Ancient Mediterranean + Europe
- Ancient Egypt, an introduction
- Ancient Egyptian chronology and historical framework
- Ancient Egyptian art
- Materials and techniques in ancient Egyptian art
- The mummification process
- Mummification and funeral rites
- Private tombs, portals to the afterlife
- Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs overview
- Creation myths and form(s) of the gods in ancient Egypt
- Egyptian deities
- Egyptian Social Organization—from the Pharaoh to the farmer (Part 1)
- Egyptian Social Organization—from the Pharaoh to the farmer (Part 2)
- Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Mortuary Texts
Materials and techniques in ancient Egyptian art
by Dr. Amy Calvert
A wide variety
Egyptian artists used a wide array of materials, both local and imported, from very early in their history. For instance, already in the Predynastic period we find figurines carved from lapis lazuli—a lustrous blue stone that originates in what is now Afghanistan and indicates the early presence of robust trade routes.
Group of stones collected in Egypt showing the range of colors and textures available to the ancient artists.
Menkaure (Mycerinus) and Khamerernebty(?), graywacke, c. 2490-2472 B.C.E. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
There were numerous native stones used for statuary, including the ubiquitous soft limestone of the desert cliffs that line most of the Nile valley, as well as sandstone, calcite, and schist.
Harder stones include quartzite, diorite, granite, and basalt. Carving on softer stones was done using copper chisels and stone tools; hard stone required tools of yet harder stone, copper alloys, and the use of abrasive sand to shape them. Polishing was achieved with a smooth rubbing stone and abrasive sands with a fine grit.
Most statuary was painted; even stones selected for the symbolism of their color were often painted. For instance, the exemplary statues of Menkare, builder of the smallest of the three major pyramids at Giza, were executed in dark schist (also called greywacke). This smooth black stone is connected with Osiris, resurrected god of the dead who was often shown with black or green skin referring to the fertile silt and lush vegetation of the Nile valley.
These images preserve traces of red paint on the king’s skin indicating that, when completed and placed in his memorial temple near his pyramid, they would have appeared lifelike in coloration. With time, the paint would have flaked away, revealing the black stone underneath and explicitly linking the deceased king with the Lord of the Underworld.
Ceremonial gilded wooden shield from the tomb of Tutakhamun. Egyptian Museum, Cairo (New Kingdom)
Egyptian artists also used a variety of woods in their work, including the native acacia, tamarisk, and sycamore fig as well as fir, cedar, and other conifers imported from Syria. Artisans excelled at puzzling together small, irregular pieces of wood and pegged them into place to create statuary, coffins, boxes, and furniture.
They also executed pieces in various metals, including copper, copper alloys (such as bronze), gold, and silver. Cult statues of gods were made in gold and silver—materials identified by myth as their skin and bones—and were often quite small. Very few metal statues survive because they were often melted down and the material reused, although preserved examples from the Old and Middle Kingdoms demonstrate that they were skilled not only in sheet metal forming, but also practiced complex casting.
Tutankhamun's lunar pectoral in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo (New Kingdom)
Jewelry work was quite sophisticated even in the Old Kingdom, as demonstrated by some highly creative pieces depicted in tomb scenes. A cache of royal jewelry from the tombs of Middle Kingdom princesses displays extremely high levels of skill in terms of design as well as precisely cut stone inlays, repoussé, and cloisonné
Many objects, especially small amulets and inlays, were made from a manufactured material known as Egyptian faience. This quartz-based medium could be easily shaped, molded, and mass produced. The glaze coating could be almost any color, depending on the minerals used in the composition, although turquoise blue is the most common.
Relief was usually carved before being painted. The two primary classes of relief are raised relief (where the figures stand up out from the surface) and sunk relief (where the figures are cut into and below the surface). The surface would be smoothed with a layer of plaster and then painted. If the surface was not carved before painting, several layers of mud plaster would be applied to create a flat plane.
Painted raised relief in the Temple of Seti I at Abydos (New Kingdom)
The drawing surface would be delineated using gridded guidelines, snapped onto the wall using string coated in red pigment dust (very much like chalk lines used by modern carpenters). This grid helped the artists properly proportion the figures and lay out the scenes. Scene elements were drafted out using red paint, corrections noted in black paint, and then the painting was executed one color at a time. Even on carved relief, many elements in a scene would be executed only in paint and not cut into the surface.
Iron oxide nodules, source of a range of red pigments, Thebes
Most pigments in Egypt were derived from native 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. These minerals were ground and then mixed with a plant or animal based glue to make a medium able to attach to the walls. They could be applied as a single plane, but were also layered to create subtle effects and additional colors, such as pink or grey.
Nicholson, P. & Ian Shaw, Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology (Cambridge University Press, 2000)
Essay and photos by Dr. Amy Calvert
Want to join the conversation?
- What are repoussé and cloisonné?(4 votes)
- Repoussé is a metal-working technique that involves hammering a malleable metal from its reverse side to end up with a type of low relief. Cloisonné is a more complicated technique using small inlaid wires (or strips) of color to form a pattern or design on a certain object.(10 votes)
- Does anybody know where I can find the "Aspects of Color in Ancient Egypt" article? I tried looking it up and didn't find any mention of the article or of Egyptological.(4 votes)
- The painted raised relief of Seti I looks sunken to me when I look at the surrounding details of the scene, the arms are the only parts as far as I can tell that look raised. They mention how little they actually would cut into the stone, so is this a trick of my eye or do I actually see more sunken objects than raised?(4 votes)
- Check this video out. You were probably being tricked by this illusion. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rc6LRxjqzkA(3 votes)
- Interesting information about the paint and "glue" used to paint the reliefs. My question is this: What sort of "brushes" or tools may they have used to apply the paint. We learned earlier about how paleolithic artists used their hand often. Was there more advanced technology in Ancient Egypt?(2 votes)
- The brushes were typically made of reeds chewed at one end to separate the fibers.(2 votes)
- if you painted the relief before it was "relieved" or carved, wouldn't that mar the paint? Also, when you say the "surface would be smoothed with a layer of plaster and then painted" does that mean they would flatten out the relief they just carved or just clean up some of their imperfections?(2 votes)
- In the hyroglyfic's in the tomb of king Tut, why is the message saying that anyone who is going to raid his tomb will be cursed?(1 vote)
- They thought that their pharaohs were Horus incarnate, and after death linked their souls to Osiris. If you defiled the sacred tomb of the pharaoh, you would be blaspheming against both Horus and Osiris. The curses were place there to try to... well... DISPOSE of the thief (or thieves), and to help re-sanctify the tomb of their presence.(3 votes)
- Something I've been reading about and trying to find a definitive answer but do we know what kind of paint the Egyptians used? I often see artifacts labeled "paint" or "pigment" and a few textbooks that have suggested tempera, but nothing definitive.(1 vote)
- Would you consider doing an article on painting techniques?(1 vote)
- We discuss painting techniques in several videos though we do it from an art historical perspective, not as a how-to. Have a look at:
https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-history-basics/tools-understanding-art/v/goya-third-may and https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/renaissance-reformation/renaissance-venice/venice-early-ren/v/oil-paint-in-venice(1 vote)
- What distortions mark ancient Egyptian portrayals of human figures? And why were these distortions used?(1 vote)
- how long did it take to make one statue?(1 vote)
- my best guess is like three to six months, or even up to a year depending on size, quality, and the methods of the individual artist.(1 vote)