I recently have read two definitions of being a neutral color.

  1. Neutral colors are colors that can be used within any color scheme as in contour and highlight.
  2. Neutral colors are hues that appear to be without color.

The first definition is from this article


The second definition is from this article:


These two definitions seem quite different. As far as the second definition, I'm unclear why brown would be considered a neutral color.

In an RGB color scheme, brown is created by combining green and red. It is also not just a shade like white, gray, or black. So by definition, shouldn't it have color? Assuming yes, I don't see how it could fit the second definition because it would have color and thus not fit the description of "appearing to be without color."

Why is brown considered a neutral color?

  • 1
    Color theory isnt a hard science theory. But rather a humanist theory as such it is not entirely mathematically self consistent. Its alo not based on human perception, but rather on how colors mix together and you usually get brown by mixing all colors like water colors or oil paints due to the imperfection of inks. This should also place the color picking theory into a different light as it tells you what kind of color span you can get.
    – joojaa
    Aug 23, 2021 at 4:19

1 Answer 1


Defining neutral colours

You can't clearly define 'neutral' colours, partly because it is really subjective, but also as it depends on what colours you combine it with.

My definition of a neutral colour might be:
A colour that does not stand out in a given set of colours

If for instance you got a square card that is half red half yellow. What is the more neutral colour to the card; gray or orange? I would say orange looks more neutral in this context.

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Why is brown a neutral colour

The saturation of a colour is the main factor if a colour on its own is perceived as neutral. Brown is pretty much a name for de-saturated tones of orange/red. For other colours there is just no separate name for these desaturated shades and we would just call them "blue-ish grey" for example.

Best combinable colours

Colours generally harmonize best with similar mixed colours. So purple goes better with red or blue, than with it's complementary (/opposite) colour green. So in a way looking at the complimentary colour is like finding the least matching colour. Between the complementary pairs "Red/Cyan" and "Orange/Blue" are the most aesthetically pleasing due to their cold/warm contrast. So when we take the definition of neutral "something that goes with everything" these base colours should be most neutral. And when these are desaturated we get: "brown/blue-ish grey".

The human side

The way we read colour is influenced much by the occurrences of this colour. So it makes more sense for humans to put more focus on for example red (blood), green (plants), blue (water), rather than for brown (like dirt/earth)...

  • 1
    Very true about "the human side". Brown terrain is all around us, so perhaps we tend to regard it as the "neutral" background. Also perhaps worth noting that one of the links provided by the OP is about makeup which mostly revolves around skintones.
    – Wolff
    Aug 24, 2021 at 16:28

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