Color Lesson: Brown

Color: Messages and Meanings, A PANTONE Color Resource

Many dictionaries will describe brown as “a pigment or dye that is formed from a combination of red, yellow and black and has or is near the color of wood or soil.” Or perhaps “a dark color inclining to red or yellow, resulting from the mixture of red and black, or of red, black, and yellow; a tawny, dusky hue.”

This is not the end of brown’s history or current story. Today, brown includes a rich mosaic of meanings based largely on the undertones of the color; changes in lifestyles, newly acquired concepts of the usage of brown and the context in which it is used.

It is true that brown is the color most identified with earth and with the diligence it took to work the earth. It was the shade often worn by workingmen and women as they dyestuffs were always easily available and inexpensive—and they didn’t “show the dirt”.

Drabber, grayed brown were seen as reliable, lacking social pretensions, disdaining the brighter “lustful colors”. For these same reasons, they were preferred by religious and Puritan moralists groups and became synonymous with piety, poverty, economy, industriousness and modest ambitions. Brown is also seen as benign and non-threatening.

Those associations have been tempered over the years as brown became the color highly favored by sports activities, specifically hunting, fishing, hiking and camping. Brown became more of a “fashion” statement ass those outdoor pursuits became stylish and were also worn by the wannabee outdoor types. Eddy Bauer, LL Bean, Coldwater Creek, Norm Thompson and Sundance catalogs proliferated and so did the reliable family of browns.

Brown truly does inhabit the earth with all manner of shades in mammals and the animal kingdom. It is also the color of many woods and woodland creatures. So for many people it speaks more of a rustic nature, primitive art and artifacts than it does of technology and modernism. It also reminds us of hearth and home, the color of brick and fundamental building materials. There is a wholesomeness and certain organic quality attached to the brown family (especially the tans) that the natural food movement has used to great advantage.

But brown also has an amazing appeal to an expanded appetite, both in food and drink. Thin of brown’s own recipe—often having an undertone of red, yellow and/or orange—those warm tones that do appeal to the appetite. Think cappuccino, espresso, French roast, cafe au lait; chocolate mousse, mocha, caramel, chocolate covered biscotti and the ultimate topping, hot fudge. In the context of coffee or chocolate, brown is often irresistible.

There is a fashionable cachet now attached to these delicious chocolate/coffee shades that has spread into all other design areas, including graphics. Certainly chocolate and coffee have been around for years, but now there is a certain luxurious edge to both. What was a cup of java in the 50s is now more likely to be called an elegant espresso or a double latte while chocolate candy, always a great consumer favorite, especially for special occasions, is now packaged in a glamorous brown box, with each piece of chocolate looking more like a small exquisite work of art than a mundane piece of candy. Interestingly, consumers are willing to pay for the added luxury.

• Tan: rugged, outdoor, rustic, woodsy
• Chocolate/Coffee Brown: delicious, rich, robust, appetizing
• Earth Brown: earthy, grounded, steady, warm, durable, secure, reliable, natural and supportive


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