For all the paint fragments found throughout the ancient world, on murals, pottery, sculpture, and scrolls, surprisingly few ancient paint palettes have been uncovered. Ancient palettes in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the British Museum in London, and the Louvre in Paris — among other institutions — number in the single digits. This is even more surprising now that scholars know ancient Greek and Roman statues were vibrantly painted.
The palettes we do have, many of which still contain traces of original pigment, show us how people painted, but they also tell us about the role of the painter in ancient civilizations.
Most of the existing paint boxes and palettes are Ancient Egyptian: They belonged to scribes, tomb painters, and recreational painters of the upper classes. Some include the original brushes — for scribes, pen-like lengths of rush grass, and for professional and recreational illustrators, thicker bundles of grass to compose larger images.
Scribes’ palettes mostly held only red and black pigments and many bear inscriptions of the king’s name, suggesting the importance of the scribe in the eyes of the ruler. Inscriptions with the king’s name — as in a palette at the British Museum featuring hieroglyphs in high relief that read “the perfect god, lord of the Two Lands, Nebpehtire, s[on of Ra, Ahmose]” — may have noted that the owner was the king’s official scribe and suggest that perhaps the king himself gave the palette to the scribe.
An Ancient Egyptian painting palette owned by a professional painter and housed at the Met also bears the king’s name, but one at the Cleveland Museum of Art includes the name of the owner himself, signifying it was likely used for leisurely painting. Unlike scribes’ bicolor palettes, recreational and tomb painters used a wider range of colors, all naturally occurring besides so-called “Egyptian blue.”
Replacing the expensive lapis lazuli, Egyptian blue was a synthetic compound made by heating malachite, sand, and other materials to a temperature of 1,500-2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The method was adopted by the Ancient Romans, but by the Middle Ages, the process was lost, and painters relied once again on the prohibitively expensive lapis lazuli.
In Ancient Egypt, blue was used to paint the gods (red, yellow, black, and green all came from the ground, making them unfit to depict deities). This concept is seen again in Christian art centuries later, with Mary and Jesus repeatedly depicted in blue.
Across the world and made centuries after the Egyptian palettes, another ancient paint set links the painter to the divine.
A group of pigment jars from Teotihuacán, near current-day Mexico City, are arranged in the “quincunx,” an important religious and astrological symbol found throughout ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. In the quincunx, four objects surround a higher central object, which symbolizes the center of the universe. The symbol has been found throughout Teotihuacán in arrangements of dots used to calculate time. Scholars have argued that four-sided pyramids, like the central Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán, reflect the quincunx because the four sets of stairs lead to a higher, sacred site.
The Teotihuacán culture had no writing system, relying instead on images painted on pottery and murals which used relationships and metaphors to relay meaning. In an essay accompanying the Met’s set of painting jars, the author argues that mixing the colors was seen as a haphazard moral shortcoming, one that would be in contradiction to the jars’ divine quincunx shape.
Inscriptions and meaning in paint sets from Ancient Egypt and Teotihuacán define them as culturally significant objects and show that their owners too were culturally significant. But despite the clear historical, religious, and political importance of painting and record keeping — and all of the ancient painted objects in our museums — it’s rare to see an actual paint set.
In an interview with the Atlantic, author of Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color Philip Ball discussed how the study of paint itself is largely outside the realm of traditional art history and criticism. “It seems to be largely restricted to conservators at museums who, of necessity, have to know something about the material aspects of the works as well as the art-historical context,” Ball said.
“By not understanding these craft aspects of making art, we run the risk of imagining that art is just about having the idea rather than about actually having to go about creating it,” Ball continued. “I do think this is a perspective that has been underplayed in conventional art history and art criticism, and that it could be brought closer to the fore.”
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