Egyptian Colour Palette
Pigments Used by Painters in Ancient Egypt.

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Fayum Mummy Portrait
(1st Century BCE) Louvre.
Encaustic paint on board. One of
the few surviving paintings of
Egyptian antiquity.

Egyptian Colour Palette (From c.3,000 BCE)

Fine art painting in Ancient Egypt was used to decorate tombs, temples, public buildings, and ceramic pottery. Painting not only coloured the walls of New Kingdom tombs, but endowed the houses and palaces of the living with great beauty. Wonderful landscape frescos featuring reeds, water, birds, and animals enhanced the walls, ceilings, and floors of the palaces of Amarna and elsewhere. Sadly, after the 19th Dynasty (1295-1186 BCE), under Pharaohs like Ramesses I, Seti I, Merenptah, Amenmesse and others, there was a steady downturn in the quality of such artwork. There were other forms of painting practised, albeit on a smaller scale, such as painting on papyrus, furniture, and wooden coffins, which endured until the latest periods of Egyptian history.

Luxor (c.1979)
A vivid contemporary example of
the colour and light of Egypt.
By Padraig MacMiadhachain (b.1929)
one of Ireland's lesser-known
abstract landscape painters.

For analysis and meanings,
see: Definition of Art.

For details of pigments, dyes and
colours associated with different
eras in the history of art, see:
Prehistoric Colour Palette
Hues used by Stone Age painters.
Classical Colour Palette
Pigments used by painters in
Ancient Greece and Rome.
Renaissance Colour Palette
Colourts used by oil-painters and
fresco artists in Florence, Rome
and Venice.
Eighteenth Century Colour Palette
Hues used by Rococo and other
Nineteenth Century Colour Palette
Pigments used by Romantics,
Impressionist painters and
other 19th century artists.

Colours Used By Egyptian Painters

Like all aspects of art in Ancient Egypt, the use of colour in Egyptian paintings was highly symbolic and strictly regulated. Egyptian painters relied on six colours in their palette: red, green, blue, yellow, white and black. Red, the colour of power, indicated life and victory, plus anger and fire. Green symbolized new life, growth, and fertility, while blue represented creation and rebirth, and yellow stood for the eternal, such as the sun and gold. Yellow was the colour of Ra and of all the pharaohs, which is why their sarcophagi were constructed from gold to symbolize the everlasting and eternal pharaoh who was now a god. White hues represented purity, symbolized all things sacred, and were usually used in religious objects used by priests. Black was the colour of death and symbolized the underworld and the night.

For details of other types of ancient art in Egypt, please see: Egyptian Architecture (c.3000 BCE - 160 CE).

For a guide to the use of pigment
by painters, the impact of chemistry
and paint manufacturing techniques,
famous colourists from Renaissance,
Baroque, Impressionist, Fauvist and
contemporary periods, see:
Colour in Painting.
For information about the concepts
and ideas involved in colour, see:
Colour Theory in Painting.
For advice about combining
hues, see: Colour Mixing Tips.

For an A-Z list of important artist
pigments, from Antiquity through
Medieval times, Renaissance, Baroque,
Impressionism and Modern Art, see:
Colour Pigments: Types, History.
For the definition and meaning of
colour terminology in painting, see:
Colour Glossary For Artists.

Demand For New Pigments

Both the wealthy royal court and the priestly hierarchy demanded ever more sophisticated artworks for religious, symbolic and decorative reasons. This in turn led to a growing demand for paint-pigments - don't forget, even the Egyptian pyramids were coloured! To obtain the requisite amounts of pigment, two methods of sourcing were developed: first, an industrial-scale system of mining and ore-processing; second, extensive trading arrangements with overseas suppliers of dyes and colourants. Such efforts steadily extended the materials and colour-tones available to Egyptian painters involved in fresco work, tempera painting and encaustic paint.

Colour Pigments Used by Egyptian Painters

As mentioned above, the six basic colours on the colour palette of most Egyptian artists were: red, green, blue, yellow, white and black. Most of the colour-pigments used were natural in origin except for Egyptian Blue Frit, which was probably the first synthetic colour produced by human colour-makers. As far as we know, the Egyptian painter's palette was based on the following pigments:

Red Colours
The only red hues known to ancient civilization were natural earth minerals such as Red Iron Oxide and Cinnabar. Madder and Indigo were known principally as textile dyes, but may also have been employed in ink-form as artists pigments. For red-orange colours, the Egyptians relied on realgar. Chemically related to the yellow pigment orpiment, the mineral ore Realgar was employed widely throughout the Middle East until the 19th century.

Green Colours
The basic Egyptian green came from Malachite a natural green copper ore, mined along with its blue variant called Azurite.

Blue Colours
These derived from Azurite and a beautiful dark blue hue called Egyptian Blue, made synthetically from ground blue glass (calcium copper silicate). Also known as Egyptian Blue Frit, this dark blue pigment was used to colour a number of different mediums like stone, wood, plaster, papyrus, and canvas.

Yellow Colours
Egyptian artists relied on rich lemon yellow pigment called Orpiment. First used in the Middle East and Asia before the Egyptian 1st Dynasty (2920-2770 BCE), it was - despite its high toxicity and impermanence - the only bright yellow known.

White Colours
These were derived from the mineral Gypsum, which was mined for white. Chalk was also used.

Black Colours
The only black pigments known to have been used in Ancient Egypt were Lamp Black and various forms of carbon black from charcoal.

Egyptian Arts and Design

For more about the visual arts of Ancient Egypt, see:

- Early Egyptian Architecture (The large pyramids and Sphinx)
- Egyptian Middle Kingdom Architecture (Small pyramids)
- Egyptian New Kingdom Architecture (Temples at Luxor and Karnak)
- Late Egyptian Architecture (Stylistic mixture)

• For information about colour pigments and painting, see: Homepage.

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