The color of earth, wood, and stone, brown is a stabilizing and warm color with the ability to bring a grounded naturalism to designs. Pick up pro tips on how to design and decorate using the color brown in this complete guide.

Considered by some as dull, in the right context brown can be a beautiful and elegant color choice, provoking feelings of warmth, honesty, and connectedness with nature. It is also proven to stimulate appetite, which makes it a serious contender for food branding projects.

Read on to discover the theory, symbology, and history of the color brown, as well as how to use brown to create cutting-edge schemes that are warm, inviting, and wholesome.

How to Design With Brown: Color Theory, Symbolism, and On-Trend Palettes — Rustic Designs
Image by contributor Bogdan Sonjachnyj.

Skip to the end of the article to discover three on-trend brown color palettes to use in your designs. You can also discover a whole spectrum of incredible colors to use in your designs with our new color tool.

How is Brown Made?

Brown is a composite color, meaning that it can be created by mixing red, yellow, and black pigments, or by combining orange and black (to effectively create a darker shade of orange). In an RGB additive color model, brown is created by combing red and green together.

Because it is a composite color, derived from primary and secondary colors, brown doesn’t feature on a traditional painter’s color wheel. On modern color wheels it is generally shown as a shade of orange, with orange sitting between red and yellow on the wheel.

Brown, alongside red, orange, and yellow, is considered a warm color, as opposed to a cool color, such as blue, green, or violet.

How to Design With Brown: Color Theory, Symbolism, and On-Trend Palettes — Color Wheel

Color wheel images adapted from contributor Antun Hirsman

Discover a Range of Browns

Brown is a surprisingly diverse color, ranging from deep chocolate hues to cool taupes. Darker brown hues are rich and luxurious, while pale browns, like camel, have a more sophisticated and chic feel. Red browns such as sienna are livelier, while maintaining the steadfastness of brown.

You can use a wide variety of brown hues in your designs, including:

  • Umber. Raw umber and burnt umber, sourced from the clay of the same name, are two of the oldest pigments known to man. The clay has a high content of iron oxide, which gives umber its brown color. When exposed to heat, the brown color darkens and becomes more red due to the iron oxide reaction.
  • Sienna. Raw sienna and burnt sienna are pigments similarly sourced from clay rich in iron oxide. The color’s name is taken from the Italian city of Siena, where the clay was mined during the Renaissance period.
  • Tawny. This light brown-orange color takes its name from the old French word tané, used to mean the process of tanning leather. This pale brown hue is related to tan, a less-orange pale brown, buff, beige, and butterscotch. These pale browns are easy to live with, and make excellent substitutes for grey or white in interior schemes.
  • Pale white- or yellow-based tints of brown, such as café au lait, hazelnut, light taupe and camel. These tints are fresher than their darker relations, and look effortlessly elegant and sophisticated. These pale neutral browns have become a long-standing favorite amongst the fashion crowd, with camel considered by many industry insiders to be the “new black,” and fashion houses like Max Mara making the Seventies-approved color their trademark.

    How to Design With Brown: Color Theory, Symbolism, and On-Trend Palettes — Max Mara
    A model wearing an iconic Max Mara camel coat takes to the runway at Milan Fashion Week 2019. Image by contributor FashionStock.com
  • Green- and yellow-based browns, such as dark olive, have a particularly natural mood, teaming together the two colors which appear most commonly in the natural environmen­t—green and brown. Favored for military uniforms, dark olive is also a soothing and sophisticated color to use in interior and fashion design.
  • Copper is the metallic version of brown, with some copper hues appearing more orange and others more brown.

Discover how you can use a variety of brown hues using the Shutterstock color tool, which explores palettes and images related to a range of earthy and warming browns, including taupe, copper, amber, and maple.

Brown’s Complementary Color

Brown doesn’t feature on a traditional color wheel, and is often shown as a dark shade of orange on contemporary wheels. Orange’s complementary color is blue, making blue or darker shades of blue brown’s complementary hue.

How to Design With Brown: Color Theory, Symbolism, and On-Trend Palettes — Complementary Colors

Color wheel images adapted from contributor Antun Hirsman

What is the Meaning of Brown?

Brown is often perceived as a neutral color, meaning it can sometimes be perceived as dull. While its negative associations might include decay, poverty, and boredom, it can also inspire more positive emotions in the right context:

  • Brown is associated with dependability and reliability, making it a color with an open and honest nature.
  • Brown is also intrinsically connected with nature, giving it an earthy and wholesome mood, and connotations of fertility, growth, comfort, and nurture.

    How to Design With Brown: Color Theory, Symbolism, and On-Trend Palettes — The Meaning of Brown
    Image by contributor AlexanderDubrovsky.
  • Brown is warmer than black, but retains the same neutrality, allowing it to be used in the background of designs to add a subtly cosy and warming quality.
  • Brown is a stable color, giving the viewers the sense of being grounded and accepted. It is sometimes used in interior schemes to create a sense of inclusion and belonging.
  • Although brown has historically been associated with poverty, this is mainly because of its connections to rural life. Nowadays, associations with rustic living are often positive and desirable, with brown helping urban consumers to feel like they are reconnecting with nature.

Where Does Brown Come From?

Brown is a color widely seen in nature—in soil, wood, and in the coloring of animals’ and humans’ fur, hair, skin, and eyes. Because it is so commonplace in natural environments, the human eye generally perceives brown as a neutral color.

Some of the earliest brown pigments were sourced from iron oxide-rich clay, including umber and sienna. These early brown pigments were used to depict the fur and skin of animals and people on cave paintings. Some of these paintings are estimated to date back as far as 40,000 BC.

The Ancient Greeks produced a red-brown dye called sepia, which was made from the ink produced by cuttlefish. This same sepia ink was used by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and other Renaissance artists, and still continues to be used by painters today.

Brown has historically had associations with poverty and the lower classes, because poorer people were less likely to be able to afford to dye their clothes with colored pigments. In Ancient Rome, the term for the urban poor was pullati, which translates to “those dressed in brown.” During the Middle Ages, Franciscan monks wore brown robes as a sign of their poverty and humility.

During the 17th and 18th centuries brown was favored by celebrated painters like Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Van Dyck for its ability to create depth and shadow in paintings.

During the 1970s, brown became widely popular as a color used across fashion, interior design, packaging, and products. Paired with mustard yellow and orange, the popularity of these earth-toned colors was perhaps in part a reaction to the psychedelic brights that were favored during the 1960s.

How to Design With Brown: Color Theory, Symbolism, and On-Trend Palettes — Vintage Interior
A typical brown-on-brown 1970s interior scheme. Image by contributor elRoce.

Today, brown is often associated with the hipster movement, which often strives to promote natural imagery and earthy colors in urban environments. Brown is also associated with the surge in popularity of organic and natural food products, with brown packaging signifying the unprocessed quality of its contents.

In fashion and interiors, brown is now a signifier of old-fashioned luxury with camel clothing, tan leather, and warm wood creating a natural and understated version of high-end design.

How to Design with Brown

Brown can be used as both a neutral color, in place of black, white, or gray, or as a color in itself. Each approach creates a very different result.

To use brown alone, as a single color or as a variety of tints and shades, is to create a scheme brimming with earthiness and warmth. This is perhaps best demonstrated in Scandinavian interior design, which uses a wide range of brown tones and natural materials to create an earthy, calming interior.

In this example, a broad range of brown tones from buff to chocolate are layered to create a scheme that is understated, luxurious and natural.

How to Design With Brown: Color Theory, Symbolism, and On-Trend Palettes — Interior Design
Image by contributor Followtheflow.

In graphic design, creating an all-brown design that has broad appeal can be challenging. However, that’s not to say it can’t, and shouldn’t, be done. In this inspiring example, Brazilian graphic designer Mário Carestiato uses a brown-on-brown palette to create a plate design in tribute to Tintoretto’s Renaissance-era painting Creation of the Animals.

How to Design With Brown: Color Theory, Symbolism, and On-Trend Palettes — Brown-on-Brown Designs
Renaissance plate by Mário Carestiato, based on the painting Creation of the Animals by Tintoretto.

Teaming brown with other neutral shades, like black and gray, can create more depth and help to maintain the subtlety of the brown. Alternatively, using a range of colors that have the same visual weight can create a scheme that balances the brown equally with other colors.

Here, French design collective BIS Studio Graphique has created a balanced color scheme of brown, orange, yellow, and buff to create a 1970s-inspired brand identity for JOHNNY CATS Custom Garage.

How to Design With Brown: Color Theory, Symbolism, and On-Trend Palettes — Brand Identity
Brand identity for JOHNNY CATS Custom Garage by BIS Studio Graphique.

Brown-based print and web designs often benefit from the addition of an accent color that helps the scheme to pop.

In this brand identity design for United Soil by Polish design agency Studio Otwarte, the designers use a bright pop of primary color to create a small, impactful accent against otherwise brown packaging. This successfully balances the natural feel of the brown paper packets with a more contemporary edge.

How to Design With Brown: Color Theory, Symbolism, and On-Trend Palettes — Print Design
Brand identity for United Soil by Studio Otwarte.

What Colors Go With Brown?

Colors that go with brown depend on the type of color scheme you want to use:

  • A monochromatic brown color scheme uses paler tints and darker shades of brown to create an entirely brown palette.
  • A complementary brown color scheme incorporates blue. Orange’s (and therefore, brown’s) neighbor colors, red and yellow, are complementary to dark green and purple, respectively.
  • An analogous brown color scheme uses the colors bordering brown on either side of the color wheel. Although brown is a shade of orange, and therefore not strictly on the color wheel, its bordering colors are considered to be red and yellow.
  • A triadic brown color scheme includes violet and green since they are equidistant from brown on a modern color wheel.

To find the colors and exact hex codes that go with brown, use our color combinations tool. It shows you monochromatic, analogous, triadic, and contrasting color palettes for a variety of brown shades. Try a scheme with taupe, copper, camel, or maple.

Below, discover three cutting-edge, pre-made color palettes for the color brown.

Palette 1: Pop of Blue

Brown teamed with baby blue, copper, and buff is fresh and soothing. This palette balances warm and cool colors to create an airy palette that fuses earth and sky. It’s an easy, breezy choice for interior schemes.

How to Design With Brown: Color Theory, Symbolism, and On-Trend Palettes — Pop of Blue

Palette 2: Maroon, Pink, and Olive

In this chic palette, military-inspired shades of maroon and olive are combined with pink and camel for a high-fashion look. This combo is perfect for fashion and brand design.

How to Design With Brown: Color Theory, Symbolism, and On-Trend Palettes — Maroon, Pink, and Olive

Palette 3: Mid-Century Autumnal

Inspired by 1950s colors, this palette combines rich chocolate brown with burnt orange and teal to create a tribute to Mid Century Modern style. This is a versatile, friendly palette that would work for a variety of designs.

How to Design With Brown: Color Theory, Symbolism, and On-Trend Palettes — Mid-Century Autumnal

Eager to discover more incredible colors to use in your designs?

Discover a whole spectrum of incredible colors with our new color tool that helps to bring your projects to life.

Cover image via contributor photographee.eu