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Symbolic Meaning of the Color Brown

Brown is a color that’s all around us, found literally everywhere in nature – trees, animals, the soil. Perhaps this is why people associate the color so much with safety and security. However, though we take it for granted and don’t realize it’s importance, it plays a big role in our lives.

Let’s take a closer look at the history of the color brown, what it symbolizes and how it’s been used throughout history.

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History of the Color Brown

It’s difficult to say exactly when the color brown first came into existence but evidence has shown that it’s been quite popular and used for artwork since prehistoric times. The earliest brown pigment used for paintings was ‘umber’, a reddish-brown or natural brown pigment made of clay that contained iron and manganese oxide. Umber, which dates back to 40,000 B.C., was much darker than sienna and ochre, other similar earth pigments.

Use in France

There are many animal paintings to be seen on the Lascaux cave walls, all of which were brown and date back to about 17,300 years. Brown was actually hated by French impressionists because they preferred brighter and purer colors but later on its status changed and it became more popular.

Use in Egypt

Use of brown ancient Egypt
Use of Brown in Egyptian Paintings

The ancient Egyptians used umber to paint female figures on the walls of their tombs. They had interesting painting techniques and ways of making the paints, such as mixing the colors in a binder so they would stick to the plaster or the surface that was being painted. They also had other ways of making the paint, like mixing the ground pigment with animal glue or vegetable gums so that it would be workable and would fix fast to the surface.

Use in Greece

The Ancient Greeks used umber and lightened it up to paint on Greek vases and amphora (two-handled vessels used as storage jars and one of the most important types of vessels in Greek pottery). They used the light tan color as a background to pain black figures on, or vice versa.

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The ancient Greeks also made a reddish-brown type of ink called sepia, derived from the ink sac of Sepia, the common cuttlefish. The ink gained popularity quickly and was used by famous artists such as Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci during the Renaissance period. Some artists still use it today.

Use in Rome

The Ancient Romans also produced and used sepia just like the Greeks. They had brown clothing which was associated with barbarians or lower classes. The upper classes preferred to ignore those wearing brown since it was associated with poverty.

Use in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

Fransiscan monks brown robes
Dark Brown Franciscan Robes

During the Middle Ages, the monks of the Fransiscan order worn brown robes which was symbolic of their poverty and humility. Every social class had to wear a color that was considered suitable for their station and brown was the color of the poor.  

The English used wool to make a coarse homespun cloth called russet, dyed with madder and woad to give it a brownish shade. They were required to wear clothes made from this material in 1363.

During this time, dark brown pigments were hardly ever used in art. Artists preferred distinct, bright colors like blue, red and green rather than dull or dark colors. Therefore, umber ceased to become as popular as it was before by the end of the 15th century.

The late 15th century saw a greater increase in the use of brown with the arrival of oil painting. There were four different browns to choose from:

  • Raw umber – a dark brown clay which was mined in Umbria, Italy
  • Raw sienna – mined near Tuscany
  • Burnt umber – this was made by heating Umbrian clay to the point where it turned darker
  • Burnt sienna – made just like burnt umber, this pigment got its dark reddish brown color by being heated until it changed color.

Later on, in Northern Europe, a painter by the name of Jan van Eyck used rich earthy browns in his paintings which set off brighter colors perfectly.

Use in the 17th and 18th Centuries

In the 17th and 18th centuries, brown became popular and ubiquitous. Rembrandt Van Rijn loved to use the color to produce chiaroscuro effects and he also incorporated umber into his paintings since it made them dry out faster. Apart from umber, Rembrandt also started to use a new pigment called Cologn earth or Cassel earth. The pigment had a natural earthy color and was made of over 90% organic matter like peat and soil.

Brown in Modern Times

Today, the color brown has turned into a symbol for things that are inexpensive, natural, simple and healthy. People used brown paper bags to carry their lunches and brown paper to wrap packages. Brown sugar and bread are considered healthier and more natural. Like green, brown is a symbol of nature and simplicity.

What Does the Color Brown Symbolize?

Brown is a warm color that represents health, healing, grounding and wholesomeness. Said to be one of the least favorite colors, brown is mostly associated with poverty, plainness and the rustic. Since brown is the color of the earth, its often associated with security, safety and resilience.

Brown is natural. When the color brown is combined with green, it creates a palette that’s frequently used to portray the concepts of nature and of recycling. It’s an earth-friendly and all-natural color.

Brown symbolizes the earth. Brown is also the color of the Earth which makes it nurturing and comforting to many people. It represents reliability and approachability. It’s the color of fertility.

Brown is serious. Brown is a down-to-earth, serious color that signifies structure, stability and support.  It’s also symbolic of material security as well as the gathering of material possessions.

Brown isn’t a glamorous color. You won’t find many celebrities dressed in brown dresses or many fashion statements made in brown.

Variations of the Color Brown – Symbolism

Shades of brown
  • Beige: beige is a light hue of brown and symbolizes conservativeness, reliability and practicality. It also symbolizes stability and loyalty.
  • Ivory: while you may have thought that ivory is entirely white, it actually fits into the category of brown. Ivory is a calming, highly sophisticated color.  
  • Light brown: this shade represents honestly, sincerity and friendliness.
  • Tan: this hue of brown symbolizes nature and simplicity. It’s also said to be a timeless and ageless color.
  • Dark brown: dark brown can be a depressing, sad and yet strong color. Some say that this color is materialistic while also being prudent.

Positive and Negative Aspects of the Color Brown

Brown, like most colors, have both positive and negative aspects which can have an impact on people’s feelings and behaviour. On the positive side, the color brown has the ability to evoke a sense of reliability and strength in a person. It brings to the mind feelings of comfort, warmth and security and is usually described as a humble, conventional and natural color, while also being highly sophisticated.

However, the color brown also has its negatives. Too much of it can create feelings of sadness, isolation and loneliness, making you feel like you’re in an empty desert that’s completely devoid of life. It can be depressing and when surrounded by darker shades of the color, you’re likely to experience increasingly negative emotions. Too much of brown, even in different shades can also cause boredom and gloominess.

Therefore, one should be extremely careful when using brown in decorating, since it should be used sparingly. While brown is nurturing and energetic, it should be balanced carefully with other colors to avoid negative effects such as lack of drive and motivation. 

Symbolism of Brown in Different Cultures

Brown isn’t a highly significant color in most cultures in terms of symbolism, unlike colors such as red, blue or black. Here’s how brown has been used in certain cultures. 

  • In India the color brown, just like white, is the color of mourning.
  • In Chinese culture, brown represents the earth and is strongly associated with being fertile, grounded and industrious. It was also used by the Song Dynasty as the Imperial Color.
  • The Europeans view brown as an earthy color, associated with barrenness or health.
  • In North America, brown is a commonly used color for packaging and food containers. Stable, wholesome and dependable.
  • In South America, brown has the exact opposite effect of what it represents in North America. Here, people who work in sales are encouraged not to use brown since it has shown disappointing results.

Personality Color Brown – What It Means

Personality color brown

If you find that you’re attracted to the color brown, you may have a personality color brown. It might surprise you to know that all people who love brown have certain common character traits.  

  • People who love brown tend to be down-to-earth, wholesome and honest. They have both their feet planted firmly in the ground.
  • They’re genuine, friendly and easily approachable.
  • They make trustworthy and loyal friends who are also extremely dependable and supportive.
  • Personality color browns are warm, supportive and sensual.
  • Other people tend to be comfortable in the presence of a personality color brown and they might find it easier to open up to them.
  • People who love brown are quite contemplative. They like to spend time working out certain problems and then become entirely absorbed in the problem until they come up with a solution for it.
  • They don’t like losing control over a situation, but they’ll work really hard to change any situation that seems unfair or unjust.

The Use of Brown in Fashion and Jewelry

Brown jewelry

Brown is a classy and sophisticated color that many designers are incorporating into clothing and jewelry. In the past, it was primarily seen as drab and unfashionable, but today, brown is slowly becoming popular in the fashion world.

Brown is also used extensively in rustic and vintage weddings, proving to be one of the easiest wedding colors to deal with. Brown works well with most skin tones, but tends to flatter warm skin tones best. This is because it’s an earthy color which works well with the warm undertones of the skin.  

In terms of brown gemstones, some popular options are:

  • Brown diamonds
  • Brown tourmaline
  • Darker shades of citrine
  • Smoky quartz
  • Cat’s eye apatite
  • Fire agate

In Brief

The color brown is now a much more popular and respected color unlike in the past. It’s a grounded and stable color that provides relaxation and warmth, provided that it’s not overused.

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Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.