Why were ancient Egyptian wall paintings drawn

Probable color scale of the ancient Egyptians


Kek ............. Kem




(Scale according to: Egyptian wall painting, Francesco Tiradritti)

Ancient Egyptian names


In a broader sense, Wadj denotes the habitat of water. The vegetation (green) included, because the water produces the vegetation.


The fruiting land that sank under the Nile every year, so the term Kem includes all shades of the earth, including brown, gray, etc. But Kem is dominated by black. Kem is thus life-giving and alive.


Kek characterizes darkness, the opposite of Hedj (brightness). Kek is inanimate and vague.


Descher refers to the desert and describes the various facets of the sand during the day. The essential component of this color, however, is red, e.g. sunset.


Hedj names the sunlight and, figuratively, everything shiny (e.g. silver). Hedj means brightness. Hedj must be seen as a kind of non-color. The opposite of Kek, the darkness, is Hedj.


The black consisted largely of soot (was partly scraped off the saucepans), the White from the lime that blue of lapis lazuli, that green from malachite and that red on the other hand made of ocher, a mineral that was found in large clumps in the Egyptian desert regions and could be yellow, orange, red or brown in color. The mix of these colors resulted in a rich palette of colors. Grave walls, reliefs, temple walls, columns, the relief hieroglyphs on walls and architectural parts of the temples as well as the walls of the palaces and noble houses were painted with the colors. They also painted on wood, e.g. the sarcophagi and coffins. Of course, the Egyptians also painted papyri on writing material, especially their Book of the Dead illustrations.

Fig. Above: Wooden pallet with paint cups; including various color raw materials.
Copyright: British Museum, London. (Photo: Anja Semling)

At first only the four basic colors were used, later they were mixed light or dark and found nuances. The colors were always used symbolically: blue for Amun = god of heaven, green for Osiris as a youth, black if he embodied the god of the dead, red for Seth and generally for evil, bad, devious and for everything stubborn, including images of donkeys or Dogs or for the mistakes that the clerk noted in red. The graves were decorated with red or yellow for immortality, yellow (=> gold colors) was also popular for backgrounds in scenes from the Book of the Dead. It could be proven that pink was used as an independent color from the New Kingdom; The painters used pink, for example, for transparent clothing.

Manufacture of the colors

The color pigments were ground to powder, mixed with resin and water and then dried in tablet form and placed on the palette of the writing utensils. Replacement tablets for refilling were always ready. It was painted with watercolors. The Egyptian artists used paint brushes, small brushes, water vessels and shards that were used to prepare the colors.

Fig. Above: Relief wall painting in the mortuary temple of Hatshepsust in West Thebes
Thutmose III. offers wine to the falcon god.

The ancient Egyptians developed a canon early on that lasted for thousands of years. Since the pre-dynastic period, artists have depicted nature with already colored drawings. The grave walls, completely covered with painted scenes of everyday life and the afterlife, testify to how the Egyptians achieved perfection in this area.

Egyptian painting has its own norms, which have been established since the origins of the Old Kingdom and which were shaped by religious, social and aesthetic considerations. Ancient Egyptian painting is perspective, which is particularly evident in the portrayals of people. People were generally shown in profile, when facing right, they could only extend their left arm and left foot forward. There was an aesthetic reason for this, namely that in the opposite case the lines of the body would cross and thus damage the harmony of the drawing.

Painting on grave wall

... on relief

... on papyri

Egyptian art was religious in character, and the people depicted in tombs were not mere ornamentation, but were creatures who magically came to life. The bigger a person was portrayed, the more important they were. Faces and bodies were depicted in the position that best characterized them: the eye from the front, the head in profile, the hands outstretched from the outside, the feet in profile.
What is striking about Egyptian painting are: the liveliness, the rich colors and the two-dimensional forms, which attach an individual painting style to the whole. Hieroglyphs, the writing of the ancient Egyptians, were colored in or out.

Book tip: Egyptian wall painting

  • Egyptian wall painting
  • by Francesco Tiradritti
  • Publisher: Hirmer
  • Extent: 391 pages
  • Book format: 27.5 x 38 cm
  • with full-page color plates
  • Linen-bound book with dust jacket and slipcase
  • Release DATE: 2007
  • ISBN: 978-3777437057
  • Get it on Amazon

The ancient Egyptians used their (visual) communication with the gods and the living as well as the dead, in addition to their hieroglyphic writing, as well as the pictorial representations of their real and imaginary world. The world of images of ancient Egypt is unique in the history of art in the West; no comparable high culture has such a thing immense repertoire of images produced and implemented over a period of more than three millennia.
Traditionally conscious but also innovative pictorial representations, rich in splendor of color, characterize the Egyptian wall paintings; Image and writing complement and enrich each other. Often still to be admired today in royal and private graves as well as on temples.

Above: Beautiful wall painting of the goddess Hathor as a motif, in the temple of Hathor.
Small temple of Hathor in Deir el-Medine. (Image source: Christoph Schmid)

A broad themed field, such as painting from the time of the Pharaohs, presented as generously and ambitiously as with this illustrated text book, should not be missing in any Egypt book collection. The interested layman and connoisseur has a compendium at hand, which impresses with specialist knowledge and extensive picture material! The knowledgeable content in connection with the wonderful color plates on a large book format make a valuable contribution to ancient Egyptian art. Also on the cutting edge of science.

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