What’s the deal with earth tones?

Shortly after gathering my first six paints, I began to wonder about earth tones. What’s the deal with them? Do I need them? What are they good for? What are my options? How come other people seem to intuitively know the difference between “raw umber” and “burnt sienna”? What are the common, typical earth tones that teachers and tutorial designers may expect me to have in my palette, and if I don’t have them, what substitutions can I make? Which earth tones are equivalent? I’m here to answer my past self’s questions – and, maybe, yours!

What are earth tones?

People generally use the term “earth tones” to mean shades of brown.

Sometimes people say “earth colors” meaning any granulating and/or muted (not bright) color.

Why do I need earth tones in my palette?

You don’t – not if you don’t want them! You can generally mix up a range of browns using all three primary colors (magenta, yellow, cyan or red, yellow, blue), or some combinations of primary/secondary (e.g. blue + orange). Many painters, including greats like Monet, don’t include earth tones in their palette.

But lots of people do. Earth tones are popular for many reasons:

  • Convenience. If you’re a landscape painter, you may be mixing brown frequently. Some shades are easier to mix than others.
  • Aesthetics. My experience is that it’s easy to make ugly browns from your primary colors, and difficult to make beautiful ones.
  • Paint properties. Earth colors often have interesting properties such as granulation that make them stand out from your other paints.
  • Mixing. Earth tones can also be great mixers, useful to “mute” or dull down other colors. A quick way to make a natural-looking green, for example, is to add Yellow Ochre or Raw Sienna to Phthalo Green.

What pigments are used to make earth tones?

Most earth tones are made from natural or synthetic iron oxides (yes, that’s also what makes rust). What Is Ochre? on the Greenleaf & Blueberry blog explains the science. Here’s a summary of which pigments are involved:

Earth HueNatural PigmentSynthetic Pigment
Earth Yellow (Yellow Ochre)PY43PY42
Earth Red (Red Iron Oxide)PR102PR101
Earth Brown PBr7PBr6 (Mars Brown)

Yellow oxides made from PY42 and PY43

Yellow Ochre or Yellow Iron Oxide is generally an opaque, lightly granulating, mid- to light-valued, yellowy brown (or browny yellow.)

Natural yellow ochres made from PY43 will vary in color and texture depending on the part of the world they are sourced from.

Synthetic yellow iron oxides made from PY42 may be more uniform in hue and texture, and is usually cheaper.

Sometimes paints named “Raw Sienna” are actually made from PY43 or PY42 (instead of the more traditional PBr7), and will therefore behave more like a yellow ochre. Paints with other names may also be made from PY43 or PY42, e.g. DS Goethite Brown Oxide (PY43).

Red oxides made from PR101 and PR102

Natural iron oxides made from PR102 are often called “Light Red” or “Terra Cotta.” The hue is usually between red and orange in hue and somewhat muted. It can be transparent or opaque.

Synthetic iron oxides made from PR101 are used for a wide variety of earth reds, maroons, and browns, including:

  • Transparent Red Oxide, a granulating, transparent, rust-orange color
  • Transparent Brown Oxide, a transparent, granulating or nongranulating, middle brown similar to Burnt Umber
  • English or Venetian Red, brick orange-red colors
  • Indian Red: a super-opaque, granulating, muted, pinky-red
  • Violet Iron Oxide, a more violet-toned maroon brown that is usually also opaque and granulating like Indian Red

Some companies, like Winsor & Newton, have a Burnt Sienna made from PR101, though Burnt Sienna is more traditionally made from PBr7.

Brown oxides made from PBr7 and PBr6

Natural brown oxide, PBr7, is the most common earth pigment, and varies in color from a yellow-orange-brown to a deep cool green-brown depending on the preparation. These are probably the most common earth colors you’ll see:

  • Raw Sienna: A light brown somewhere between yellow and orange.
  • Burnt Sienna: aka Earth Orange.  The most orange of the earth tones.
  • Burnt Umber: aka Warm Brown. A dark, rich brown with reddish undertones. To me this is closest to my idea of “brown.” 
  • Raw Umber: aka Cool Brown. Usually very dark and yellow-toned, bordering on greenish. 

Like yellow ochre, you may find variations on sienna that come from different locations and have different properties, such as Monte Amiata Natural Sienna.

Synthetic brown oxide, PBr6, is often called Mars Brown. This pigment is less common. In theory, it can be used to make any of the same shades.

Earth colors made from other pigments

Sometimes other pigments may be considered earth colors:

Which ones should I get?

When I was starting out in watercolor, I thought I needed one-of-each of the Big Four PBr7’s (raw sienna, burnt sienna, raw umber, burnt umber) as well as yellow ochre to have a complete set of earth tones. Now, I think differently.

First of all, there is no such thing as a “complete set” because everyone defines essential earth tones differently! Some people think Burnt Umber is crucial, but you can give Raw Umber a miss, or the other way around. Some people think Burnt Sienna is the only one you need. Some people think browns are overrated, but Indian Red is crucial. You can find opinions to justify every permutation.

So: Get any that you like! Skip any that you don’t like it!

At present, my set of earths consists of Monte Amiata Natural Sienna, Transparent Red Oxide, and Indian Red. I find I can get by just fine without Burnt or Raw Umber, despite their widespread use. You might find the opposite: you need Burnt Umber but hate TRO, or whatever. Like all color decisions, it’s personal.

Some things to consider:

  • What colors do you see in the environments or subjects that you most want to paint?
  • What colors are you comfortable mixing yourself?
  • Get some dot cards, and experiment mixing various earth tones with the other colors in your palette to see if you like the mixes.

If you have dots or samples of multiple earth colors, you could see how easily you can get from one to another:

  • Try mixing an earth orange, such as Burnt Sienna or Transparent Red Oxide, with Ultramarine Blue or another violet blue to mix a Burnt Umber hue or other browns.
  • Try mixing a bit of red or orange to Burnt Umber to see if you make make a Burnt Sienna hue.
  • Add a bit of blue to Indian Red for a Violet Iron Oxide hue.
  • Add a bit of red to VIO for an Indian Red hue.
  • Try the same landscape twice; once with Yellow Ochre and once with Raw Sienna. Which do you prefer?
  • Try a painting with Yellow Ochre or Raw Sienna, and the same painting with a non-earth yellow such as Nickel Azo Yellow, Quin Gold, or Hansa Yellow Deep. Do earth colors lend a certain something? Or do you generally prefer to use non-earths?

Which brand should I get?

A common piece of advice is to get all your earth tones from one brand, because they’re calibrated to other colors within the same brand. A Raw Sienna in one brand may look more like the Burnt Sienna in another.

My favorite brand for earth tones is Da Vinci.

Da Vinci Earth Tones

This guide to Da Vinci’s Earth tones shows the different “personalities” of PBr7 and PR101. It’s hard to tell in the photo, but the PR101 Burnt Sienna Deep is, in person, smoother and stronger than the granulating and relatively weak PBr7 Burnt Sienna.

What are some substitutions/swap-ins for traditional earth tones? 

Whether you’re not excited by earth tones, or you simply haven’t added them to your collection yet, you may need substitutions. Here’s my list. (Whether you think these suggestions are suitable substitutions/improvements or totally inappropriate will depend on your aesthetic sense and the situation. Some are close in hue but different in properties, or vice versa. You can also try substituting an earth tone for an adjacent one, e.g. Raw Sienna for Yellow Ochre.)

What if I really, really like earth tones?

You can, of course, also swap the other way: use earth tones in place of bright colors!

  • Yellow: Yellow Ochre, Raw Sienna
  • Orange: Burnt Sienna, Transparent Red Oxide, Quin Burnt Orange
  • Red: Indian Red, English Red, Venetian Red, Light Red
  • Purple: Violet Iron Oxide

Once you get beyond the warm colors, it’s more of a stretch, but you can at least find muted or granulating versions of the cool colors.

Jane Blundell recommends making an “earth triad” using an earth red, earth yellow, and granulating blue. You can then paint everything you’d paint with a primary triad, but earthy!

Greenleaf & Blueberry Earth Triad: Yellow Ochre, Red Ochre, Blue Ochre (Vivianite)

Have fun with earths!