How to work with tones of brown in tattoos.

full (19)Mixing your own browns is actually really fun. Let’s say you want to tattoo the trunk of a tree, and you want it to be a very rich brown tone, to play off the browns in the leaves.

Instead of using black, brown from the bottle, a bit of tan, and white, try mixing as you go. Browns are much easier to do mixing in the tube than many other colors- since your end goal is to have muddied rich subdued tones, sullying your colors will work very well for you.

Start by laying in your black. All the edges, dark shadows, the basic darkest areas. If you’d like a little contrast in color as well as tone, you can mix a tiny bit of your darkest blue into the black in the more shadowed areas. This coolness in the shadow areas will warm up the browns you will use in the light areas of the piece, by contrast.

photo3Now take your darkest purple. If you add a bit of orange to this color, you will get a VERY strong purply brown, like an umber. to make it more brown than bruise colored, you can mix in a tiny hit of black. This will bring the purple tones down a little bit, and dull the color. It will also make a smooth transition from the black areas of your piece. Most bottled tattoo browns are based on this combination.

Follow this by mixing in a tiny bit of white. This will show up which direction your color brown is heading- does it look peachy? You have too much orange in it, unless you want it to get peachy. add a tiny bit of purple again, or the tiniest bit of blue. Now you can dip dark again, into your black, since you’ve adjusted your color tone.

Using a back and forth approach, and dipping into different colors to mix up your brown, gives almost an impressionistic effect to the color. By all means, if you want one big solid patch of one color of brown, mix up small bottles of these most-often used tones of brown:

  • A yellow ochre; since bottled ochre is mostly yellow and will often show up with no difference to yellow in skin, try mixing your own- a drop or two of purple, a 1 oz bottle of yellow, a medium cap full of brown. Toss that into the ultrasonic, and add a bit of a warm medium brown if it still too yellowy or pale. I also like to add a drop of orange to warm this color up.
  • a rich, warm sienna; use your bottled sienna as a base, mixing in some green for a more dull color. a warm, orange-red mixed with a bit of very dark purple, makes a nice sienna. gives a much more ruddy tone to the usual “red-tan” look of most bottled browns.
  • a dark umber, nearly black; mix your chocolate brown type brown, black, and  the darkest blue you can find. This blue/brown combination is often used in oil painting in place of true black, which is not often seen in nature.
  • maroon, or liver donor type red; mix down plain red with your darkest purple. add a medium cap of black. This makes a dark, rich, reliable maroon color, and will not be as washed out as many bottled off-reds can be.
  • olive greens; many people will tell you to mix yellow and black to make these colors. However this combination tends to wash out to grey over the years, since the black is much more lightfast than the yellow, you end up with grey or black, and no green over time. Try mixing your bottled green, with a big squirt of straight red. Add yellow to lighten or wash out the color if you prefer a paler tone. Adding white to this combination will give you a smooth rich avocado.
  • payne’s grey; this is a color familiar to all oil painters, and an indispensable one. I experimented for many years trying to duplicate this rich, delightful grey in tattooing. If you have used prismacolors’ “french grey” you know of similar uses for this color. I mix equal amount of dark brown, black, and white in the bottle, then add dark blue to smooth out and cool off the color. You can certainly play with the proportions here and get a varied palette of warm-to-cold greys to use.
  • beige; Mixing pale browns is very challenging. The colors often shift, once applied, to the more lightfast colors you have used in your mix. A bottle of white with a bit of tan, a bit of peach, and a bit of baby blue mixed in, until the color is neutral, seems to work well for a pale beige. For a more tan look, use yellow, orange, purple, and white mixed together, equal proportions except for the purple, which should be mixed in sparingly.
  • anytime you mix browns, remember that adding black will dull the color a bit, and darken it (of course) while adding white often makes the color base of the brown more prominent.

cptmonkthe best way to find out what works is to experiment. Buy a sample set of your favorite brand of inks (this is not the time to test out a new brand- you want something you know will be compatible with your working style, and that you aren’t afraid to mix up in the bottle) and play! Get some empty ink bottles, and mix colors together that seem bizarre inc ombination, or totally wrong. The only major things to avoid are mixing together colors that are very different in their lightfastness (besides white), and not checking the strength of your base tone by adding a drop of white to some and looking at it outside the bottle.

Comments are welcome here!


Written on: Feb 4, 2008