A Case for Brown: Raw and Burnt Umbers

We reach for Umber whenever we want something dark and neutral. The deep values of brown earths are easily recognized, their warm or less warm tonality easily understood when using in a mixture or passage.

Only Natural Brown earths can offer this powerful characteristic where value (how dark it is) is more apparent than color (how chromatic it is). Synthetic Iron Oxides, which are often substituted for “Burnt Umber,” are too bright and too strong. They lack the elements of natural earth that enable nuanced color and visible shadow.


In fact, the name Umber derives from the Latin for “shadow” and if you’re painting a skyless interior landscape, the authentic Raw and Burnt Umbers can give you utmost control in creating a sense of space and hushed air. Is there a finer example than Diego Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” of 1656?


The flow of trade into Europe from Turkey, in the late 15th century, brought painters natural Umber mined in Cyprus. Our amazing Cyprus Umber Deep, Cyprus Umber Green, and Cyprus Umber Yellow are perfect examples of these delicate natural earths that so easily modulate light and soften sharp contrasts. Velázquez again, “The Jester Calabacillas” also at Museo del Prado, Madrid.


The next time you think of brown imagine it as color held at a whisper and a new authority for your brush. Enjoy the Raw and Burnt Umbers in “Portrait of a Little Girl” by Velázquez currently on view at the Prado until September 10, 2017 in the exhibition Treasures from the Hispanic Society of America.



Cyprus Umber Deep

Cyprus Umber Green

Cyprus Umber Yellow

Raw Umber

Burnt Umber

Red Umber

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