When archeologists began discovering ancient Egyptian paintings, they were found in tombs and burial places. This is important, as the paintings were never meant to be seen by human eyes after the tombs were closed. The Egyptians painted the walls and ceilings in the belief that the one who had passed would be able to take all of the images of their life with them and only the deceased and the Egyptian gods would ever see the paintings.
When you look at ancient Egyptian paintings, they seem very formal as compared to Greek or Roman paintings and art. While the Egyptians ruled for over 3,000 years, their art and painting didn’t change very much. The tombs of the pharaohs were covered in colorful representations of the one who had passed, living a happy life, with plenty to eat and drink and weather always perfect. The pharaohs were even shown with all of their slaves around them, so that they could serve and care for them in the afterlife.
Egyptian painting was used in a number of ways, including painting directly on the surface. Another method was to create a ‘relief’, which is a raised image above the background and then carefully painting the details of the image. There is a second type of relief which was carved out and is referred to as ‘sunk relief’, and the images were painted with a raised background surrounding them. Although most of the Egyptian statutes that we see today do not show any color, they were originally painted with bright and what we might consider today to be gaudy colors. They believe that even the Sphinx was at one time brightly painted.
The paint that the Egyptians used was colored or dyed using minerals that were naturally found in their area and some that they imported. The favorite colors that were used in painting were: red, blue, green, gold, and black; but they also used white, pink and gray. The colors and all of the objects found in tombs were preserved due to the cool dry environment and that’s why we can see them today with such bright tones. Artists would grind the minerals into a fine dust and then mix them with a kind of ‘glue’ made from animals or plants. It was important to make just the right mixture because the paint had to not only stick to the walls, but was designed to last forever.
Colors were taken very seriously in ancient Egypt and the colors and tones that they chose for each painting were carefully selected. There were differences in skin tone color between men and women. Men had a darker reddish brown to reflect their outdoor life and women had a lighter, almost yellow-brown color to show they lived mostly indoors or in a sheltered location.
Each color that the ancient Egyptians used was also a symbol, many of these we continue to use today.
- Blue represented the sky, water, the heavens, the ancient flood and both rebirth and creation.
- Red was the color of fire, anger, life, chaos, victory and hostility.
- Yellow represented eternal, imperishable, indestructible
- Green was the color of vegetation, growth, joy, fertility, new life and regeneration
- White is the color of cleanliness, power, purity, simplicity
Egyptian artists mixed the colors so that they could show details in the paintings that were closer to real life. Many of the colors had a number of different shades, depending upon what they were going to be used for. Some of the Egyptian gods were also displayed with specific colors. Hapi, the river god was always painted in blue to represent the water. Each of the gods had his or her own specific color and it included any clothing as well as their skin. Even the god Anubis had his jackal head painted black, because he was the god of the dead. Royalty was often painted with both blue and gold, which were the symbols of strength and power.