by Mara FisherWith the transition from summer to fall, we look at the grounding color of Earth and its use through the history of art.
Inset: First Style wall painting from the fauces of the Samnite House, Herculaneum, late second century B.C.
The color brown has been used in visual culture since prehistoric times, starting with the use of the natural clay pigment, umber, dating back to 40,000 BC. The pigment was used by early humans to depict colors that relate to the earth and its inhabitants.
The Ancient Greeks and Romans utilized a reddish-brown ink made from cuttlefish called sepia, which takes its name from the Greek word for the cephalopod. This pigment was later used by Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, and is still in use today.
In the middle ages, brown clothing was worn by Franciscan monks to symbolize humility, virtue, and plainness. Clothing was dyed with pigments derived from the woad (isatis tinctoria) and madder (rubia tinctorum) plants.
The color brown spent several centuries out of vogue in western painting traditions, but by the 18th century, Caravaggio and Rembrandt leaned heavily on the use of brown to create their signature chiaroscuro effect, in which the subject of a painting appears out of darkness. The subtle gradations created by shades of brown from light to dark enabled these artists to create a sense of realism on the canvas.
In the 20th century, the Land art movement began to explore the earth as medium, using natural materials that were often unchanged from their found states, and often in site-specific applications. Simultaneously, artists in the Process art movement focused on serendipity and the transience of materials, creating pieces that exemplified natural forces and the state changes they influence on manmade objects.