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Materials and techniques in ancient Egyptian art

Stone

Numerous native stones were used for statuary, including soft limestone, sandstone, calcite, and schist. Harder stones include quartzite, diorite, granite, and basalt. Sculptors carved softer stones with copper chisels and stone tools; hard stone required harder stone tools, copper alloys, and abrasive sand to shape them. The statues were polished with a smooth rubbing stone and abrasive sands with a fine grit.

Painted Statuary

Most statuary was painted. For instance, a statue from the smallest of the three major pyramids at Giza was made from a smooth black stone associated with Osiris, resurrected god of the dead. Osiris was often shown with black or green skin representing the fertile vegetation of the Nile valley. Images of kings have traces of red paint on the king’s skin, which made them appear lifelike when placed in his memorial temple. Over time, the paint flaked away, revealing the black stone underneath and explicitly linking the deceased king with the Lord of the Underworld.

Wood

Egyptian artists used native acacia, tamarisk, and sycamore fig as well as fir, cedar, and conifers imported from Syria. Artisans pegged small, irregular pieces of wood into place to create statuary, coffins, boxes, and furniture.

Metals

Artists worked in copper, bronze, gold, and silver. Jewelry work was sophisticated. A cache of royal jewelry from the tombs of Middle Kingdom princesses displays extremely high levels of skill in terms of design and execution. Amulets and inlays were made from a material known as Egyptian faience, which could be easily shaped. Turquoise blue was a common glaze color.

Relief Sculpture

Relief was usually carved (raised or sunk) before being painted. The surface was smoothed with a layer of plaster and then painted. The artist would delineate the drawing surface using gridded guidelines and then snap them onto the wall using string coated in red pigment dust (very much like chalk lines used by modern carpenters). This grid helped the artists properly proportion the figures and lay out the scenes. The painting was executed one color at a time.

Pigments

Most pigments in Egypt were derived from native minerals. White was often made from gypsum, black from carbon, reds and yellows from iron oxides, blue and green from azurite and malachite, and bright yellow from orpiment. These minerals were ground and mixed with a plant or animal-based glue to attach it to the walls. They were sometimes layered to create subtle effects.


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