown. Lighter, more iron-rich clays produce terracottas on the red end of the spectrum. Clays with less iron oxide result in browner terracottas.

The Firing Process

The firing process is key to bringing out terracotta’s distinct color. Clay begins as a grayish color. When fired in a kiln at temperatures between 930-1050°C (1700-1925°F), the iron oxide chemically transforms and brings out the red-orange color.

Higher firing temperatures cause more oxidation of the clay, resulting in a deeper, richer red. Lower temperatures produce more subtle, brownish orange hues. A fast firing can also make the terracotta turn brown versus red.

The length of time clay is fired affects its porosity. Less porous terracottas formed through longer firing tend to be more red. More porous, shorter-fired bricks have brownish tones.

Historical Use in Art and Architecture

The reddish-brown tones of terracotta have been utilized since ancient times in art and architecture across the world:

Culture Terracotta Use
Ancient Greek Figurines, roof tiles
Etruscan Decorative plaques, sarcophagi
Roman Pottery, statues
Mesoamerican Statues, urns, votive figures
Chinese Sculpture, architecture
Indian Temple carvings, pottery

The hue of terracotta used in antiquity tends to be more on the red/orange end of the spectrum. This is likely due to the high-temperature wood-burning kilns and longer firing times used by ancient potters and brickmakers.

Terracotta in Modern Architecture

Terracotta continues to be an important material in architecture today. Modern production techniques allow more variation in both color and finish.

Bricks and roof tiles tend to be more reddish-orange, owing to high-temperature industrial kilns. The color evokes terracotta’s traditional roots in ancient architectural ceramics.

Matte terracotta panels and cladding are darker, earthier brownish-reds. The muted tones provide a natural, low-maintenance facade material for modern buildings.

Factors Affecting Color Perception

The exact shade of terracotta, whether perceived as red or brown, can depend on a variety of optical factors:

  • Lighting conditions – terracotta appears more red in bright sunlight, more brown in shade
  • Background colors – Warm backgrounds like cream accentuate the redness, while cool grays bring out the brown
  • Texture – Smoother terracottas look redder, rougher ones seem browner
  • Age and weathering – Over time, terracotta’s color loses vibrancy and becomes more brown
  • Impurities in the clay – High mineral content results in browner hues

So in different settings, the same terracotta piece can skew slightly more red or more brown. The color exists somewhere between the two, with overlapping qualities of both.


While terracotta occupies a place between red and brown on the color wheel, it cannot be defined as strictly one or the other. Its signature reddish-orange hue is influenced by factors such as clay composition, firing techniques, use and context over time. Brighter, high-fired terracottas tend to be more red, while matte, weathered examples appear browner. But the interplay of red and brown tones gives terracotta its characteristic warmth and earthy appeal.