Thursday, August 13, 2009

Have You Seen My Green Donkey?

One doesn't have to be a Time Traveler to know how vivid some of the colors that were used by ancient Egyptian artists appeared--because many times they have stayed that way to this very day. In the more recent past [but not too recent] a brown paint was made from powdered mummy, a thing that would have scandalized the heck out of the old Egyptians. Anyway, they, themselves, didn't even have a specific word for that hue. If that seems odd, consider that Arabic doesn't have "brown", either, nor "gray". If one happens to own a gray donkey, one calls it "green".

Everybody knows by now that the Egyptians painted the skin of their men with red ochre and that of the women with yellow. But, sometimes, the people were shown with whitish skin--and their garments were white, usually . How did the artist or his assistant make white paint? Well, he could grind up chalk, if he had access to some. Or...he could cover lead bars with the dregs of old wine and seal them up in a shed filled with animal dung. Blue paint was horribly expensive because lapis lazuli, a stone that had to come all the way from Afghanistan, had to be ground up for it. I don't know any other way for the Egyptians to have been able to get blue. If anyone else can think of another way, I wish you would post that here in a comment. Green could be likewise obtained from malachite, a stone, but possibly also from vegetable dye. I would tend to believe the latter was the most practical as green was commonly used.

I have noticed that, in a few tombs, a real crimson was employed--and this is a color easily distinguishable from red ochre. This shade of red could be made from a worm, "tola'at shani" in Hebrew. One could crush up some tree-dwelling insects and boil them in lye. Addition of sulfur and mercury make vermilicum--or vermillion--and one can see why the producing of paints might not be too good for the health. Anyway, the bright red is rare in Egyptian painting and probably cost the dear earth. Too much trouble and difficult to afford. The ancient Egyptians didn't know purple or couldn't reproduce it. Later on, the island of Tyre became famous for a shade of purple obtained from mollusks. Black was cheap--basically just soot. But the way the Egyptians blended their colors, shaded them, makes one forget they had nothing but the basic hues with which to work. One never tires of looking at some of their best efforts, true masterworks even given the restructions of the Egyptian artistic canon.


Robert Isler Wanka said...


In answer to your question regarding the making of blue "I don't know any other way for the Egyptians to have been able to get blue. If anyone else can think of another way, I wish you would post that here in a comment"

As an artist I have been looking into the colours the Ancient Egyptians used. Here is some of what I have discovered.

In “Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industry” by A. Lukas

Blue: was derived from Azurite (chessylite) a blue carbonate of copper.
Or so it was discovered by analyzing some Fourth Dynasty shell palette.

The principal blue pigment of ancient Egypt was an artificial frit. Vitruvius called this blue frit cæruleum and he said it was made by fusing together sand, copper filings and natron (nitri flore)

Robert Isler Wanka

Marianne Luban said...

Thanks, Robert. I only wish I could paint as well as you do! On balance, it looks like it wasn't easy for the Egyptian artist to obtain his colors.

Robert Isler Wanka said...


I appreciate your kind words and I should like to say, even though I have not read as yet any of your books, I have enjoyed reading your comments on the EEF forum. The depth of your knowledge regarding the ancient Egyptians and the way you express that with clarity and passion is itself a wonderful talent.

Now as for the degree of difficulty the Egyptian artisan went through in obtaining their paints you are of course correct, it was not easy. Most artists today have little trouble obtaining the finest paints, one need know nothing of the – what and how – of their manufacture, just squeeze them out, mix them around and put them on the canvas. This of course has its advantages, but I would suggest that there are disadvantages as well. One that comes readily to mind is the proliferation of the so called notion of what constitutes an “artist”. Many so called artists today show an appalling lack of drawing, design, and colour mixing skills not to mention a near complete lack of understanding about almost everything to do with the manufacture and good maintenance of their tools and materials. This vacancy of skill and knowledge among the majority of the practitioners of the visual arts today is a sad epitaph for a proud discipline stretching back into the many hundreds of years. At least in times of less ease the degree of difficulty it took to become a skilled painter meant that those who carried such a name truly where in command of those skills. Such artists where held by great and common folk alike with respect some even in awe.

Degrees of difficulty and its surmounting is one measure of excellence. The ancient Egyptians were, among many other things, masters in overcoming the difficulties of hewing and carving, to incredible precision, megalithic proportions in limestone and granite. With natural pigments and sound formula they covered their massive mansions of a million years and tombs in glorious colour. As you know, these people worked wonders with relatively simple tools, this is possible only when each person involved in the process knew and mastered the strengths and weaknesses inherent within their tools and materials. Even in the ruin of ancient Egypt’s greatest achievements some 3 and 4 millennia later the quality of craftsmanship is evident. In all truth, it is that craftsmanship that has helped those monuments withstand, at least in part, the long passing years. Thanks to that craftsmanship we today can look upon the work of their hands and still marvel . . . that is the greatest legacy for any maker of architecture or art, to set in motion an idea an image that will reverberate through the generations and communicate excellence to their hearts and minds.

Robert Isler Wanka