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Painting is a very complicated subject, because the most-often-painted media rarely survive. Most surviving paintings are from the walls of tombs, sarcophagi from tombs, or are from Egypt with its dry climate. If its a sarcophagus from a tomb in Egypt, even better. A comprehensive reference on traditional painters’ pigments is ColourLex: Science and Art

Bronze Age Egyptian

The Egyptian tradition is the best documented. Pigments based on arsenic (orpiment, realgar) become common from the New Kingdom onwards, suggesting that they were borrowed from northern traditions. Cinnabar is only known from the 25th dynasty around 600 BCE, so may also have been foreign. The lead-based pigments lead white and red lead only appear in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt, so was probably borrowed from the Aegean.

  • Richard Parkinson, The Painted Tomb-Chapel of Nebamun: Masterpiece of Ancient Egyptian Art in the British Museum. The British Museum Press: London, 2008.

The painters used a comparatively small range of colours and pigments. Scientific analysis of a set of samples taken from the paintings (of the tomb of Nebamun in the British Museum) (using optical microscopy, Raman spectroscopy and scanning electron microscopes) has revealed a standard palette for the period, and one that is quite simple. The colours used are: black (lampblack, [carbon]), a creamy white (calcium sulphate) and a bright white (huntite– a calcium magnesium carbonate), red ochres (containing haematite), yellow ochre (containing goethite and limonite), with blue and green frit [ie. Egyptian blue / faience].

Parkinson p. 50 citing Ambers, Janet 2008. “Pigments.” In Andrew Middleton and Ken Uprichard, The Nebamun Wall Paintings: Conservation, Scientific Analysis and Display at the British Museum. British Museum Press and Archetype Press: London.
  • Ambers, Janet 2008. “Pigments.” In Andrew Middleton and Ken Uprichard (eds.), The Nebamun Wall Paintings: Conservation, Scientific Analysis and Display at the British Museum. Archetype Press: London, 2008. See also the chapter by Rebecca Stanley on binders and varnishes.
  • Gay Robins, The Art of Ancient Egypt (Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA, 1997) p. 27

White was generally made from calcium carbonate (whiting) or calcium sulphate (gypsum). A third mineral, huntite, which was already used in the Middle Kingdom and became common in the New Kingdom, is more intensely white, and it was sometimes employed to paint white areas, such as clothing, so that they would stand out against a white background of calcium carbonate. Black was produced from one of several forms of carbon, most commonly soot or charcoal.

A range of colours from light yellow to dark brown can be obtained from ochre (iron oxide) depending on the level of hydration, and it was widely used to yield reds and yellows. From the New Kingdom realgar was also used for reds … Orpiment was used from the Middle Kingdom onwards to obtain a bright yellow … By contrast a pale yellow was obtained from jarosite. …

Blue was sometimes obtained from azurite (copper carbonate) which over time becomes green as it changes to malachite … More commonly Egyptian blue was used … If the proportions of malachite and calcium carbonate were varied, green was produced instead of blue. However, green pigment most frequently consisted of naturally occurring malachite (this is disputed, early studies may have confused it with decayed or poorly synthesized Egyptian green – ed.).

  • Lucas 1962 (AEMI 4th edition, Gay recommends)
  • Daniel Le Fur, La conservation des peintures murales des temples de Karnak (Editions Recherche sur les civilisations: Paris, 1994) {Gay recommends}
  • W.V. Davies (ed.), Colour and Painting in Ancient Egypt (British Museum Press: London, 2001) {Gay recommends}
  • Richard Newman and Susana M. Halpine, “The binding media of ancient Egyptian painting,” in W.V. Davies (ed.), Colour and Painting in Ancient Egypt (British Museum Press: London, 2001) pp. 22-32 {acacia gum and animal glue as the main binders in Bronze Age Egyptian paintings}
  • Fitzwilliam Museum’s Ancient Egyptian Coffins Project (est. 2014) {first millennium BCE}
  • Safaa A. Abd El Salam, Egyptian and Graeco-Roman Wall Plasters and Mortars: A Comparative Scientific Study. BAR International Series 1319. John and Erica Hedges Ltd: Oxford, 2004.
  • Brøns, C., Rasmussen, K.L., Di Crescenzo, M.M. et al. (2018) “Painting the Palace of Apries I: ancient binding media and coatings of the reliefs from the Palace of Apries, Lower Egypt.” Heritage Science Vol. 6, No. 6 (2018).
  • Hedegaard, S.B., Delbey, T., Brøns, C. et al. (2019) “Painting the Palace of Apries II: ancient pigments of the reliefs from the Palace of Apries, Lower Egypt.” Heritage Science vol. 7, no. 54 (2019)
  • David A. Scott, Sebastian Warmlander, Joy Mazurek, Stephen Quirke (2009) “Examination of some pigments, grounds and media from Egyptian cartonnage fragments in the Petrie Museum, University College London,” Journal of Archaeological Science 36 pp. 923–932 doi:10.1016/j.jas.2008.12.011
  • Nicholson and Shaw s.v. “Painting Materials”
  • Martinez P, Alfeld M, Defeyt C, Elleithy H, Glanville H, Hartwig M, et al. (2023) “Hidden mysteries in ancient Egyptian paintings from the Theban Necropolis observed by in-situ XRF mapping.” PLoS ONE 18(7): e0287647. {X-ray flourescence has been used to analyze pigments since at least the work at Karnak in the 1980s, but the machines and power supplies are now small enough to fit into checked luggage}
  • Arielle P. Kozloff, “More than Skin Deep: Red Men and Yellow Women in Egyptian Art,” in Richard Jasnow, Kathlyn M. Cooney, with the assistance of Katherine E. Davis (eds.), Joyful in Thebes: Egyptological Studies in Honor of Betsy M. Bryan (Lockwood Press, 2015) pp. 323-326


  • Collon, Dominique (2007) “The Queen Under Attack – A rejoinder”. Iraq, Vol. 69 pp. 43–51 {the Old Babylonian Burney Relief is said to be painted with red ochre, carbon black, and gypsum white, it may have had a yellow pigment but none was sampled}

It was in 2004, in the context of preparing a digital reconstruction of the plaque’s appearance when fully painted (see Collon 2005: 8 Fig. 2; N.B. the colour should be redder), that the traces of pigment were first examined; the analysis was undertaken in 2005 using Raman spectroscopy. The written report on the pigment … describes the black pigment as ‘amorphous carbon, probably lamp black’, the red is ‘red ochre’ and the white is ‘pure clean gypsum.’ On the wing feathers the white is very faint, but is clearly different from those areas where paint is now missing completely; the white is particularly clear in the lines on the muzzles of the lions, where the sample was taken (see Collon 2005: 32 Fig. 12; the yellow used in the digital reconstruction is based on its presence on a terracotta god from Ur, still visible but impossible to sample – see Collon 2005: 27 and cf. 12 Fig. 4).

Collon 2007 p. 43 n. 2
  • RlA s.v. “Farbe,” “Leder(industrie) §5,” “Malerei,” “Pigmente”
  • Moorey AMMI pp. 322-329 (1994)
  • Painting the throne of Ea to imitate gold, silver, and lapis lazuli: Nergal and Erishkigal, Late Version (manuscripts C and D), Fragment 2 lines 31′-35′ (Foster, Before the Muses, p. 515)
  • Brøns, C.; Stenger, J.; Bredal-Jørgensen, J.; Di Gianvincenzo, F.; Brandt, L.Ø. Palmyrene Polychromy: Investigations of Funerary Portraits from Palmyra in the Collections of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. Heritage 2022, 5, 1199-1239.
  • Hedegaard SB, Brøns C. New research from Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek: pigments in ancient Palmyra. in The Road to Palmyra Palmyrene Studies (2019).


  • Stodulski, Leon / Farrell, Eugene / Newman, Richard (1984) “Identification of ancient Persian pigments from Persepolis and Pasargadae,” Studies in Conservation, Vol. 29 pp. 143–154

ABSTRACT: Carefully documented specimens of ancient Persian pigments taken from the surface of the limestone reliefs at Persepolis and Pasargadae, and several bulk specimens excavated at Persepolis, have been identified as Egyptian blue, malachite, hematite, cinnabar and yellow ochre. A separate group of excavated materials, also thought to have been used as pigments, were determined to be Egyptian blue, azurite, the rare green mineral tyrolite, orthorhombic sulfur, a calcite-yellow ochre mixture, and realgar. These materials were studied and identified using a combination of optical and scanning electron microscopic, atomic emission spectrographic, X-ray diffraction and fluorescence, and Fourier transform infrared spectrophotometric techniques.”

Aegean and Anatolia

Given that many Greeks lived in Anatolia, and many of their pigments came from there, the painting traditions probably had no sharp divisions.

  • Elizabeth Hendrix, “Painted Ladies of the Bronze Age,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 55.3 (1997–98) pp. 4-15 {a marble sculpture from the Cycladic Bronze Age is painted with stripes of cinnabar}
  • Orpiment on the Uluburun shipwreck (find source!)
  • Johannes Becker, Johannes Jungfleisch, Constance von Rüden (editors) (2018) Tracing Technoscapes: The Production of Bronze Age Wall Paintings in the Eastern Mediterranean (Sidestone Press, 2018) {covers Syria, Aegean, Egypt}
  • H. Brecoulaki – B. Perdikatsis, Το πράσινο χρώμα στην Αρχαία Ελληνική Ζωγραφική (“The green colour in ancient Greek painting”) in: Γ. Καζάζη (ed.), Αρχαία ελληνική τεχνολογία. Πρακτικά 2ου Διεθνούς Συνεδρίου Αρχαίας Ελληνικής Τεχνολογίας, Οκτώβριος 2005 (Athens 2006) pp. 179–185 {said to mention malachite pigment and mixes of Egyptian blue with yellow ochre in Bronze Age paintings from Crete}
  • Brecoulaki, H. / A. Andreotti / I. Bonaduce / M.P. Colombini / Alluveras, A. (2012) “Characterization of organic media in the wall-paintings of the ‘Palace of Nestor’ at Pylos, Greece: evidence for a secco painting techniques in the Bronze Age,” Journal of Archaeological Science 39 (9), pp. 2866-2876
  • Pitsa tablets and the article by Brecoulaci et al. titled “Colour and Painting Technique on the Archaic Panels from Pitsa, Corinthia.” and (Hariclia Brecoulaki et al., “The ‘lost art’ of Archaic Greek painting: revealing new evidence on the Pitsa pinakes through MA-XRF and imaging techniques,” Techne 48 (2019) pp. 34-54)

charcoal black (carbon), haematite red (iron oxide), cinnabar red, realgar red, Egyptian blue, yellow ochre, unidentified yellow (pp. 19-21)

As recent analyses have shown from paintings of the Early Bronze age and the Hellenistic period, egg and vegetable gums, mainly tragacanth, were abundantly used by ancient Greek painters on both marble and plaster. (Brecoulaki 2006, 400-405; Brecoulaki 2012)

Brecoulaki, Hariclia / Kavvadias, Giorgios / Kantarelou, Vasiliki / Stephens, J. / Stephens, A. (2017) “Colour and Painting Techniques on the Archaic PAnels from Pitsa, Corinthia.” In Stephen T.A.M. Mols & Eric M. Moormann (eds), Context and Meaning. Proceedings of the Twelfth International Conference of the Association Internationale pour la Peinture Murale Antique, Athens, September 16-20, 2013 (Peeters: Leuven, Paris, and Bristol CT, 2017) pp. 15-23

Brecoulaki, Hariclia (2006) La peinture funéraire de Macédoine. Emplois et fonctions de la couleur, IVe-IIe s. a.C. (Meletemata 48), Athens

  • Erwin Emmerling, Stefan Demeter, and Maximilian Knidlberger (2010) “On the Painting Techniques of the Tomb Chamber.” In Lâtife Summerer and Alexander von Kienlin (eds.), Tatarlı: renklerin dönüşü / The return of colours / Rückkehr der Farben. Istanbul: T. C. Kültür ve Turizm Bakanlığı; Yapı Kredi Yayınları, pp. 204-233 {addresses the surface, the scratched sketch, the painting technique, and the pigments but not the binder [points the curious to Lucas 1962 via Nicholson and Shaw]}
  • Christopher Roosevelt and Christina Luke, “Painted Tomb Chambers in Lydia.” In Lâtife Summerer Alexander von Kienlin (eds.), Tatarlı: renklerin dönüşü / The return of colours / Rückkehr der Farben. Istanbul: T. C. Kültür ve Turizm Bakanlığı; Yapı Kredi Yayınları, pp. 342-353

Where modern retouching of painted wall fragments by those wishing to profit from involvement in the illegal antiquities market has not obscured the evidence irreparably, and from direct observation from Lale Tepe, one can note the ancient preference for a fairly stable selection of hues and pigments: red (ocher); black (carbon); blue (Egyptian blue); green (malachite); and also white, at least in the fragments from the Harta tumulus. Pigments were usually applied directly to the smoothed surfaces of limestone blocks, except for at Harta, where the relatively grainy and porous conglomerate used in the construction of the tomb chamber may have necessitated the use of a thin, white-ground undercoat. Stages of composition included initial draft-like sketching in red or black, subsequent filling in of shapes with colour, and occasional re-outlining in black.

p. 344

Beyond the Ocean

  • Vandenabeele, P., Bodé, S., Alonso, A., and Moens, L. (2005) “Raman spectroscopic analysis of the Maya wall paintings in Ek’Balam, Mexico.” Spectrochimica Acta Part A: Molecular and Biomolecular Spectroscopy, Vol. 61 No. 10, pp. 2349–2356. doi:10.1016/j.saa.2005.02.034 {calcium carbonate white; carbon black; haematite; cinnabar; unknown yellow; possibly a red lake on calcium carbonate; Maya blue (a mix of indigo and palygorskite clay, possibly with copal); Maya green}
  • Núria Guasch-Ferré, José Luis Prada Pérez, Ma. Luisa Vázquez de Ágredos Pascual, Laura Osete-Cortina and María Teresa Doménech-Carbó (2019) “Polysaccharide remains in Maya mural paintings: is it an evidence of the use of plant gums as binding medium of pigments and additive in the mortar?”, STAR: Science & Technology of Archaeological Research, 5:2, pp. 200-220, DOI: 10.1080/20548923.2020.1720377
  • Ariel Fenster, “The Mystery of Maya Blue Finally Solved,” 20 March 2017

Writings on Art Technology

See also the sources and research cited under Wood and shields


Many of the materials are available from supermarkets, art-supply stores, and building suppliers, but if pressed see:

Edit 2023-04-07: reorganized from chronological order to regions subdivided by chronology

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