Ancient Egyptian art and painting typically featured a small palette of colors that were used extensively throughout their history. While not having access to the wide variety of synthetic pigments that are available today, Egyptian artists mixed minerals, clays, and other natural sources to produce a distinctive color palette that was symbolic and culturally significant.
By examining artifacts and paintings that have survived from Ancient Egypt, archaeologists and art historians have identified the 5 dominant pigments that were most commonly used in their art and painting.
One of the most iconic Egyptian colors was a vivid blue pigment known as Egyptian blue, calcium copper silicate, or cuprorivaite. This striking blue was widely used in Egyptian art and artifacts from the 4th Dynasty in the Old Kingdom (c. 2575–2150 BCE) through the end of the Ptolemaic period in 30 BCE.
To create this pigment, quartz was heated with a copper compound like malachite or azurite and combined with lime and an alkali flux to create the distinct Egyptian blue color. The process was very complex and required high heat, so the ability to manufacture Egyptian blue was an impressive technological advancement at the time.
This synthetic blue was highly prized and was associated with divine energies and the heavens. It was used to color art and jewelry across social classes due to its luxury status. The vivid blue creates a striking background in wall paintings and is also used in depictions of lapis lazuli jewelry.
Vibrant red ochre pigments created from iron oxide-rich clay deposits were also abundantly used throughout Ancient Egyptian history. Red ochre provides an earthy red tone that was associated with vitality and power.
Red ochre was readily available from clay deposits along the Nile river and in the Eastern Desert, so it was a commonly accessible pigment. It was used for murals, to paint sarcophagi, and in burials practices associated with rebirth.
When combined with gum arabic binders, the red ochre could be used to create a vivid paint. Red ochre provides a strong symbolic color in artworks associated with divinity, ritual, and afterlife beliefs.
Like red ochre, yellow ochre is another earth pigment that was readily available in Ancient Egypt from local clay deposits. This hydrated iron oxide mineral creates vivid yellow earth tones.
Yellow ochre was widely used for painting murals, elaborate architectural details, and in burials. It represented gold and the skin of the gods and was associated with eternal life. Yellow ochre was sometimes mixed with other pigments to create green tones.
The vibrant yellow pigment was also applied to sarcophagi and burial wrappings to associate the deceased with the gods and symbolize revival in the afterlife. It provides a bright, warm accent color throughout Egyptian paintings.
Green pigments were created by Ancient Egyptian artisans through a mixture of yellow ochre and blue pigments. They would mix blue azurite or Egyptian blue with yellow ochre clays to produce vibrant green tones.
Green was strongly associated with vegetation, growth, life and fertility. It was the color of living things along the Nile and the growth that came with the seasonal floods. Green paint was often used in depictions of plants and trees.
Green was also connected with regeneration, freshness and vitality. Green pigments were commonly used in wall paintings, sarcophagi, and papyrus paintings to symbolize renewal.
Rich black pigment completed the Egyptian palette and provided bold outlining and details. The black was primarily created from carbon soot or burnt organic materials such as bones, ivory or wood.
Egyptians would grind the carbon particles from these fire-based blacks to create a paint or ink. This pure black provided strong contrast and was used for outlining figures and shapes as well as symbolic details like hieroglyphs or animal markings.
Black had connotations of death and the underworld, but also regeneration and eternal life. It balanced the color palette while accentuating important motifs.
Use of Symbolism
This core Egyptian palette of blue, red, yellow, green and black provided a rich vocabulary of symbolic color. While the pigments themselves were sourced from the natural world, they carried spiritual meanings.
Color was associated with the gods, power, fertility, afterlife and eternity. Whether painted on temple walls, royal artifacts or burial tombs, the colors conveyed meaning and beliefs to the ancient viewers.
The vibrant palette reflecting the natural world reinforced Egypt’s complex iconography and belief system for both mortals and divine entities. The carefully blended mineral and earth pigments create a bright, enduring color palette that characterizes Ancient Egyptian art and culture.
These five pigments can be seen prominently in many of the great works of Egyptian art that have survived from antiquity. Here are some famous examples:
- The Nefertari tomb (1295–1255 BCE) features extensive wall paintings with yellow ochre, red ochre, black, blue and green tones filling the compositions with color symbolism.
- The mask of Tutankhamun (c.1327 BCE) has vivid blue, yellow, black and red pigments in thestriped nemes headcloth along with golden tones created using yellow ochre.
- The Book of the Dead papyri paintings (c. 1550–1070 BCE) showcase the vibrant palette, with each pigment carrying symbolic meaning related to funerary practices.
- Sarcophagi like that of Seti I (c.1279 BCE) were often fully painted, with black outlines filled in with alternating stripes of blue, yellow, green and red in broad panels.
- The paintings from Pharaoh Thutmose III’s tomb (c.1400 BCE) demonstrate extensive use of the core palette, with blue and yellow tones dominating mythological scenes.
Evolution Over Dynasties
While this core Egyptian palette remained relatively constant, there are some subtle shifts in the use of color across the span of Ancient Egypt from the Early Dynastic Period to the Ptolemaic Dynasty:
- In the Early Dynastic Period, elegant carved palettes for grinding pigments emerge as the purity of colors become more valued.
- The Old Kingdom sees extensive use of polychrome statues painted with black, red, blue and gold tones as pyramid complexes display colorful murals.
- During the Middle Kingdom, illustrated funerary texts and papyri increase, highlighting symbolic colors associated with burial rituals.
- The New Kingdom experiences a palette shift to brighter tones, as seen in the vivid blues and yellows of the Tomb of Nefertari.
- By the Late Period, an expanded use of green and pink tones emerges, along with some loss of technique and purity of pigments.
However, the core palette of blue, red, yellow, green and black with its symbolic meanings remains relatively stable from dynasty to dynasty. Continuity in using traditional pigments was an important part of maintaining Egyptians’ cultural identity and belief system.
Materials and Manufacturing
The creation of the pigments for each color involved complex processes of harvesting minerals, grinding materials, and in some cases heating ingredients over very high temperatures.
As a synthetic pigment, Egyptian blue was manufactured by an advanced process involving several steps:
- Minerals like malachite, azurite and quartz were crushed into a fine powder.
- The mineral powder was combined with sand, a flux like natron, lime and an alkali like plant ash.
- This mixture was heated between 850-1000°C in a furnace for several days.
- The resulting molten material was ground again to produce the pigment powder.
The detailed process was carefully guarded and the manufacturing sites strictly controlled in cities like Alexandria. Export and use of Egyptian blue eventually spread to the Near East, Roman Empire and beyond.
Red and Yellow Ochre
The earth ochre pigments were sourced from iron-rich clay deposits:
- Clay material containing iron oxides was dug from ocher pits and river deposits.
- The raw clay was treated to remove impurities and soaked to soften it.
- After drying, the purified clay was carefully ground by hand against a hard stone palette or in a mortar to produce the pigment powder.
Depending on the type of clay deposit, the process yielded either the vibrant red of iron oxide-rich red ochre or yellow hydrated iron oxide ochre.
Carbon black was also prepared using a multi-stage process:
- Organic material like bone, ivory, wood or seeds was charred or burnt to form carbonized particles.
- The carbonized material was collected and ground against stone to form a fine black powder.
- To produce richer black pigment, the process was repeated multiple times.
The pure blacks created through this process were prized for their deep, rich color.
While synthetic green pigments eventually emerged, early Egyptian greens were produced by blending:
- Blue pigment particles like azurite or Egyptian blue were combined with yellow ochre.
- The particles were ground together using a mortar and pestle or stone palette to create the hue of green.
- Plant gums or egg binders were added to create usable green paint.
The green paint was used to depict plants, vegetation, and associated symbols.
Methods of Application
The highly refined Ancient Egyptian pigments were mixed with various binders to allow their application as paint:
- Water-based fresco: Pigments were mixed with water and applied to wet plaster walls to be absorbed and set as the plaster dried.
- Tempera: Pigments were mixed with egg yolks to create an emulsion that dried as a flexible matte paint.
- Gum Arabic: The pigments were combined with gum from acacia trees to produce opaque watercolor style pigments.
- Beeswax: Melted beeswax allowed pigments to be mixed into durable encaustic paints.
In addition to paints, the pure pigment powder was used to color stone statuary, cosmetics, pottery glazes, glass, and faience materials.
The Ancient Egyptians produced an elegant palette of blue, red, yellow, green and black pigments from natural mineral, clay, and carbon sources. While limited in scope, these five dominant colors were blended, layered and applied with sophistication to create symbolically rich works of painting and art.
The vibrant hues continue to impress modern viewers while conveying messages about Egyptian beliefs, identity and vision of the cosmos. The durable pigments maintained their integrity over millennia and allow us to still glimpse the colorful world of Ancient Egypt.