List of Brown Pigments

Raw Sienna
Burnt Sienna
Raw Umber
Burnt Umber
Mars Brown
Green Earth
Burnt Green Earth
Greenish Umber
Brown Ochre
Deep Ochre
Transparent Oxide Brown

General Comments

Umbers and ochres contain clay, which is hygroscopic and undergoes shrinking and swelling due to changes in relative humidity. Synthetic iron oxide (Mars) pigments are more stable in that regard, are lightfast and high in tinting strength. That being said, natural earth pigments have a long record of good performance, and are as lightfast as the Mars colors, which is to say, more lightfast than anything else.

Raw Sienna — PBr7

Virgil’s Assessment

Technical Links

Burnt Sienna — PBr7

Virgil’s Assessment

When I mention burnt sienna, I’m talking about the real, natural earth pigment called burnt sienna, not any substitute pigment that a manufacturer has labeled “Burnt Sienna” which is actually a synthetic iron oxide or a mixture of three pigments, as some companies are doing now. There are differences in drying times, tinting strength, and opacity/transparence, and in the case of Winsor & Newton, even the hue is different. These are NOT burnt sienna, and it is confusing and misleading for paint companies to use that name for them.

Brands that offer genuine Burnt Sienna (PBR7): Rublev, Gamblin, Blockx, M. Graham, Old Holland, Williamsburg, Michael Harding, Maimeri Puro, Holbein, Daniel Smith.

Brands whose Burnt Sienna is in name only: Winsor & Newton’s is PR 101, and so is Rembrandt’s. Sennelier’s is PBk 11 (Mars black) +PR101 (synthetic iron oxide)

There may be some variation from one burnt sienna to the next, but they’re all in the same general range of hue, opacity, and drying times if they’re real burnt sienna instead of synthetic substitutes.

— Properties of real burnt sienna? —

Burnt sienna is another pigment that causes sinking in, though not as badly as burnt umber, but usually the final varnish evens out the gloss of burnt sienna and other non-umber earth pigment passages satisfactorily.

— Comments on the synthetic substitutes —

I should add that the synthetic iron oxide pigments are very good pigments, whose lightfastness is comparable to the natural earths, and will probably outlast them over the centuries, but their drying times and tinting strength are not the same as the real earth pigments, so some adjustment to them is necessary.

Technical Links

Raw Umber — PBr7

Virgil’s Assessment

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Technical Links

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Burnt Umber — PBr7

Virgil’s Assessment

Burnt umber is clay that has been heated to make it redder. Clay is a highly absorbent substance, and roasting makes it even more so. Think of it as essentially the same as kitty litter, and it becomes easier to understand why it causes sinking in. It’s far more absorbent than any other pigment. Some companies are substituting synthetic iron oxides for burnt umber these days, and those do not cause sinking in.
Burnt umber is popular for the wipe-out method of beginning a painting because of its color and the fact that it dries faster than any other oil paint. It has a long history of use by many great artists, but that’s not to say it is without its faults. The faults should be understood and taken into consideration when one considers using it.
Most old paintings on canvas have cracked, and it has recently been discovered that the use of umbers and yellow ochre pigments increase the likelihood of cracking, in paintings done on stretched canvas. More than one top-level conservator has expressed to me the expectation that a great many problems are in store for the vast majority of paintings done in the 20th and 21st centuries, due to painters’ ignorance of materials and techniques.

The “Sinking-In” Issue
I’m often asked what to do about the “sinking in” of certain passages in oil paintings, meaning spots that dry matte and appear lighter in value and duller in color than they were when the paint was wet. The chief culprit is burnt umber, which is highly absorbent, so the way to reduce the problem is to paint without burnt umber. Raw umber does this also, though not to the same degree as burnt umber.
To correct the dull appearance of the dried passages in question, in order to match colors with precision, scrub a bit of linseed oil on the spots that have dried matte, but ONLY on those spots, and wipe off or blot them while the oil is still wet, to remove the excess. Burnt umber is very absorbent, and will soak up quite a bit of oil. It’s a problematic pigment.
Burnt umber sinks in unless it’s mixed with a medium that compensates for that tendency.

Alternatives to Burnt Umber
There are many options and the choice depends partly on how opaque you want the brown to be.
Mars Brown plus Mars Black or Bone Black can be a good match for the hue and value of burnt umber, among other possibilities. Bone black is less opaque than Mars black, has lower tinting strength, and dries more slowly. Mars brown dries fast.
Another option would be Burnt Sienna plus Bone Black.
A range of dark, transparent browns can be mixed from transparent oxide red and phthalocyanine green or phthalo blue in various percentages relative to one another to take the place of asphaltum, bitumen, Cassel earth, mummy, and Van Dyck brown, all of which were problematic browns used by the Old Masters. The mixtures I recommend are superior to those from a technical standpoint.
 To lighten it to the same value and degree of opacity as burnt umber, a touch of cadmium orange, cadmium red light or cadmium vermilion can be added.

Technical Links

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