The colour brown: boring or eloquent?

A small town in eastern Ontario changing into its fall clothing

Brown is a September colour; it always makes me think of ‘back-to-school’, of walnuts and chestnuts on the ground, the bindings of books, tree leaves changing to tan and rust and fluttering off branches to dance on the wind.

I don’t think brown gets enough respect. While it’s not flashy, it carries so many qualities – richness, comfort, earthiness, depth.

Decades ago, when my hubby and I bought our house and tried to develop our personal style, I turned to all the decorating magazines I liked to read for help. Without any analysis, I simply cut out photos of rooms that appealed to me, and after I’d compiled an assortment, what I discovered was that every single one of them was done in earth tones and natural textures. While I enjoyed small splashes of colour, in artwork or decorative pieces, the rooms that I wanted to live in were calm, nature-toned sanctuaries.

Earth tones don’t have to be boring or monochromatic. There are so many different shades and textures – the grain in a beautiful piece of wood, whether polished to glow softly under lights or left in its natural form with all its knots and personality; a beautiful beige or taupe leather sofa; the light-and-shadow weave of wicker and rattan.

Calming, soft brown tones in a hotel bedroom

As a writer, brown is so evocative that it might only need a single word to describe something – think ‘chocolate’, ‘coffee’, ‘sand’, ‘fawn’, ‘mahogany’…

If you’re not on the same page yet, I promise that by the end of this post I’ll have you convinced of what a gorgeous colour brown really is.

According to public opinion surveys in the United States and Europe, brown is people’s least favorite colour, sadly. It’s often associated with plainness, poverty and rusticity, even though it’s widely seen in nature – soil, wood, autumn leaves, wildlife.

In Ancient Rome, brown clothing was associated with the lower classes, and with barbarians (anyone the Romans considered uncivilized and in need of conquering). Brown would have been the cheapest colour to produce for clothing, either in the material itself – in those times, clothing was made from animal skins, tree bark, large leaves, and eventually cotton, flax, linen, wool, all of which are naturally shades of beige/brown – or the easy-to-produce brown plant dyes. Producing colourful clothing, especially the famed ‘royal purple’, was considerably more expensive. And so, the Roman name for the poor in the city was pullati, i.e. “those dressed in brown”.

In the Middle Ages, each social class was expected to wear a color that matched its station – for the poor, it was grey or brown (as if being poor wasn’t bad enough in itself, they had to wear their status around all day). Brown robes were worn by monks as a sign of their humility and poverty. In 1363 there was even a statute requiring poor English people to wear a coarse homespun cloth made of wool, which was dyed with pigments from the woad and madder plants to give it a dull brown or grey shade called “russet”.

The magnificent wood-clad Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland

For some reason there seemed to be a disconnect between the beauties of nature, of lavish brown animal furs that edged the clothing of the aristocracy, and of the rich browns of wooden furniture and architecture, and the brown colours that meant poverty. My hubby and I have visited many mansions in various parts of the world, where magnificent carvings and furniture in brown-toned woods illustrate the great wealth of the inhabitants. Maybe the dichotomy was as simple as the contrast between the carved and polished wood and the dirt and mud that the poor lived in – refinement vs crudity.

Brown as a manufactured colour has a fascinating history.

It’s been used in art since prehistoric times, mainly made with umber, a natural clay pigment that’s one of the oldest tints in history. Paintings using umber have been dated to 40,000 BC.

Clay ovens in New Mexico, called ‘horno’, bake really well and are enjoying a renaissance

The Ancient Greeks and Romans also produced a fine reddish-brown ink, made from the ink of cuttlefish, called sepia. This ink was used by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and other artists during the Renaissance, and by artists up until the present time.

However, in the Middle Ages, dark brown pigments were rarely used in art; painters and manuscript illuminators preferred bright, distinct colors such as red, blue, green and gold. With the advent of oil painting in the late 15th century, artists began making far greater use of browns. During the Renaissance, artists generally used four different brown pigments: raw umber, raw sienna (a reddish-brown earth mined near Siena, in Tuscany), burnt umber, made by heating Umbrian clay until it turned a darker shade, and burnt sienna, heated for the same effect.

In the 17th and 18th century artists really got into creating chiaroscuro effects, where the subject of a painting popped against a dark background – an effect they created using shades of brown.

At a Chinese Lantern Festival in Nashville, TN, glorious shades of brown enhance the other brilliant colours in the displays

Over the centuries, brown has been treated fickly by the masses. In the late 20th century, for example, brown became a common symbol in western culture for ‘simple and inexpensive’, as in brown paper lunch bags. Conversely, bleached white bread was seen as better quality than its ‘poorer’ cousin, brown bread.

Today, in our health-conscious era, the colour brown represents wholesomeness and naturalness – wholegrain brown breads are trendy, and natural unbleached sugar is available everywhere. (I also much prefer the flavour of organic, brown-coloured sugar that still contains its natural molasses – it actually tastes like something, as opposed to the bland sweetness of refined white sugar.)

Mouth-watering freshly baked bread at a farm market in Ireland

Brown is the predominant human and animal eye color in the world, coming from a dominant gene. Other colours like blue, for example, are from a recessive gene, which means that if a baby receives a blue gene from one parent and a brown gene from the other, the brown will dominate and the child’s eyes will be brown. The brown gene became dominant because it conferred an evolutionary benefit: the excess melanin that causes brown irises protects the eyes from sunlight. As a result, brown eyes have been more common in warmer, sunnier climates.

In human hair, brown is actually the second most common color, after black. Although other eye and hair colours tend to stand out more, some of the most famously attractive people in the world are brown-haired and eyed – Sophia Loren, Clark Gable, Catherine Zeta-Jones. (Elizabeth Taylor had brown hair, but was legendary for her violet eyes.)

A large number of mammals and predatory birds have a brown coloration that’s most likely used for camouflage, since many environments, like the savannah or a forest floor, are brown and green. Most mammals are ‘dichromats’ (they have only two kinds of photo-receptors in their eyes instead of three like humans do) and can’t easily distinguish something like brown fur from green grass. Of course, this also works for the prey, as when snowshoe hares change colour from white to brown when spring arrives.

Cheetahs on the prowl in Kenya blend into their multi-textured brown surroundings

The shades of brown in the animal kingdom are varied and beautiful, from the sleek golden-tan colour of lions to the ruddy brown of a majestic reticulated giraffe to the furry coats of colder-climate mammals. Sadly, for most of these animals, their lovely hides made them collectible commodities that decimated their populations, but fortunately a few decades ago people began to take a stand against killing animals just for their skins. With animal-spotting trips increasing in popularity across the planet, we now have a thriving culture of capturing memories with a camera instead of a rifle.

A Kenyan Reticulated Giraffe is resplendent in the morning sunlight

Brown as camouflage has also been embraced by humans. The colour buff dates back to the 17th century, and was named after the undyed buffalo leather that soldiers at the time wore for protection. It’s a common colour in nature, like the sands of many deserts. Shades of brown became a popular color for military uniforms – widely available and blending well into outdoor landscapes.

In 1775, at the outbreak of the American Revolution, the first Continental Congress wanted the official uniform color to be brown, but in many militias the officers were already wearing blue and in 1778 George Washington was asked to design a new uniform. He ended up making the official color of all uniforms blue and buff.

Similarly, in British-ruled India, 19th century soldiers wore a yellowish shade of tan, which became known as khaki from the Urdu word for dust-colored. The color was adopted by the British Army for their Abyssinian Campaign and then in the Boer War, and the United States Army followed suit, as well as the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.

Shots of Bushmills Irish Whiskey, made for over 400 years, perhaps gave solace to British soldiers far away from home

The colours of tan, khaki and brown also became associated with adventure. In 1909 former U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt led, on behalf of the Smithsonian, a massive safari to British East Africa (now Kenya), the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) and up the Nile to Khartoum in Sudan. The expedition made headlines around the world, and both the colours of Africa (browns and rusts of the animals, the sandy landscape) and the tan/khaki clothing that Roosevelt and his party wore became synonymous with heading to exotic places.

Yours truly in safari clothes in Zambia, sitting at the edge of Victoria Falls

Those colour associations became cemented in the Indiana Jones movies – Indy’s iconic clothing, and the entire setting of the first film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, from the cave and boulder in South America to the classrooms and libraries of the university where he was a professor to Marion’s bar in Tibet to the deserts of Egypt and craggy rocks of Malta. Indiana Jones-themed décor invariably includes all the colours of his outfits and escapades.

Indiana Jones-themed decor at a college event

In the marketing world, brown represents ruggedness – probably an extension of the adventure concept. The United Parcel Service (UPS) delivery company has trademarked the colour Pullman Brown for their trucks and uniforms. The colour was formerly used for the luxurious Pullman rail cars during the Golden Age of Travel, and was chosen by UPS both for that association of a high-end product (and because brown is easy to keep clean).

In culinary circles, so many delicious foods are shades of brown – your morning cup of coffee, the comforting and autumnal cinnamon spice, chocolate in its many variations… We bake our bread to have a beautiful golden-brown crust, and toast our bread to give it a lovely brown colour and extra flavour. We cook sugar over high heat to create rich, sweet caramel. We sauté onions to caramelize the sugars they hold and make them extra scrumptious, or we coat them in fluffy batter and deep-fry them for a crusty golden coating. Seared meat, potato chips and French fries, the crispy brownness of cheese under the broiler – the list goes on and on.

Banana bread pudding with rich caramel sauce, Portrush, Ireland

Being surrounded by nature is very soothing and refreshing for the spirit, and I particularly love everything brown, from the pungent scent of good soil to the textured bark of trees to the different kinds of rock surfaces.

A tiny island in the 1000 Islands chain in the St. Lawrence River

Inside my home, the walls, floors and most of the furniture are all in shades of brown and cream. Usually the first comment people make to us when they visit is how relaxed they feel in our spaces. We have a squashy sofa and loveseat in our living room in a distressed leather that looks like grey-brown elephant skin, which fits perfectly with our travel vibe. But the overall impression is one of comfort and serenity, which comes from the colours of nature and all the woodsy textures we have. I wish I could grow plants to add to the ambience, but even my thumb is brown as opposed to green.

I’ve never been able to manage perfectly-cut tea sandwiches, but these still hit the spot

When I’m sitting and writing, reading a good book or watching an intriguing murder mystery on television, my beverage of choice is a cup of steaming, amber-coloured tea. I had no idea how wonderful proper tea was until my hubby and I had it in England – at a tearoom on a street near Windsor Castle, on a damp and chilly day. Our server brought out cups rich in aroma and flavour, like nothing we’d ever had in Canada at that time. (That was when I became addicted to high-quality tea, both the culture and the wide world of different varieties and tastes – and the excuse to have delightful sweets.)

Far from being boring, brown is one of the great colours of history. It may not be a rare colour, and it doesn’t jump out at us visually, but it has so much depth and nuance. Let’s give it the recognition it deserves, as it warms us, soothes our souls, houses us richly, clothes us elegantly and feeds us well. And in a few weeks we can become children again for a while as we romp through piles of crackly brown fallen leaves!

Shuffling through fallen leaves on a gorgeous fall day
Stunning formations in Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico
Breathtaking browns and greys against a piercing blue sky in the Andes mountains in Peru

All photos in this post were taken by the author, or are in her collection, and none may be used without my express permission. E. Jurus.

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