For this Colour Story, we take a brief look at the cultural associations of Earthy Browns.

75 thousand years ago in South Africa, early humans etched images with clay pigments onto cave walls. Similar colours were also found in the historic regions of Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, and earthy shades were present in archaeological findings as far away as Australia. 

Along with carbon black, it’s believed that these earthy brown shades are among the first pigments used by humans as they are easily sourced from the surfaces of surrounding lands. Despite it being the most widely available pigment in nature, public opinion surveys often report brown as the public’s least favourite colour. While the public may not admit to liking the colour, cultural and commercial trends paint a different story.

In the 1970s, a cultural backlash against the psychedelic colours of the 1960s arose. Considering that news of global war, protests, and conflicts were ever-present, bright colours came to be seen as self-indulgent and representative of the corrupt and synthetic industrial complex. 

The public was now in the mood for colours that represented nature, comfort, workmanship and authenticity. This mindset spread throughout home decor, automobiles, consumer electronics and fashion. Other colours were still present, by the way, but key colours, such as burnt oranges and avocado greens, were selected to complement the foundations of browns. This contemplative palette was so pervasive that it became an iconic feature of the decade’s visual identity.

Later, throughout the 2000s, neutral earth tones re-appeared again in major sweeping trends – this time, driven by social media and a return to minimalistic, utilitarian, and ethical lifestyles.

Of all the colours, browns have had the most tumultuous history towards positive cultural acceptance. Before the 1900s, browns were associated with being common, dirty, and poor. However, art and commerce through the ages have elevated earth tones to be associated with altruistic and benevolent ideals.