From amber to umber, the color brown is everywhere in the natural world. Whether you're painting landscapes , interiors or portraits , you'll probably need to use some variation of this rich shade.

But you don't need to rush out and buy a tube of brown acrylic paint. Instead, mix primary colors to get brown — it's a cinch with this method. For one thing, you probably have all the supplies you need. Plus, you can customize your mixes to get the best hue no matter what you're painting.

What you need

  • Acrylic paint in red, yellow, blue and opaque white
  • A palette
  • A palette knife
  • A paintbrush
  • A work surface for testing mixed colors
  • Water for washing your brush
  • Paper towels for cleaning off the palette knife between mixing colors

Pro tip: Try to use a fairly classic-looking version of each color, like Cadmium red, Cadmium yellow medium, cerulean blue and Titanium white paint.


1. Set up your palette

Put fairly equal-sized dollops of red, yellow and blue on your palette, with plenty of space between each color. Add a dollop of white, too.

2. Start blending

Combine each primary color, trying to keep the amounts fairly equal.

Mix together with a palette knife until the paints lose their distinct hues and turn a muddy brown.  

3. Add white

Once you've achieved this muddy-brown hue, add a touch of white. It doesn't have to be much — you don't want to lighten the brown as much as reinforce it. The white paint will make your brown color more opaque, giving it more bang for your buck when you cover a surface. 

4. Refine the shade

So now you have a basic soft brown. If this is the exact tint you need, you're good to go!

Many times, though, you'll need a more specific shade, like blackish brown for tree bark or reddish brown for the gleam in an antique wood table. Get these hues, and others, by adding more or less of your primary colors and white. 

For a lighter brown: Add white paint a little at a time until you reach your desired tone. To keep the color from becoming too beige and bland, add red or yellow for a warmer shade or a touch of blue for cooler tints. This will give you the best shade for highlights or coffee with milk.

For a warm brown: Experiment with touches of red and/or yellow paint, a bit at a time. If the mixture becomes too warm, add a bit of blue to cool it down. Warm browns work well for painting brick, warm wood tones and trees in sunlight.

For a cool brown: Mix a little blue paint to your basic brown mixture. If it becomes too blue, add some red and yellow paint to bring back its brown shade. Cool browns work well for painting wintry trees and dark hair or fur.

For a darker brown: Add dark blue, like ultramarine to create a brown that's dark but bright. Avoid mixing in black, which just gives you a muddy tone. Darker browns work well for painting twilight scenes or brunet hair.