earth colors matter - why you can't replace earth tone paints!

Earth Colors Matter

earth colors matter - why you can't replace earth tone paints!

Why some “earth tone” paints are irreplaceable to a painter.  Some of this may surprise you but it’s imperative you understand the important role these colors play in an artist’s paint kit.

Earth Colors

What many artists refer to as “earth colors” or “earth tones” are the inorganic pigments artists have been used to make paint since the start of painting. As some of the earliest pigments that were mined from the earth, these earth colors were a staple part of all old master palettes. These typically iron-oxide-based pigments provided the earliest painters in history with color ranges in the yellow through red spectrum. The pigments used to make these paints were abundant and stable, so it’s no wonder artists always included them in their paintings. If you have ever painted you are definitely familiar with these paints. They typically are sold under names like:

  • Umber
  • Sienna
  • Ochre

Of course paint manufactures have different varieties of each paint and even sell them under different names.

Sometimes the names denote important hue changes in the pigment. Burnt sienna vs. raw sienna is a good example of this. Burnt sienna is redder than raw sienna. Many of these changes are due to the processing of each pigment which sometimes includes heating the pigment itself. But you are interested in becoming a better painter, not a materials scientist so let’s just leave the intricacies alone for now.

The Black Paint Problem

First off, there is nothing wrong with black paint and you should have a tube of black paint handy at all times.


In theory all we need to do to lower a paint’s value is add black.

Have you ever tried this?

Adding black paint to another paint will lower a color’s value promptly but will also drop the chroma and change the hue. This is extremely noticeable with high chroma colorants such as hansa yellow, cadmium orange, pyrrole red or any pigment that is very intense in color and exists in the red through yellow part of the spectrum.

Look at photo below, this is what happens when we add black (on left) to cadmium yellow (on right).  Their mixture is in the middle:

Try painting a lemon fruit with just black, and yellow paint and you’ll quickly realize you are in deep water. It’s impossible to paint the lemon in a realistic way. The black paint will instantly change the yellow hue and start pushing it towards yellow-green, which is not what a yellow lemon fruit typically needs in its shadowy areas.

Another detrimental side-effect when trying to paint the shadow-side of a lemon is the drastic loss of chroma that occurs when adding black paint to a yellow paint. Instead of the correct form-shadow color you end up with is a very gray-greenish-yellow.

Not good.

Low Value, High Chroma

If you are to paint realism accurately or have any desire to mix a full-gamut of colors you need some earth colors on your palette. While some earth colors may simply be “convienience colors” meaning we can mix the same color with existing core colors on our palette, others are indispensable.

The earth colors that are indispensable are the low-value, high-chroma colors. These are the colors that live in the bottom right of the the Munsell Hue PagesThese colors may only have a chroma equal to 4  or so but they that is far away from gray/neutral we can get at that specific value.  They are dark but as far away from gray as possible. Colors like, raw umber and burnt umber are important colors, to name a couple.

You can’t replicate these colors with mixtures.

These colors hold many of the secret powers to painting the shadowy areas of anything that exhibits a local color in the yellow through red range. Now please understand, brands can vary so keep your eye out for the darkest, most saturated earth colors. You’ll find them very useful where you need darker yellows, oranges, and reds!  

When I’m referring to a color as being low-value, high-chroma I’m speaking in a relative sense meaning: a color that is as far away from gray as possible for that particular row.

Painting Realism

Have you ever tried painting any citrus fruits or flowers? It’s tricky and by now hopefully you see that in these circumstances just adding black paint is not a valid solution.

Try this:

Mix up a paint string / value scale with some of your high-chroma (high-intensity) paints. Try mixing darker steps with a black paint. So you start with a pure orange for example and mix a few steps darker with black. You know the drill 🙂

Next do the same thing but instead of using black use an earth color to darken the paint. Note we are working with colors that fall on and within the red to yellow part of the spectrum. So loosely speaking reds, oranges and yellows.

Keep it simple, it’s the comparison of each scale that we want to observe.

Compare each paint string /value scale to its counterpart which was made with black paint instead of an earth color. You’ll quickly see the difference.

Do this, it’s a worthwhile exercise.

Just in case you are too lazy to do it yourself I’ll demonstrate the process, but keep in mind – all color nuances are lost in photography.   And you really should take a moment and replicate this paint mixing experiment on your own.

Cadmium Orange + Black vs. Cadmium Orange + Burnt Umber

Note the drastic differences even in this off-the-cuff cell phone photo.

Handling Complexities

So how can you change the values of colors without changing the hues?  And how can a painter do this with great precision? This is a complex topic. But, in short, you can do this by mixing your paints according to some kind of color standard. You need a way to measure the color. The color standard I use is the Munsell Color Space. Here’s an introduction to using Munsell with your artwork.

Once you have a target color, accurate color mixing becomes much easier!

The Munsell system contains quantified color swatches that you can compare your paints against. For instance, if you need to make a yellow darker, you can focus your attention on a visible target color (darker yellow) that you would like to make. You find the target color right in the Munsell book. There are hue-pages for each color (40 in total).  You can see the hue page for 2.5 yellow below.

Munsell Chart 2.5Y

Once you have a target color in mind, you then have a specific visual from which to compare your mixed paint against. This is the only really reliable way to ensure your paint mixtures are giving you reliable results.  Otherwise how would you know for sure whether the hue was changing or not?

Sticking with our yellow example. If you mix black into yellow you will quickly see that you are no longer anywhere near the dark-yellow you desire.

This is where having a few low-value, high-chroma colors are necessary. Fortunately several earth colors exhibit these qualities. These paints will allow you to achieve your darker yellows, oranges, and reds without shifting the hue and with a reasonable loss in chroma (intensity). It’s worth noting that for most colors especially yellow, it will be impossible to have extremely high-chroma colors that are also dark as compared to a pure yellow. This probably goes without saying but worth mentioning.  When I’m referring to a color as being low-value, high-chroma I’m speaking in a relative sense meaning: a color that is as far away from gray as possible for that particular row.

Take a look at the Munsell hue page for what is called 2.5 Yellow. I roughly circled the bottom right of the chart. Everything in that circle is nearly impossible to make without earth colors, especially as we move lower down the chart and hug the outer right extreme.

low-value, high-chroma

Don’t believe me? Try making any of those colors in the circle without any earth colors!  Want to see somebody really get frustrated? Ask a limited palette junkie to hit any of those colors without a single earth color!

hint: it’s impossible


  1. Deborah Damgaard-Hansen says:

    Great information and so clearly explained!

  2. K Ross Montour says:

    Excellent post. I did know that about black and earth colors but it bears repeating. It also served to revive my interest in purchasing the Munsell Book of Color. Currently building the nest egg.

    1. John Morfis says:

      These nuances about color often go completely unnoticed until we have something accurate to compare them to. We think we are just changing the value, for example but what ends up happening is we inadvertently change the hue and the chroma too all at the same time! Without a standard, like Munsell it’s nearly impossible to gauge these shifts, especially for people trying to learn how to paint! This is why I use Munsell (big book or Centore’s book) exclusively with my students now. It makes paint mixing 1000x easier, because it’s quantified/measured! Thanks for your comment 🙂

  3. Rebecca Smith says:

    Thank-you, I wish I had known this in art school, it would have saved me many hours of frustrations. I just completed a painting using burnt umber to darken the colors. I mainly paint in black and white because mixing color is so complicated for me. This has been so helpful. Next to read is how to make brown, which is a headache for me. Hopefully, I will be able to mix brown because I have not had much luck getting the right brown. Thank you for laying this information out in a simple, understandable, and uncomplicated way. I am beginning to think color theory doesn’t have to be as hard as it is made out to be.

    1. John Morfis says:

      There’s way too much I wish I knew when I was younger too! The best way to learn color is to work out of the Munsell color space. I know color well and that color space still teaches me things. It’s color quantified. No opinion or secret recipes… just a logical approach to seeing and mixing accurate colors. Read this Rebecca: Munsell Introduction (btw) “browns” are mostly just low-chroma colors from hues yellow through red

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