Along with sienna and ochre, umber is one of the natural earth pigments. The darkest of the trio, it ranges from light to deep brown, which (without getting too technical) depends on how much manganese oxide is in the clay. Raw umber can also be heated, which intensifies the colour this is known as burnt umber.
Right Image: Striped Blanket Coat
A solid, unassuming hue, the origin of its name appears to be just as straightforward, even though two etymologies are given. The first claims that umber originates from the Latin word umbra, which means shadow, and the second that it's named after the mountainous Italian region of Umbria where the clay was originally extracted. Both seem so plausible, it's hard to have a preference.
One of the first colours to be used by man, umber has been identified in Paleolithic cave paintings, including the complex at Lascaux in southwestern France its iconic 17,000-or-so-year-old horses and bison owe their natural-looking hides in part to raw umber. Things then go a little quiet: it didn't make it into the strictly regulated palette of the Egyptians and brown shades were rarely used in Medieval art, which preferred distinct colours such as red, blue and green.
It was only when the late 15th century rolled around that umber made a noteworthy reappearance. Finding its niche during the Baroque period, it was often employed to provide the darkness in chiaroscuro paintings (Italian for light-dark) and was an important shade in the palettes of Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Vermeer. In the 19th century, the Impressionists eschewed dull' earth pigments in favour of the synthetic paints and bolder colours that are now commonplace.
These days, umber simply denotes a wholesome and earthy brown shade. Associated with the great outdoors, it's a frugal colour in the best possible sense. Anything but frivolous, it evokes simplicity, quality and stability making it the perfect antidote to fast-paced of modern life.
Words by Rachel Ward.
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