Ancient Colours

As I make and use natural artisanal artist paint, I always research different artisanal paints in the history. It is very inspiring for artists to know which colours and materials artists in the past used. What we see of ancient art can be deceptive because the original paint might have flaked away. Careful observation and scientific research can reveal a great deal of original colours.

Colours in Ancient Egyptian Art

Sowing & Plowing in the Fields, Tomb of Sennedjem

Sowing & Plowing in the Fields, Tomb of Sennedjem, Deir el-Medina

Ancient Egyptian paintings survived the lapse of time relatively well due to the dry climate. The wall paintings and painted reliefs tell us a great deal on the life and culture of the Old, Middle and New Kingdom. Ancient Egyptian artists depicted not only life but expressed some deeper meaning with symbolic use of colours and objects.

Colour Symbolism in Ancient Egypt

Egyptologist Richard H. Wilkinson has provided symbolic associations for  the 6 basic ancient Egyptian colours of white, black, red, blue, yellow and green:

white represents ritual purity, sacredness, southern Egypt (“white Crown”) and can be associated with white sacred animals;

black represents night, death, resurrection and fertility;

red represents life and regeneration, anger, death and destruction;

blue represents the heavens, the primeval flood, the Nile river, and the god Amun-Re;

green represents life, growing things, and resurrection;

and yellow represents the sun, the eternal, and can be associated with the flesh and bones of the gods.

Materials of Ancient Egyptian Painters 

Both wall paintings and painted reliefs had layers of plaster underneath which was applied over mud brick or stone. Once the surface was made ready, the artist would draw grid lines in red pigment dust to properly proportion the figures and lay out the scenes. Paints were made by mixing the pigments with a plant or animal based glue to make a medium able to attach to the walls. Pigments were mostly ground minerals. White was often made from gypsum, black from carbon, reds and yellows from iron oxides, blue and green from azurite and malachite, and bright yellow (representing gold) from orpiment. Not all the colours survived the time in their original shade. Recent research has shown that the green objects that were thought to be painted in “natural” green could have actually been painted a light blue which degraded into green in time.