Color was very important in Ancient Egypt. Looking at the intricate carvings which the left us today, its easy to forget that the images would have originally been brightly coloured. Color was considered an integral part of an item’s or person’s nature in Ancient Egypt, similarly items with a similar color were believed to have similar properties.
Since the Egyptians valued precision in their art, purity of color was very important – painting each was usually the job of one individual, at the least would be done in phases. The artists would usually complete everything in one color before moving on to the next. Paintings would be finished off with fine brushwork to outline the work and add limited interior detail.
The degree to which Ancient Egyptian artists and craftsmen mixed colors varied throughout their history. However, even at its most creative, color mixing was not widely spread – firstly, this process was not particularly easy, and secondly Egyptians liked their art to remain constant, creativity was much less important than order. The colours available to the Egyptian artists depended on what was able to made from the resources available in nature – there were no artificial pigments. This is actually quite helpful to us as historians, since it allows us to know which colours were used!
Black (Egyptian name “kem”) was the color of the silt left by the Nile inundation, which gave rise to the Ancient Egyptian name for the country: “kemet”– the black land.
Unlike today, in Egyptian art black usually symbolized fertility, new life and resurrection, it was also the color of Osiris, the resurrected god of the dead and of the Nile, and was considered the color of the underworld where the sun was said to regenerate every night. Black was often used on statues and coffins to invoke the process of regeneration ascribed to the god Osiris.
Green was also an important color associated with fresh growth, vegetation, new life and resurrection (the latter along with the color black, due to the varying colours of the nile). The hieroglyph for green is a papyrus stem and frond.
Green was also the color often used for the “Eye of Horus,” which had healing and protective powers, and so the color also represented well-being. To do “green things” was to do behave in a positive, life-affirming manner.
White was the color of purity, sacredness and cleanliness. Tools, sacred objects and even priest’s sandals were white for this reason. Sacred animals were also depicted as white. Clothing, was usually depicted as white, although in reality it was probably more of a natural undyed color.
Silver represented the color of the sun at dawn, and the moon, and stars. Silver was actually a rarer metal than gold in Ancient Egypt and held a greater value. A mix of gold a silver known as electron was used to coat the very tips of the pyramids, so they gleamed as the sun shone on them.
Blue was the colour of the heavens, as well as the colour of water – even though the water of the Nile would frequently turn black then green during the inundation. Egyptians preferred imported blue stones for use in jewellery, but evidence suggests that technology was advanced enough to produce the world’s first semi-synthetic pigment, known since medieval times as Egyptian blue. Depending on the degree to which the pigment Egyptian blue was ground, the color could vary from a rich, dark blue to a very light, sky blue.
Turquoise, a particularly valued imported green-blue stone from the Sinai desert, also represented joy, as well as the color of the sun’s rays at dawn. Through the god Hathor, who controlled the destiny of new-born babies, and protected mothers, it is often considered a color of promise and foretelling.
Yellow was usually the colour used to depict women’s skin, as well as the skin of the peoples who lived near the Mediterranean – Libyans, Bedouin, Syrians and Hittites. Incidentally, men were usually represented in a red or lighter brown color. Yellow was also the color of the sun and, along with gold, could represent perfection.
Gold represented the flesh of the gods and was used for anything which was considered eternal or indestructible. (Gold was used on a sarcophagus, for example.) Whilst gold leaf could be used on sculpture, yellow or reddish-yellows were used in paintings for the skin of gods.
Red was primarily the color of chaos and disorder – the color of the desert which was considered the opposite of the fertile black land surrounding the Nile. One of the principal red pigments, red ochre, was obtained from the desert. Red was also the color of destructive fire and fury and was used to represent something dangerous.
While red was the most potent of all colors in Ancient Egypt, it was also a color of life and protection – derived from the color of blood
and the life-supporting power of fire. It was therefore commonly used for protective amulets.
Hieroglyphics could be coloured in a variety of colours for carvings and paintings, this may have been associated with the content of the message itself. Hieroglyphs themselves were often simply outlined in black or white, however when coupled with a depiction of a scene.
When writing on papyrus, hieroglyphs were always in back, or red.