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Brown often has bad press. It suggests words like murky, undistinguished, gloomy, dreary, commonplace, lacklustre, unmemorable, banal, insipid. However when I began to investigate it as a photo theme I found that drab colour vivid and full of stories

At the Great Masters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia a tin of ochre chunks was on display as part of the kit of one of the master painters. Brown ochre was used as a pigment in the cave paintings at Lascaux and master bark painters in Australia still use it to create their subtle beautiful-toned masterpieces. The name for brown ochre is Goethite: suddenly Goethe, eighteenth century German poet and scientist, intrudes in the history of brown and on the palette of artists.

Mummy brown was a favoured colour for centuries, a brown of “good transparency”. And yes, it was indeed created by crushing up mummies. When nineteenth century artists discovered its origin, they stopped using it. Legend has it that the pre-Raphaelite Burne-Jones ceremonially buried his tube of mummy brown in his garden when he realised what it really was.

Isabelline, a pale cream-brown or parchment colour, usually refers to the colour of bird plumage and horses, but is also used to describe the colours of fashion. Elizabeth I owned “one rounde gowne of Isabella-colour satten … set with silver spangles”. The regal nature of the colour is undermined by a story that its name derived from the colour of underwear worn – and not changed – by an Isabella during an eight-month siege in the fifteenth century.

Made by combining red, black and yellow, brown is a colour of multiple identity, nudging its way into many shades of the spectrum: towards orange or crimson or white or green or blue. In the world it's gregarious, displaying itself best in judicious companionship with other colours or against a background that serves it well, maybe beige and dark brown fungus against sharp spears of green. The litany of brown is in fact poetry: burgundy, isabelline, umber, bister, beige, taupe, ecru, fawn, sepia, bronze, chestnut, sienna, sinopia, khaki, cordovan, fulvous, maroon, tan, wenge, russet, buff, mahogany.

Not drab at all.



Wikipedia is my source for the stories retold here, and the blog was inspired by a long-ago photo challenge whose deadline I well and truly missed.