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Color palette

Color palette
© BA Antiquities Museum/E. Omar


showcase 2

Color palette

Category:
Tools and equipment, writing and drawing equipment, palettes
Date:
Ancient Egyptian period, New Kingdom (1550-1069 BCE)
Provenance:
Upper Egypt, Giza, Saqqara
Material(s):
Non-organic material, mineral, siltstone (schist)
Height:
1.5 cm;
Length:
11.8 cm;
Width:
5.8 cm
Hall:
Ancient Egyptian Antiquities, showcase 2


Description

It is easy to tell from the traces in the receptacles that this palette was used to dilute red ochre and lamp black. The hole, at one side, is either for suspension or to tie together, as shown in the hieroglyphic sign Sesh, the palette with a cylindrical holder (for reed pens) and a circular lather bag for pigment pellets. The scribe carried the tied equipment either in his hand or on his shoulder.

Colours

The principal colours of a scribe’s palette were manufactured from naturally occurring substances. White came from calcium carbonate (chalk) or calcium sulfate (gypsum). Black was carbon from charcoal or deposited soot. Ochers, ranging from yellow to red to dark brown, originated from naturally occurring iron oxide. The colour blue was composed originally of Azurite (copper carbonate) from Sinai and the Eastern Desert; later it was manufactured from a pigment called “blue frit” or more commonly “Egyptian blue”, made from a compound of heated quartz, lime, and alkalis (natron or plant ash), ground malachite, and calcium carbonate. This same mixture was used in the manufacture of “faience”, commonly used to make beads, amulets and figurines. Green pigment was derived from pulverized copper ores such as malachite or from a mixture of yellow ochre with blue frit.
Other secondary colours were obtained by mixing the primaries: grey (black and white), pink (red and white), brown (red and black), and other combinations for different shades.

Colour Symbolism

In painting, colour had a symbolic meaning to ancient Egyptians. Black the colour of the fertile soil, symbolized fertility, renewal, and the underworld. Red symbolizes fire, blood, the desert, and chaos since it is the colour of the god Seth. Green carried connotations of fresh vegetation, vigor, and regeneration; the deity Osiris was frequently shown with green skin to signify his resurrection, and in the 20th dynasty, coffin faces were often painted green to identify the deceased with Osiris and thus to guarantee rebirth. White implied purity so it became the colour of the clothes worn by ritual specialists. Yellow was a solar colour connoting the sun, the flesh and bones of the Gods. Blue, associated with water and heavens, was frequently found in the bodies, beards, and wigs of deities.

Technique

The Egyptian technique was that of tempra or gouache. Colours were mixed with gum (acacia gum) or glue which would help the pigment to “hold” (forming an ink cake) and enabling it to be applied with the assistance of water.


The information given here is subject to modification/update as a result of ongoing research.

Bibliography
  • James, T.G.H. Egyptian Painting. London: British Museum, 1985.
  • Quirke, Stephen, and Jeffery Spencer. The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum, 1992.
  • "Scribes". In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, edited by Donald B. Redford. Vol. III. New York : Oxford UniversityPress, 2001.
  • Naissance de l'Ecriture Cunéiformes et Hiéroglyphes, Grand Palais: 7 mai-9 août 1982. Paris : Edition de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, c 1995, c 1982.
  • Shaw, Ian and Paul Nicholson. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum, 1997.
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