Something that can be hard to remember when thinking about the ancient world is how vibrantly, even garishly, coloured much of the elite culture actually was. My mental image of Greek statuary stubbornly remains that of pure white marble, even though I’ve seen many representations of “what it once looked like”. Despite knowing better, it was still almost a shock to see Assyrian relief carvings in a recent British Museum exhibition illuminated with the colours they were once painted. So one of the joys of Ancient Egyptian artifacts and architecture is that often you don’t need to studiously remind yourself of the colours, because they are still there to see! Go into any Egyptian gallery in a museum and see the vibrant and intricately decorated coffins. Visit the tombs of kings, queens and even nobles on the West Bank at Luxor and you can see many wall paintings, some of which still look fresh and as if they were finished yesterday. Even some of the temples, where the art hasn’t been locked away underground or otherwise out of the elements, still have enough colour that you are sure you can tell how it must’ve looked when newly painted.

Four columns and ceiling at the temple of Medinet Habu in Egypt showing colour survival on the stone.
Colour Survival at Medinet Habu

The Egyptian approach to colour is not that of traditional post-Renaissance European art, they were not interested in subtle graduations of colour designed to convey a realistic view of a subject. Instead they usually applied their paint in flat washes, colour by colour, and used drawn outlines to give the shapes definition and to add detail. There are exceptions, of course, sometimes the fur of an animal would be carefully painted to look like fur. Or the scales of a fish, or the veining of a fine stone vase. Choice of colours tended towards the schematic rather than realistic, particularly for human skin colour where there were accepted conventions for the colour of Egyptian men (reddish brown), Egyptian women (paler pink or yellow ochre) and various groups of foreigners. Mixing of paints was also less common than in Western art, although it was sometimes done – in particular the addition of white to lighten & opacify another colour. Translucent washes of colour on top of one another were also used – sometimes to produce a different colour through optical mixing and sometimes to indicate that a piece of linen clothing was of such fine quality that the wearer’s limbs could be seen through it.

The main pigments used were identified by Egyptologists in the late 19th Century, but analytical techniques have improved since then. Over the last couple of decades more pigments have been identified and some pigments have turned out to be more commonly used than previously thought. Most of the pigments are mineral based, rather than organic – although black is an exception to that as it was generally made from soot or charcoal.

The yellows and reds were primarily derived from ochre which is a mineral earth that contains iron oxide, and this pigment is still used in modern paints. The colour can range from yellow through to brown depending on the hydration levels of the iron oxide, and ochre that contains haematite is a red colour. As well as this there were other yellows derived from earths containing iron sulphate, and a bright yellow was obtained from orpiment (an arsenic sulphide mineral). Orpiment is an example of a pigment that was once thought to be rare, before modern analytical techniques showed it is part of the standard suite of pigments from at least the Middle Kingdom. As well as being very toxic orpiment also fades quickly, in a matter of hours if it is not varnished, so areas of paint that were a slightly sparkly yellow for the original viewers are now a sludgy off white colour. Another arsenic sulphide used as a pigment is the red mineral realgar which is a more orange-y red than red ochre. It is used from the New Kingdom period onward, and like orpiment it is both toxic and fades (to a yellow colour).

There are multiple white pigments as well. The most common are calcium carbonate and calcium sulphate based, but a more brilliant white was also obtained from a mineral called huntite. The various whites, as with the other pigments, were not just used as substitutes for each other. Sometimes more than one variant was used in the same piece of art to create different effects. The background of a wall painting might be done in a calcium carbonate based white, which would give a creamy white colour. And then the clothes of the figures might be painted in a huntite based white so they stood out as brighter white against the background.

Most greens were mineral based (generally malachite) but some green and almost all blues during the Pharaonic period were made using an artificial pigment. This is another first for the ancient Egyptians as Egyptian blue is the first known artificial pigment. It is made from a mixture of limestone (calcium carbonate), quartz sand and a copper containing mineral (like malachite) or scrap metal. These are heated together with an alkali such as natron to a high heat (~900°C) for some time (as much as 3 days!) until a glassy “frit” is formed. Altering the proportions of the ingredients changes the colour so both greens & blues can be produced – the green was more rarely used than the blue. The glassy substance produced is ground down to be used as a pigment and the finer it is ground the more pale the resulting paint.

Of course, paint is not just pigment – you also need a liquid binding medium to make it flow and stick to the surface you are painting. The ancient Egyptians used either a plant gum (like gum Arabic) or animal glue for this. They might also varnish the finished work, the shiny yellow coffins of the 21st Dynasty are an obvious example of this. Some areas of wall paintings were also varnished – part of the reason that Nefertari’s tomb paintings look so fresh and new is that the reds and yellows have been varnished with egg white & resins.

The survival of colour on so much Egyptian art is part of what makes it eye-catching amongst a sea of marble statues & limestone reliefs. It’s also clear that the distinctive look of the art is not just about how the subjects were drawn. The techniques used to apply the paint and the palette of pigments used are a part of what makes something recognisably Egyptian.

Resources used:

“Egyptian Art” Cyril Aldred
“House of Eternity: The Tomb of Nefertari” John K. McDonald
“The Painted Tomb-Chapel of Nebamun” Richard Parkinson
“The Art of Ancient Egypt” Gay Robins
“Illuminating the Path of Darkness: Artificial Light in Ancient Egyptian Ritual” Meghan Strong (talk given to the Essex Egyptology Group, see my write up on my other blog)
“The Coffins of Nespawershefyt and Pakepu at the Fitzwilliam Museum” Helen Strudwick (talk given to the Essex Egyptology Group, see my write up on my other blog)
“Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife of Ancient Egypt” ed. Helen Strudwick and Julie Dawson
“Egyptian Wall Painting” Franceso Tiradritti

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