How Now Brown Cow …

Having recently had paintings accepted for an exhibition on the theme of SOIL, I got to thinking all about brown and what a wonderful, gorgeous, giving colour it is.

I did not always think this about brown.  In fact I used to loathe it.  Probably because it formed half the colour of my school uniform – paired with light blue(!) – revolting.

It was when I started painting that it occurred to me that it would not be in my interest to dislike any colour.  In fact, I wanted to love ALL colours.  And so I set out on a mission to love brown.  I began thinking of all the things I did love that were brown …

…  the childhood memory of slipping around in mud, of making mud pies, of digging in the dirt for treasure; the satisfaction of a highly polished wooden table, gleaming with golden hues from ages past; the aroma, the glistening viscosity and the unrivalled savour of melted chocolate; the lustre of a pet’s fur; the sheen of a thousand glistening tones on a racehorse.

The most gorgeous of browns in the whole of Western Art - WHISTLEJACKET, Stubbs, 1762
The most gorgeous of browns in the whole of Western Art – WHISTLEJACKET, Stubbs, 1762

Brown is not a spectral colour, but it is the colour fundamental to all life.  Germination happens in the soft moist ochres of the soil and, at the end of a plant’s cycle, brown is the colour of  its decomposition.  Brown is the most common colouring in mammals as it provides the greatest camouflage, brown being the predominant colour within nature.

SEED  by Francesca Howard, acrylic on canvas,  24x24'', 60.8x60.8cm
SEED by Francesca Howard, acrylic on canvas, 24×24”, 60.8×60.8cm, £440

Brown is earthy; it is redolent of enormous natural variety, from the multitude of woods to the diverse ochres of the earth.  It also evokes stability, reliability and longevity.  In the West, trees that have stood the test of time are listed in the same manner as historic buildings, in order to ensure that they are never destroyed.  In Europe, wooden artefacts from ages past are valued for their endurance, with antique furniture receiving decades of loving polishing, and historic buildings being carefully preserved for their wooden structures.

Brown also has a close association with food – potatoes, rice, flour, bread, chocolate, coffee, tea – and these days anything termed ‘brown’, such as rice, pasta or bread, is considered healthier than its white processed counterpart.

Brown has come to represent wholesome goodness, the colour of the original as opposed to that of the blanched imposter.

Often brown is added to reassure us that the food product is rich and filling, as opposed to thin and watery; the darker the brown, the stronger the flavour is perceived to be.  Coffee, gravy and chocolate do not taste the same when grey in colour; full, lustrous brown is what is required.  Gravy colouring is called ‘gravy browning’ and how often does a recipe end with the enticing instruction to cook til golden brown?

Brown is messy and warm and nurturing and history and grounding and life-giving.

Who doesn't love a brown cow? - BREEDS OF CATTLE, Corbould, 1879
Who doesn’t love a brown cow? – BREEDS OF CATTLE, Corbould, 1879

Where would we be without Brown?


  1. This made me think of the thick, treacly brown varnish that covered the old choir stalls in the Norman church I sang in when I was a child – I felt I could hide in them (although I probably was ‘hidden’ in that cassock, etc). But I’ve loved choir stalls ever since, the toffee-er the better! Interesting what you say about brown food – my initial reaction was ugh and then you mentioned golden-brown and that’s just such a different sense memory – bubbling, rich and nourishing. Good luck with loving all the colours. I challenge you to mauve!


  2. This is beautiful. You write so evocatively about colour. I read this and immediately thought of a brown wooden pepper pot that I kept after clearing out my parents’ house. It was because my mother’s hands had polished it and polished it and polished it with use and it felt as if a little bit of her must remain in its warm, brown surface.


  3. Liking or not liking a colour, is, I believe based in childhood, and I still remember a horrible-brown table chair, and walls painted ‘Gourlay Green’ a not very complimentry description of the decoration of a house we were moving into. Both of these colours still fill me with a type of revulsion…..and they hwve n3ver been replicated in our household. I imagine I am unlikely to change now!


  4. I completely agree, Harry! The loathing or loving of colours is very much rooted in childhood, and by extension our parents’ tastes. Green and Brown, eh – all very earthy.
    Colour is an emotional business …
    Do you have a favourite colour? And is that rooted in childhood too?


  5. Oh, Yes, Yes, Victoria!
    It’s that history of decades of love and attention, making something that’s already beautiful even more so whilst also ensuring its survival.
    It’s funny what we choose to keep from times past, isn’t it …


  6. It is wood, isn’t it, that speaks to us of so much? Hiding in choir stalls – it sounds as if you felt that they could look after you somehow …
    Thanks for the colour challenge. I’m doing pretty well.
    Mauve I can manage – it is delicate and gentle and speaks of days gone by.
    My problem is PEACH!


  7. I grew up in the Emerald Isle, where, unfortunately, colours have so much political and religious significance, so I find it difficult to specify any. If I had to choose, I would go for the lovely muted colours of Santorini.


  8. I completely see your point, Harry. I have family in Ireland and know of what you speak, and have in fact posted about it – May 2014, if you are interested.
    Yes, those gorgeous Grecian colours – oh, I can feel the sun on my face now!
    But I do think the choice of Emerald to describe your Isle is completely perfect – I have never seen such a BRILLIANT Green. I know it’s because of all the rain, but it is a Green to do your heart good.


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