Egyptian painting

Fragment of linen with a painting (Museum of Turin), ca. 3500 BCE.-Predynastic period. The figure of a man is carrying fishing nets out of the water. This is the first known example of a painting as an independent art, i.e. not applied to ceramics, and with the exception of prehistoric cave paintings, we can say that this is the first known painting of the history of art.

In Ancient Egypt painting and drawing primarily represented a form of writing, an ornamental writing that followed strict religious precepts. Egyptian painting was pure convention, in a way in that shape and color were present only to evoke a rite, to express an intention.

Whether the paint was applied on stone or a wall, or even on wood, the artist initially covered the surface with a layer of “plaster” made of white lime. The artist first made a drawing in red (rarely white) and sometimes his sketches were corrected by the master artist’s brush who used black paint. The black color was obtained from smoke or from charcoal, the whites were given by the limestone or powdered gypsum, the orange-yellowish were obtained from desert soil, the pure yellow was an orpiment (arsenic trisulfite). Malachite and azurite provided respectively green and blue pigments; soon, they were replaced with a paste of powdered glass obtained from cobalt to get blue and from copper oxide mixed with limestone and crushed quartz with natural sodium carbonate to obtain greens. With regard to deep reds, only iron oxide could provide its intensity. An agglutinant was needed for these color mixtures in order to adhere them to the chosen surface. To this end, the artisans prepared a solution that achieved a “tempera*” painting. This solution was based on Arabic gum and egg whites: a kind of glue mixed with small quantities of water. As for the brush, it was made of cane (Juncus maritimus) crushed on one end. This cane mixed with halfa grass (a type of large grass, Stipa tenacissima) and fine ribs of palm leaves were used in the elaboration of large brushes. These brushes were used to extend the colors on extensive surfaces. The painters prepared colors inside seashells.

Paintings at the interior of a mastaba.

In Egypt, color covered everything. Color was the garment of architecture. The free-standing sculptures and bas-relieves also were enhanced by the colorist. A rigorous grammar regulated color shades in Egypt. Color was always a way to transpose values and fundamental notions ​​corresponding to the nature of beings and things, more than to their mere external physical appearance. The green color of young papyrus evoked both freshness and youth. Black represented the land of Egypt made of the continually fertilized humus found at both sides of the Nile. Red meant sterility, the desert sands, as opposed to the opulence and generosity of the black arable land. White was the light of dawn, the phosphorescence against the power of demons. Bright intense yellow represented gold, flesh of the gods, immortal, incorruptible, the color of eternity. Light yellow was used to represent women’s skin; reddish brown was the color of men’s skin. Bright red, the color of blood, represented life. The only colors left are blue and its two main shades: turquoise and lapis lazuli. Deep blue or lapis lazuli formed the hair of all divine beings, and the delicate turquoise represented the announcement of a new life.

Divine and human representations also exhibited certain regulations. For over three thousand years the human figure was represented in profile. This profile was an orderly synthesis of a series of constants that allowed recognizing an individual with the essential features that were characteristic to him/her. The head and face were in profile, with the eye in front view. The shoulders were also represented in front view. The pelvis was drawn almost in profile and men, more than women in most cases, seemed to advance one leg over the other. It was not always the same leg (in contrast to the free-standing sculpture, in which the left leg always appeared ahead of the right leg). Depending if the character is turned to the right or left, the foremost foot was usually the one that was farther from the viewer. The feet were also drawn in profile. The big toe was represented in profile on both feet; it was only until the middle of the XVIII Dynasty that all toes were drawn.

Fragment of the paintings from the tomb of Nebamum (British Museum). They describe a banquet on the day of the “Feast of the Valley”, in honor of gods, the deceased, and his surviving relatives and friends.

Not only form and colors were subject to very strict regulations, but also the disposition of painted decoration. The decoration of temples and tombs obeyed identical laws, and in buildings destined for ordinary citizens, walls appeared almost completely naked. On the walls of the sanctuaries dedicated to gods and in the walls of funerary chapels and underground tombs, the artist reproduced countless compositions that, like the signs of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, were developed without spaces between words and with no punctuation signs. The priests chose themes, attitudes, groups and gestures so the Law was not transgressed. No fantasy is seen in religious scenes or in “civil” compositions evoking everyday life. Certain almost immutable “laws” governed the election and location of the decor in each room with respect to its location inside the building, and in each wall with respect to its orientation within the room. Both in relieves and in painting, the surface was decorated in “registers” or overlapping horizontal bands separated by a line that constituted a common element among them. However, the artist that directed the painting of a building faithfully reserved, in a given location of the wall, a wide surface that did not follow the distribution in registers. As soon as decoration appeared in tombs, mastabas or hypogea of the Old Kingdom, the scene in which a background of great papyri screen appeared occupying the height of several registers was a constant theme in a tomb’s decoration and always represented an exception to the uninterrupted sequence of “friezes”.

Painting of the XX Dynasty, ca 1200 BCE, which represents harvest of the linen and the ideal garden of the deceased and his wife (Imennakht tomb, Deir-el-Medineh).

Large scale composition was also common in the painted decoration of Egyptian temples. These painting almost always represented a triumphal scene animated with countless luxurious details offering a multitude of overlapping planes, but always pompously highlighting the hero destroying the enemy, annihilating the adversary. Egyptians also had to protect their country against the destructive power of natural forces: excessive floods, earthquakes, drought, epidemics, social problems, etc. Consequently, the pharaoh played an important role facing the wild animal, which was a symbol of power. But as a destructive natural force, this same animal had to be killed or destroyed.

Frieze of the Geese of Meidum (Cairo Museum) of the early IV Dynasty, ca. 2700 BCE. It is one of the first murals of the Old Kingdom that used, besides black and white, a color range of different shades.
Birds perched on an Acacia tree, a painting from the tomb of Khnumhotep, at Beni Hasan, of the XIIth Dynasty, ca 1950BCE. Each bird has been represented with extreme care, and their specific characters were reproduced with the precision of an ornithologist.

It is still difficult to accurately describe the evolution of Egyptian painting with all its details. It would be better to talk about the main stages of drawing and the composition of scenes. It was not until the early mural compositions of the Old Empire that, next to white and black, the range of colors including red and yellows, blues and greens were introduced producing a rainbow of exceptional colors. In regard to the painting of the Old Empire, it is worth mentioning the famous frieze of the Geese of Meidum, from the tomb of Nefermaât and Atet dating back to the reign of Snefru the father of King Cheops, the first king of the IV Dynasty, who reigned about 2680 BCE. Such is the preciousness with which these six birds were painted, that the Nile goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus) is perfectly recognizable even for an expert ornithologist. The vegetation consists of small herbs and grasses in bloom, and the scene is vividly animated by wisely distributed bunches of plants among the birds.

A typical feature of the painting from the Old Kingdom is the expression of rigidity in human representations with an expressionless face and extremely static postures. By the beginning of the VI Dynasty artists summarized, synthesized, and highlighted nature in their compositions, and scenes of peasants and boatmen appeared in the tombs’ walls representing a synthesis of movement and form.

Scene depicting the Harvesting of Grapes in the Farm of Ipy, from the Tomb No. 217 in the necropolis of Thebes. Pictorial conventions of previous periods are here absolutely overcome and pictorial freedom allowed the capture of reality as best as possible.

During the Middle Kingdom the same trends and qualities of the painting from the Old Kingdom are noticed, as well as the same limitations: the artist could have freely expressed himself, but he was stopped by religious prescriptions, although at this stage painting developed a great fluency in the compositions.

Dancer and two musicians enlivening a banquet scene, ca. 1420 BCE. (tomb of Nakht, Necropolis of Thebes).

During the beginning of the New Kingdom, grace and beauty became part of the human body’s treatment, both for the lovely ladies and the noble gentlemen, thus from then on the evolution of painting was more evident thanks to the perfectionism of techniques from old styles. The forms were increasingly less chubby, colors less crude, silhouettes lighter, and limbs less rigid. The bodies’ profile also became less rigorous. Then, the elegance was introduced.  The wealth of dresses and wigs was so exaggerated that details covered much of the compositions. The XVIII and XIX Dynasties gave us clear examples of these artistic trends in the illustrious tomb of Ramose, particularly the scene of The Mourners which enjoys universal celebrity.

Women mourning the passing of the head of the household. The widow at the front is supported by an attendant (tomb of Ramose, ca. 1411-1375 BCE., necropolis near Luxor).
The Pink Horse (painting of the tomb of Thanuny, necropolis of Thebes ca. 1420 BCE). This painting is evidence of the artistic influence of the contemporary Cretan painting in the Egyptian art. Ancient Egypt had trade and diplomatic relations with the people of Crete, whom the Egyptians called “The Sea Peoples”.

During the XIX Dynasty, when the “heretical” reform of Amenhotep IV (ca. 1375 BCE) occurred in Amarna, the artists had to renew pictorial themes since no violent scenes were allowed to be painted: in the absence of evil it was not necessary to annihilate it and the forces of good were accented with new emphasis by representing scenes of the cult of Aten. This was the time when the artist’s freedom, a product of the Amarnian reform, bore its fruits. The artists were always anonymous, but each of those elected to lead the decoration of a chapel were indeed masters. From this time on, the movement in the figures became more intense. Anecdotal detail was present more often in country scenes. The artist was allowed to mix unreal with the real: blue horned bulls, and a pink horse with a seahorse neck… etc. The tomb number 78 which corresponds to a certain Horemheb leads us to penetrate further into the field of artistic expression in Ancient Egypt.

Various gods surrounding the pharaoh Horemheb, painting of the late XVIII Dynasty (ca. 1340 BCE), wall painting from the tomb of this Pharaoh in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes. The profuse decoration makes this tomb a kind of “jewel box” in which polychromy predominates.

During the Amarna Period, abstraction became clearly visible. The first portrayals of Pharaoh Akhenaten acquired a shape resembling a hermaphrodite. Things were no longer represented as they should ideally be, but as they were seen from the angle they were contemplated. The details of the human body had never been so “scrutinized” in Egypt. In Tell-el-Amarna, artists could express themselves freely. As an illustration of Amarna painting, we can focus on the observation of two masterpieces: The Princesses at the Feet of their Mother, and frescoes in the Aviary of the northern palace of Tell-el-Amarna apparently the last home of Queen Nefertiti. The reflection of nature achieves here its most intense poetry and realism and pastel shades are used with true mastery: it is the Egyptian “expressionism”. It was towards the end of the Amarna period that this extreme expressionism led the last Amarnian influenced artists to represent overloaded forms which only achieved almost excessive decorative effects. Unfortunately, this freedom in expression was soon abandoned and the artistic achievements so slowly conquered were absorbed again by coding rules which, little by little, destroyed initiative and individual genius.

A detail from The Princesses Fresco (Amarnian period, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).

By the XX Dynasty, nature, form, and gesture were very far from the ancestral values of the Old and Middle Kingdoms and also from the Amarnian exaggeration. The artist’s achievements and the painter’s freedom of expression slowly disappeared during the last period of the New Kingdom: this agony that progressively subtracts life from painting is intensified in the last tombs located west of Thebes in which the return to ancestral coding is aparent.

Fragment of the mural decoration of Queen Nefertiti’s aviary at Tell-el-Amarna, from the XVIII Dynasty during the reign of Akhenaten (ca. 1630 BCE). This scene represents a kingfisher between papyrus. The weight of the heavy inflorescences makes them bend their stems, while the magnificent bird flies beneath their leaves. The art of the Amarnian period achieved an amalgam of poetry and realism that will not be found again in the following periods during the evolution of painting in ancient Egypt.


Tempera: (also known as egg tempera). A permanent, fast-drying painting medium based in colored pigment mixed with a water-soluble binder medium (usually a glutinous material such as egg yolk or some other). Tempera also refers to the paintings done in this medium. Tempera paintings are very long lasting, and ancient examples of them still exist. Egg tempera was a primary method of painting until after 1500 when it was superseded by the invention of oil painting.