What Color is Van Dyke Brown?

I remember the early days of Top Chef, when everyone was wondering how exciting it would be - or not - to watch a bunch of people on TV describing how things tasted, and why one dish was superior to another. Let’s face it, a well worded description can only go so far. It’s kind of the same thing when we try to describe colors. Take for example Van Dyke Brown.

Anthony Van Dyck was a Flemish Baroque painter who lived from 1599 to 1641. He showed great promise as a painter early in life, probably because he never had to spend time studying Algebra, which had not yet been invented. Like most other painters of this period, his subjects were poorly lit, and figures or scenes simply drifted into a murky brown darkness. What’s not to love about that? Fully clothed in low light is my best look.

Portrait of Sir Kenelm Digby with a Sunflower by Anthony Van Dyck

Portrait of Sir Kenelm Digby with a Sunflower by Anthony Van Dyck

So how did he get pegged with this signature brown? After all, there are a lot of variations to brown. Let’s go right to the source.

Here is a portrait of Sir Kenelm Digby with a sunflower by Anthony Van Dyck. It’s literally packed with browns. Warm browns, cool browns, browns with a yellow base, and browns tending more greenish. Brown must have been on sale at Hobby Lobby that week.

How do we decide, then, among all these many browns, which one is the Van Dyke brown. Turns out, there are as many opinions on that as there are browns in this painting. So I decided to go on a hunt for the definitive Van Dyke brown.

I ordered some watercolors and gouaches to see what the manufacturers think is Van Dyke brown. Every one of them claims to have that color. But kind of like the Top Chef judges, everybody has an opinion as well. Here is what I found.

Chart of Van Dyke brown watercolors from 10 different manufacturers

I bought ten different brands of Van Dyke brown watercolors: Grumbacher Academy, Windsor and Newton Cotman, Daler-Rowney Artists, Daler-Rowney Aquafine, Dr. P. H. Martins, Windsor and Newton Artists, Maimeri Blu, Daniel Smith, Sennelier, and Van Gogh. Then I made this little chart.

Really, you could make a case for pretty much any of these browns as being the Van Dyke brown, as you could identify almost all of them in the painting of poor Sir Kenelm Digby there, posing with a sunflower the size of his head.

And how much fun is it to have a color named after you, only to find out it is brown instead of some snazzy green or sizzling orange? Van Dyck the fashionista was not to be deterred by this small detail, as he also had a collar and a beard named after him, so take that Sherwin Williams.

The name Van Dyke brown is actually derived from a photographic printing process developed in the late 1800s, long after Van Dyck’s death and the invention of Algebra. The process produces prints in a shade of brown similar to the brown Van Dyck used in his paintings. Don’t ask me which one.