Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt
Page: 142The Materials of Painting
It should be noted at this juncture that these Egyptian bas-reliefs were not usually left in a monochromatic state as is customary in modern Europe; for the painter, on the contrary, was generally called to the sculptor's aid, while even portrait statues were[Pg 316] frequently coloured also. And apart from work of this order, the craft of painting on sun-dried clay was carried to no mean height of excellence during Pyramid days, as also was that of painting on papyrus, while mummy cases were often decked with multitudinous hues. The colours in many of these old Egyptian works still possess great depth and brilliance, while, indeed, some of them have lasted far better than those in divers Italian frescoes of the Renaissance, and infinitely better than those in numerous pictures by Reynolds and Turner; and thus we naturally pause to ask the questions: What manner of pigments were commonly used in Egypt? and what, exactly, was the modus operandi of the country's painters? Well, an Egyptian artist usually kept his paints in the condition of powder, and on starting work he liquefied them with a mixture of water and gum tragacanth; while he next proceeded to apply this solution with a reed pen, or with brushes made of soft hair, few men being in the habit of using more than two brushes, a thick one and a thin. Then as to the colours themselves, the gold we sometimes see is, of course, easily accounted for; while black, it would seem, was obtained by burning the bones of animals, and white was made of gypsum mixed with honey or albumen. Red and yellow, again, were procured by more familiar processes, the former being derived from sulphuret of mercury, the latter simply from clay; while blue, a comparatively rare shade in natural objects other than the sea and sky, and therefore hard to obtain, was evolved from lapis-lazuli. The picture duly finished, some painters would cover it with a coat of transparent varnish, made from the gum of the acacia; but the men who did this were really few in number, and the colours in their works have not lasted well—not nearly[Pg 317] so well as those in paintings by masters who left varnish severely alone.
Leaving these technical details and returning to the actual history of the arts in Egypt, we must speak now of the Middle Kingdom, which commenced with the Ninth Dynasty (c. 2445) and lasted to the Seventeenth Dynasty.