Burnt umber is simply raw umber that has been roasted to give a darker and somewhat warmer brown. Raw umber is rich in iron and manganese, and it is the iron that oxidises to give the roasted brown its distinctive dark, warm hue. Unlike its sibling, raw umber, (See figure 1, below) it does not granulate to any degree. Like most earth colours it is lightfast, and its transparency makes it ideal for watercolour. It is an essential colour, working well in any medium and useful for making blacks and greys with ultramarine, and darkening colours without resorting to blacks. Naturally, it is a must for landscape subjects. Although it is naturally a deeptoned brown, its use is not restricted to mixing dark colours. It also performs well when diluted.

If I asked you what colour you would use for the sand on a tropical beach, I would expect answers such as cadmium yellow, yellow ochre or raw sienna. Try any of these and you will see how wrong they look – far too bright in colour. But who would believe that burnt umber is the ideal colour for tropical beaches? In the watercolour (below), which is taken from my world cruise journal, my wife walks along the beach in Rarotonga, a South Sea island. The beach is painted with very dilute burnt umber. The colour is so delicate, I can’t think of any other that can come near it for coral sand beaches.

Raratonga - watercolour

Rae at Rarotonga, watercolour, (17x10cm).

White paper amid the ultramarine of the sea was left to indicate the foamy waves of the offshore reef, but as the sea shallows it turns to a paler intense blue. The sand, made from dilute burnt umber, models the rise of the shore and some of the colour is taken out into the foreground and middle ground sea. Burnt umber was also used with ultramarine in Rae’s dark top, in the shaded areas of her body and in her reflection.

How to mix burnt umber

As usual, all the colour mixes have been made using the revised Winsor & Newton Sketchers’ Pocket Box (see LP, January for details).

1. The greenish bias of lemon yellow contradicts the reddish undertone of burnt umber to give a delightful, slightly greenish ochre colour. This could find a use in landscape work, perhaps for a field of ripe wheat and, diluted, for certain complexions in portraiture.

2. The bright, almost garish heat of cadmium red hue is subdued to a hot red brown by mixing it with burnt umber. Only a slight amount of brown is needed to subdue the red to a more subtle colour. Adding a little red to burnt umber heats the brown beautifully. This is an interesting mix, useful across a range of subjects.

3. Users of proprietary greys such as the overrated Payne’s grey, are missing out on some wonderful discoveries. This beautiful green grey is made by mixing intense blue (phthalo) with burnt umber. Used densely the mix is black but, reduced with water, a range of wonderful greys – from grey browns through grey greens to grey blues – can be made. And unlike Payne’s grey, there’s not a hint of dirty black pigment in any of them.

4. Continuing the theme of greys here is a velvety brown grey made from burnt umber and ultramarine. I let the brown dominate, but adding more blue would create subtle steely blue greys.

5. The most granular of all of the mixes shown is the warm dark green made by overpowering the unnatural looking viridian hue with burnt umber. I use this mix a lot. At full strength, the mixed green is almost black, but diluted a little, the richness of the green comes out. When well diluted, it is a lovely soft green, which is ideal for background work in landscape.
Raw Umber/Burnt Umber

Colour mixing chart - Burnt Umber

Tony has been looking at a different colour from the watercolour palette each month throughout 2010.

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