Umber is a natural brown pigment that has been used in art and design for centuries. The name comes from the Latin word umbra, meaning shadow or shade. Umber pigments are derived from iron oxide-rich clay deposits, particularly those found around the Italian city of Umbria. When the clay is roasted, it produces a rich, warm, brownish pigment known for its exceptional color permanence and covering strength.
The origins and history of umber pigments
The use of umber in art can be traced back to prehistory. Primitive paintings found in caves across Europe were often executed in shades of brown ochre and umber. During the Renaissance, umber became a popular pigment for panel and fresco painting. Old Masters like Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Velázquez all used umber to create deep shadows and naturalistic flesh tones.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, umber pigment was widely exported from Italy to Northern Europe where it was used extensively for oil painting. The Dutch Golden Age painters mixed umber with lead white to achieve subtle tonal gradations. Umber also became an important pigment for watercolor landscape painting in England.
Today, natural umber pigment is still produced in Umbria, Italy by calcining raw umber earth. However, most commercial umber pigments are synthetic iron oxide pigments formulated to resemble natural umber. These synthetic umbers offer improved permanence and tinting strength compared to the natural pigment.
The properties of umber pigments
Umber is valued for its granulating texture, transparency, and neutral brown undertone. It sits between the warm, red tones of sienna and the cooler black-browns of ochre. This versatility makes umber useful for shading, glazing and mixing flesh tones.
Natural umber straight from the mine is more yellowish brown. When calcined at high temperatures, it darkens to a richer, redder brown known as burnt umber. Burnt umber offers better lightfastness than raw umber.
Umber pigments have excellent opacity and covering power. They are darker in masstone but transmit light well in glazes. lower in chroma than synthetic organic browns.
Due to their iron oxide composition, both raw and burnt umber are highly permanent pigments. They have good resistance to light and alkaline conditions.
Types of umber pigment
There are three grades of umber pigment available:
- Raw umber – A natural or synthetic iron oxide pigment ranging from yellowish to greenish brown.
- Burnt umber – A darker, redder brown made by calcining raw umber pigment. It has better permanence.
- Vandyke brown – A semi-transparent, reddish brown pigment that mimics the umbers used by Old Master painters. Modern Vandyke brown is made from a mix of synthetic iron oxide pigments.
Within these categories, umber pigments may be formulated from different sources of iron oxide:
- Natural umber – Derived from umber earth deposits in Umbria, Italy.
- Sicilian umber – Made from clay deposits on the Italian island of Sicily.
- Cyprus umber – Mined from Cyprus and distinguished by its greenish tint.
- Synthetic umber – Made by combining synthetic iron oxides to mimic natural umber.
Uses of umber pigment
Thanks to its neutral undertone and excellent tinting strength, umber has many uses across different media.
In oil and acrylic painting, umber is used for:
- Toning grounds
- Glazing and scumbling
- Naturalistic flesh tones and hair
- Shading black, white and earth tones
- Lowlights and contours
Umber’s characteristic granulating texture enhances the visual depth and interest of painted works.
The transparency of umber pigment makes it ideal for watercolor techniques like wet-on-wet and glazing. Umber creates:
- Rich, luminous shadows
- Natural tree bark and rock textures
- Background washes
- Lowlights and cast shadows to shape forms
Colored pencil and pastel
Umber is useful for colored pencil drawing to:
- Blend and shade skin tones
- Add neutral warmth to mixes
- Deepen shadows
- Draw hair and fur textures
In pastel painting, umber creates subtle undertones and shadow contours.
Printmaking and paper
In etching and lithography, umber ink yields deep rich brown tones on paper. Umber is also used as a neutral, archival dye for textiles and paper.
Umber pigments lend a flattering, warm undertone to cosmetic products like eyeshadows, lipsticks and skin powders.
Umber pigment mixes
Umber combines beautifully with a wide variety of colors. Here are some examples of umber mixes and their effects:
|Umber + Ultramarine Blue||Neutral grays and greys|
|Umber + Burnt Sienna||Rich neutral earth tones|
|Umber + Yellow Ochre||Olive greens|
|Umber + Titanium White||Flesh tones|
|Umber + Ivory Black||Dark neutrals – softened black|
|Umber + Cadmium Red||Deep rusty reds|
Umber’s characteristic granulation can be used to visual effect when mixed into fluid acrylics and watercolors.
Substitutes for umber pigment
There are a few alternative brown pigments that can be used in place of umber:
- Raw sienna – Less opaque than umber with more yellow undertone.
- Burnt sienna – Darker, more transparent red-brown than raw sienna.
- Yellow ochre – Much warmer and lighter than umber with low tinting strength.
- Sepia – Cool, dark grayish brown made from cuttlefish ink.
- Carbon black or ivory black – Pure black pigments that can darken mixes.
Blending these pigments together can allow artists to mix a wide range of umber hues and intensities. However, no single pigment offers all the same properties as natural umber pigment.
Umber endures as one of the most widely useful brown pigments, cherished for its neutrality, granulation, and excellent shadowing properties. While synthetic umber has largely replaced natural umber, this humble iron-rich pigment continues to be a staple of every artist’s palette.