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What color do red and yellow make brown?

What color do red and yellow make brown?

The colors red and yellow are both primary colors. When combined, they make the secondary color orange. However, mixing red and yellow pigments results in a brownish hue that many call “brown”. In this article, we’ll explore how combining red and yellow makes brown, look at the color theory behind it, and examine why the resulting mixture may not always look purely orange.

How Red and Yellow Make Brown

On the basic color wheel used by artists and designers, the primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. Secondary colors like orange, green, and purple are made by mixing two primary colors. For example:

Red + Yellow = Orange
Yellow + Blue = Green
Blue + Red = Purple

So in theory, mixing red and yellow should make orange. However, when actually blending red and yellow pigments, the result is often a muddy, brownish color rather than a bright orange.

This is because real-world pigments don’t perfectly match the hues on the color wheel. Red pigments contain traces of blue and yellow pigments contain traces of red. When blended, these undertones neutralize the brightness of the resulting color.

Red ochre and yellow ochre are two pigments that exhibit this. Ochres are natural clay earth pigments that have been used since ancient times. When red ochre and yellow ochre are mixed together, they make a brownish orange hue. Other red and yellow pigment combinations produce similar results.

So while red and yellow are theoretically complementary colors that should mix to make orange, blending real-world red and yellow pigments results in the darker, browner secondary color we call “brown”.

The Color Theory Behind Red, Yellow, and Brown

The color theory behind how red and yellow make brown has to do with the properties of light. Red, yellow, and orange are colors located next to each other on the light spectrum. When red and yellow light mix, the result is orange light.

However, pigment mixing differs from light mixing. Pigments contain a full spectrum of colors from light and dark wavelengths. The trace colors present in red and yellow pigments muddle the resulting color when blended.

Modern color theory uses the RGB (red, green, blue) and CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) color models. In RGB, red and yellow light combine to make orange. In CMYK, the absence of cyan and magenta ink results in yellow, while removing cyan and yellow ink makes red. Blending yellow and magenta ink produces a reddish orange.

So why does combining yellow and red pigment make brown? It comes down to the physics of absorption and reflection. Pigments absorb some wavelengths of light and reflect others. The reflected light is the color we see. Red ochre absorbs blue, green, and yellow light and reflects back red. Yellow ochre absorbs blue and violet light and reflects yellow. When combined, the mix of absorptions muddies the reflected light into a brownish color.

Thus, while red and yellow are complementary colors, mixing real-world pigments results in the darker brown hue because of the trace colors present in the pigments and the light wavelengths they absorb. This color mixing principle applies to paints, dyes, inks, and other pigmented materials.

Why Isn’t the Mix Pure Orange?

Given the color theory behind red, yellow, and orange, you may be wondering why mixing red and yellow pigments doesn’t produce a pure, bright orange. There are a few reasons why the resulting color is usually not a vivid orange:

– Impure pigments – Natural ochres and other earth pigments contain mineral traces that modify the hues. Synthetic pigments also have biases.

– Undertones – As mentioned, red pigments contain yellow traces and vice versa. These modify the undertones.

– Light absorption – The range of wavelengths absorbed muddies the reflected orange light.

– Dye strength – Pigment strength and concentration affects color mixing. Weak dyes mix to a pale brown.

– Paint opacity – More opaque paints blend darker than translucent paints. Opaque mixes result in browner shades.

– Surface color – The color of the surface underneath affects the perceived color. White surfaces yield brighter mixes than black.

– Texture – Matte textures scatter light, absorbing more wavelengths and darkening the mix compared to glossy surfaces.

– Proportions – The exact ratio of red to yellow changes the brown tone. More red yields a reddish brown, more yellow makes a yellowish brown.

– Color perception – The human eye perceives color differently depending on lighting conditions, surrounding colors, and optical illusions.

So in summary, while red and yellow theoretically combine to make orange, mixing pigments does not result in a perfect orange for a variety of reasons relating to the physical properties and limitations of real-world materials and human color perception. This explains why combining red and yellow yields the range of muddied hues we refer to as “brown”.

Examples of Red and Yellow Mixing to Make Brown

Here are some examples of common red and yellow pigment combinations that mix to make different shades of brown:

– Red ochre + yellow ochre = brown ochre
– Vermilion + lemon yellow = tan
– Carmine + aureolin = burnt umber
– Madder lake + cadmium yellow = raw sienna
– Alizarin crimson + nickel yellow = sepia

The resulting brown depends on the exact hue of the constituent red and yellow pigments used. But in all cases, the combination yields a brownish shade rather than pure orange due to the color theory principles outlined earlier.

Here are some examples of red and yellow mixing to make brown in real-world contexts:

– Oil paints – Blending red and yellow oil paints results in earthy, muted browns. Red oxide and yellow oxide are commonly mixed.

– Acrylic paints – Acrylic artists’ paints produce browns when cadmium red and cadmium yellow hues combine.

– Watercolor paints – Watercolor pigments also mix red and yellow to make various brown tones. This can be seen blending gamboge and alizarin crimsons.

– Printer inks – Mixing magenta and yellow printer inks produces a brownish red-orange color, as opposed to a bright orange.

– Textile dyes – Combining red and yellow dyes to dye fabric yields shades of brown. This effect is used to naturally dye fabrics brown.

– Food coloring – Mixing red and yellow food dye does not make orange food coloring. Instead, the combination results in a brownish hue.

So in many real-world situations where colored materials are blended, combining red and yellow results in brown. The trace colors and impurities present in the pigments mix together to form the muted brown tones.

The Science of Red, Yellow, and Brown Pigments

On a microscopic level, here is what is happening when red and yellow pigments combine to make brown:

– Red pigment particles predominantly reflect long red light wavelengths (~700 nm) while absorbing other colors.

– Yellow pigments particles predominantly reflect longer yellow wavelengths (~570 nm) while absorbing blue and violet light.

– When combined randomly, the reflected red and yellow light mix additively to produce orange light (~610 nm).

– However, there is incomplete absorption leading to a mix of multiple wavelengths being reflected, desaturating the orange color.

– The combination of reflected wavelengths in the range of 570-700 nm is perceived as various brownish tones by the human eye and brain.

– Brown is not a spectral color with its own wavelength. Rather, it is the result of mixed wavelengths without a dominant hue.

– The molecular composition, concentration, and random mixing of microparticles determines the exact shades of brown produced.

So in summary:

– Red + Yellow should = Orange (in theory)

– But Red pigments + Yellow pigments = Browns (in practice)

– Because the pigment particles reflect overlapping reddish-orangish-yellowish wavelengths of light.

– And these mixed wavelengths are perceived as muddied browns rather than a pure orange color.

Uses of Red and Yellow Mixing to Create Browns

While mixing red and yellow pigments does not yield a vivid orange, the blending of red and yellow to create browns is useful for many purposes:

– Mixing paints – Artists mix red and yellow paints to generate a full spectrum of browns for painting and shading.

– Dyeing fabrics – Combining red and yellow dyes is a traditional method to naturally dye fabrics brown and tan.

– Coloring plastics & polymers – Mixing red and yellow colored polymers creates brown plastic products and parts.

– Making cosmetics – Eye shadows, lipsticks, and powders containing both red and yellow pigments take on brown and peach hues.

– Formulating paints & coatings – Adding red and yellow iron oxide pigments allows formulating a range of brown exterior paints and stains.

– Cooking & baking – Blending red, yellow, and orange food ingredients results in brown flavors, as seen in spices, sauces, and breads.

– Printing & photography – Layering magenta and yellow inks enables printing the full range of brown tones in images and photos.

So while an impure orange results from combining red and yellow, the blending is useful for producing the range of brown, beige, tan, taupe, and similar earthy colors across many fields. The brown tones add warmth, definition, and depth to otherwise bright compositions.

Cultural Meanings of Red, Yellow, and Brown

Interestingly, various cultures and time periods have associated symbolic meanings to the colors red, yellow, and brown:

Color Meaning
Red Love, passion, danger
Yellow Joy, happiness, cowardice
Brown Earth, nature, poverty

Some of these associations stem from the origins of historic brown pigments:

– Red ochre from iron-rich clay signified blood, war, and sacrifice.

– Yellow ochre from mineral limonite symbolized sun, harvest, and optimism.

– When mixed, brown ochre represented earth, soil, and the natural world.

Today brown continues to embody nature, authenticity, and organic life. Mixing red and yellow reflects bringing together complementary opposites – passion and joy, danger and hope. When combined they form the harmonious balance of the earth beneath our feet.


In summary, while red and yellow are primary colors that theoretically mix to form orange, combining pure reds and yellows is elusive with real-world pigments. The trace colors present in pigment particles, the physics of light absorption, and random mixing result in brownish hues rather than pure orange. However, this “imperfection” is useful for producing the array of earthy browns needed for painting, dyeing, cosmetics, manufacturing, printing, and more. And brown carries cultural meanings evoking nature, antiquity, and the fundamental hues of life on Earth. So while the youthful colors red and yellow don’t create their offspring orange through pigment mixing, their union still reflects the grounded tones of our shared human experience.