Egyptian Painting a Business Profile

October 1, 2017 / Mary Kee

Tomb of Queen Nefertari Canvas Art

While ancient Egypt battled with a succession of foreigners and local powers, they also built pyramids, temples, and obelisks based on a system of mathematics and stylized beauty. During this time of empire building, Egyptians also explored the science of mineralogy combining ground  rock with natural elements to create a variety of paint pigments. By the early Dynastic Period around 3000 BC this new technology experienced developments in processing and marketing of malachite, azurite, gypsum, turquoise, native iron, cinnabar and lime.

Unlike today’s simplicity of squeezing paint from a tube and applying it to a gesso primed canvas, the early Egyptians had to first complete a series of lengthy steps that started with the drying and grinding of natural products. Colors for an Artist’s inspiration would vary from rare stones to charcoal or local spices and flowers, giving insight to the descriptive term ‘oxblood red.’

Egypt was the first to introduce the washing of pigments to increase hue strength and purity in a process called lake-making. From this method they produced new, deeper shades of color, the most famous of which was Egyptian blue first made using azurite and later copper with iron oxides. Red, the color of skin, also represented destruction and was made from realgar, an arsenic sulfide mineral known as “ruby Sulphur” or the earlier oxidized iron and red ocher. Green represented goodness or growth and was mixed from malachite, a copper mineral. Bright yellow symbolizing gold, came from orpiment or dried ocher and oxides. Other plant material such as dried cinnamon, peppers, vegetables, leaves, and charcoal were commonly considered as the first pigments for dyes. More information on the materials used to make pigments, as well as a discussion of the symbolism of various colors can be found by searching ‘Aspects of Color in Ancient Egypt’ at Egyptological.

Egyptian artists knew instinctively that the color of hard mineral base paints would stand up to the harsh desert sun. However, before paint could be applied to a limestone wall or decorative column, the surface would be planed flat with a clay/mud plaster to reduce the rough texture of limestone. The dried work area would then be treated with a resin or gesso chalk mixture. It was only after days of cleaning and sanding that a prepared surface was set for decoration. Scene elements were first planned and sketched out before drafted onto a wall using a red translucent paint. The creative process to follow was systematic, applying one paint color at a time by hydrating powder pigments with clay or tannin to form a pliable compound that could bind to the gesso surface. Mixing mediums were formed using gums and resin from woody plants or collegian glues obtained from animal hides. These adhesive binders also made the pigment workable as fluid paints with body that could grip to sketched or carved stone and fabric. Through this series of carefully planned application and color selections the Egyptian artists left a well preserved cipher that hints at their ancient way of life, values and beliefs.

Interestingly, among the variety of artifacts found in Tutankhamen’s tomb, meant to accompany the King through his afterlife, was a small wood container or ancient Egyptian paint box. Inside the box were the color pigments orpiment orange, red ochre and malachite. For more information search ‘King Tutankhamun paint box.’

Nebamun hunting birds, Thebes, Egypt, 1350 BC

Article by Carleen R. Hagger, Art Guide Staff

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