Egyptian Painting And Colour Decoration

PAINTING, as we understand the word, in which is expressed the gradation of tones of colour, the juxtaposition of harmonious tints, perspective, and the rendering of light and shade effects, was never really understood by the ancient Egyptians. Painting in Egypt was not an independent art, as it consisted solely of outlines filled in with flat colours, and was therefore a kind of illumination, in imitation of the coloured decoration of the sculptured intaglios, cameos, or bas-reliefs, which generally covered the whole of the outside and inside of their great buildings. It was, therefore, more or less subordinate to sculpture. Our know-ledge of Egyptian painting, apart from the colour decoration of their sculpture and other architectural features, is chiefly derived from the wall decorations of their tombs and from the mummy cases.

Considering the limitations of their colour range, the absence of half-tones and of broken tints, and their methods of execution, it is wonderful how well they managed to obtain and preserve that fine sense and expression of colour harmony which is often found in their work. Some of their enamels, or coloured glass, and inlaid work in precious stones, some paintings on papyri and many of the sun-bleached decorations, where time has mellowed their tints, are very beautiful in colour, but at the same time it might be said, that the arbitrary use of certain uniform tints applied to surfaces, each of which had its own colour value, more than often prevented the Egyptian decorator from experimenting in colour harmony. On the other hand, we must not be unmindful that it was the Egyptians who first used certain combinations or arrangements of blue and green which is the key-note of so much beautiful Assyrian, Persian, and other decoration. This blue-green combination had its origin in Egypt, as far back as the prehistoric times, in the glazed beads and pottery. Even glazing in two colours dates from the time of Mena, the first king of Egypt (5500 B.C.). Scarabs, tiles and pottery were covered with green-blue glazes in the third and fourth dynasties, and a further development in this direction took place in the eleventh and eighteenth dynasties.

The colour values for flesh tinting were—dark brownish-red for a man, lighter, or sometimes a light yellow for a woman, and for natives of different countries the colours differed, such as a light yellowish colour for prisoners, or, people of more northern countries ; Ethiopians were painted a very dark brown, and negroes black. Here to some extent nature was followed, though in a very arbitrary way.

The colours used by the Egyptians were the pigments and tints of yellow, red, blue, green, brown, black and white. The yellows, reds, and browns were obtained from the ochre earths, the bright blues were mineral colours, composed of copper, sand and a sub-carbonate of soda, powdered and roasted in an oven, and then finely ground. The beautiful Egyptian blue used on their pottery, and also as painting pigment in decoration, was a frit or copper glaze, a kind of blue glass pigment. Such a colour would therefore be a perfect one for enamel painting and fresco. In some Egyptian glass objects cobalt blue has been used to colour the glass, but it does not seem to have been used as a painter’s pigment. These blues have kept their colour well through the centuries. Ultramarine blue, from the lapis-lazuli, was sometimes used, and was imported from Central Asia. Indigo was the only vegetable colour used by the Egyptians. The greens were mixtures of blue and yellow ; blacks were obtained from carbonaceous substances, and whites were made from lime, gypsum, and powdered enamels. Gold, in the leaf form, was also used in decoration, but was much thicker than the modern gold-leaf.

Egyptian colour combinations have a distinct and almost unique character of their own, quite different from those of any other time or country. To account for this traditional system of colouring, it is likely enough that they used in early times the brightest colours at their command in the greatest possible contrast, enhancing this contrast by dividing each colour from its neighbour by lines and bands of black and white. This would be done in order to emphasize the forms and contours of their architecture, to distinguish the various members and mouldings, to keep the construction clear, and to give the necessary variety and value to surfaces, all of which would be confused and nearly undistinguishable, if it were not for the sharp colour contrasts, in the dazzling brilliancy of the Eastern sunshine.

Strong and brilliant contrasts of colour are necessary in the decoration of buildings which are almost continually bathed in the sunshine of the East, and the same rule holds good as regards the colour decoration of gloomy and dark interiors, for in both cases the colours are partially ” devoured,” in one case by the brilliant light, and in the other by an excess of darkness. It is only in a clear, but modified light, like that reflected from white clouds, that broken colours and delicate half-tones show their full value.

The above-mentioned startling combinations of contrasting colours, which the Egyptians found best suited to emphasize the different features of their architecture, were eventually used by them in the decoration of all other forms and objects where colour was employed.

Although symbolism strongly permeated nine-tenths of their decorative art, it can hardly be said that they used colour to any great extent in a symbolic sense ; two instances, however, may be mentioned, namely, in the flesh tints of nude figures, and in the case of the midnight blue sky colour, used on the passage and hall ceilings of their great temples, these blue surfaces being sometimes decorate with golden stars, and with vultures, the emblems of protection, displaying their immense outspreading wings.

It is worthy of notice that the Egyptian decorators employed the neutral colours, black and white, to the greatest advantage, both in masses and in outlines, in the nature of dividing lines between other colours, and it is owing to the judicious use of these neutrals that their colour arrangements are refreshed and redeemed from the taint of sickliness, or rankness.

No people ever excelled the Egyptians in their lavish use of colour in decoration; a building in Egypt was never thought to be completed until it had obtained its final colour finish. They generally concealed the limestone, sandstone, or granite surfaces of their walls by spreading over them a fine coating of white stucco in order to obtain a pure white ground, on which they could use their brilliant and startling combinations of colour to the greatest effect. The covering of sculptured forms with stucco was practised to a great extent in the twelfth dynasty (about 2500 B.C.), and was also very common during the Ptolemaic period (330—30 B.C.).

This lavish use of colour was not without its defects, for however satisfying was the expression of dignity and serenity in their sculptured figures, and in their solemn architecture, yet in many instances the immoderate use of abrupt and daring contrasts of colour, so richly spread over the surfaces of walls, columns and other places, while producing gorgeous effects of fascinating brilliancy, became at the same time a disturbing element that in some cases marred the otherwise perfect unity of the architectural forms and masses. When judged in accordance with the practice of the Greeks, and of later nations, it must be said that the Egyptian decorator did not always hold the balance evenly between his treatment of the plain and decorated surfaces of his buildings.

The value of plain spaces and reticence of colour application in decoration, are generally better understood by the Western than by the Eastern nations.

The Egyptian methods of decoration consisted, as we have seen, in laying a stucco or gesso ground of lime, chalk, or gypsum either on the flat stone walls and other surfaces, or on the figures and other designs, which had been previously carved in low relief, or as intaglios. In the latter case the figures, and other work, were first outlined on the surfaces by the chief artist, and these outlines were afterwards cut into the stone by his assistants, with a chisel, or more likely with a knife ; the extreme outer edges of the outlines were generally left sharp, and the inner portion of the incised lines were usually softened off towards the central spaces. The decorator then followed the sculptor in laying on the colour finish in flat tints as prescribed by the chief artist.

In the case of the wall paintings, found in the tombs, and the paintings on the coffins or mummy cases, and those on the cartonnage or outer mummy coverings, white gesso or stucco was also used as grounds for the colouring. Here again, the chief artist would outline the designs and his assistants would apply the colours in flat tints.

The Egyptian pigments and tints were used in most cases as water colours, or tempera, and with a vehicle or medium consisting of a tough size, thought to be composed of gum tragacanth and honey. Egg size may have also been used, and even gum-arabic, as this was a plentiful product of the native acacia trees, but it would not be so good or so lasting as tragacanth or egg size.

Brushes were made of reed fibres, and their palettes were of wood, alabaster, or glazed pottery, having hollows in them to hold the colours. The general method and nature of the painting was in distemper, as regards the wall paintings in the tombs, the decorations of the temples, and on some of the coffins or mummy cases, but on some of the latter objects the distemper colouring has been coated over with a resinous varnish, which has darkened with age, and destroyed in a great measure the original brilliance and purity of the colours. On some of the later mummy cases the paintings have been executed in a kind of encaustic method, where the wax used in the medium has been dissolved and diluted with naphtha spirit. This method of painting was practised and developed in Egypt during the Greek occupation of the country, and was doubtless introduced by the Greeks about 330 B.C. From the representations of artists at work, found in the tombs at Beni Hasan, we know that the Egyptians also painted easel pictures on wood panels.

They had little regard for the principles of constructive decoration, as their figures and other designs usually covered walls, piers, columns, and pylons alike, some of the figures occupying three or four courses of masonry in upright measurement, regardless of the joints and seams of the building. The figures generally occur in horizontal rows, each row or series placed above or below each other, and separated by bands and fillets, on which are carved and painted the hieroglyphical inscriptions and other designs of symbolical ornament. Rarely, except in some cases of isolated or independent pieces of sculpture, were the figures cut out of one slab or block of stone.

The colour decoration of Egyptian buildings cannot well be studied apart from the sculptured figures and other carved motives that covered their walls and other surfaces, as we must bear in mind that almost all of their carved work was finished eventually in colour, and even where the painter worked without the co-operation of the sculptor, as on the decoration of the walls of the tombs, his work with the brush, where one might expect more elasticity of method and freedom in treatment, was characterized by the same monumental style and rigidity of drawing as that of the sculptured bas-reliefs. This would suggest that the master-artist who designed and sketched out the sculptured forms was the same person who outlined the forms and shapes of the painted wall decorations.

The Egyptians derived the motives of their decoration from five great sources, namely—

ANTHROPOMORPHIC,—where the human form was used to represent gods, goddesses, and other divinities.

ZOOMORPHIC,—in the sense of representing their conceptions of a god or man in animal form.

NATURALISTIC,—representations of flowers, plants, feathers, animals, etc.

GEOMETRIC,—SUCH as lines, spirals, curves, frets, squares, circles, and interlacings.

STRUCTURAL,—decorative motives derived from weaving, basket-work, architectural construction, carpentry, rope twistings and bindings, palisading and reed fencing. SYMBOLIC,—as the winged-globe, uræus, scarab, hieroglyphic signs, and some divinities.

The Egyptian decorator was not at a loss in finding motives and material to express his fanciful ideas, and to multiply and immortalize the deeds and events in the life of his rulers and royal masters, and in the supposed state of their lives in the land of the hereafter. With all this wealth of decorative material to his hand he found delight in the embellishment of the eternal masonry of his buildings, with the added dignity of creative form and the gaiety of colour.