Ancient Paint Box

I came across this ancient palette of colors through a post on Tumblr by Ancient Peoples. It’s a palette of pigments from the second century b.c.e, in New Kingdom Egypt.


This from the Cleveland Museum of Art. I guess from a quick perusal of their website that this is in their permanent collection. That would make at least two things from Cleveland I really like, along with the Cleveland String Quartet (loved their recordings of the late Beethoven quartets!)

Here’s a description of the pigments:

This paint box still preserves its original cakes of pigment: one cake each of red (red ocher), blue (Egyptian blue), green (a mixture of Egyptian blue, yellow ocher, and orpiment) and two of black (carbon black, from charcoal). It belonged to Amenemope, who was vizier, or prime minister, under Amenhotep II. Amenemope probably used his paint box for recreation.

As I posted on my new tumblr microblog, I question the description of the green in the image as “Egyptian blue, yellow ocher, and orpiment” (not really – I’m sure the folks at the museum know what they’re about). It sure looks like plain old malachite to me.

Anyway, I really like this palette. As some of you know, I’m a fan of earth colors, and a great blue to add to yellow and red ochre is Egyptian blue, which is copper bound up in silica. With the addition of black and white, it would make for a great subdued portrait palette, though the blue would have to be used a bit judiciously due to its cost. And in place of that green I could add in my own copper green.

As a reminder, here’s what Egyptian blue looks like in oil:

Mulling Egyptian Blue

Mulling Egyptian Blue

Nice glazer, that. I think I’ll try out that palette soon.

And: If I ever visit Cleveland, I’ll have to try out that museum!


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6 Responses to “Ancient Paint Box”

  1. cavepainter Says:

    Doesn’t it seem strange that the green is a mix with two yellows (though now that you mention, it looks like malachite to me too) but yet there’s no place for yellow itself? I’m just wondering as I type, but maybe he was painting on something already yellow, and preserved that the way watercolorists today preserve the paper for their whites?

    • llawrence Says:

      Now that you mention it, that is a bit strange! Your explanation sounds plausible to me. Perhaps they were painting on yellow fresco, or yellowish terracotta?

  2. stapeliad Says:

    what a lovely and intriguing paint box. I also think it odd that the green would be mixed.

    • llawrence Says:

      Yeah… seems like they would have used malachite (or Egyptian green, if that really was around back then), and left yellow ochre on its own, perhaps in place of one of those two blacks.

  3. Lynn D Says:

    What are the 2 lower colors (and what were they back then)? Wonder if the green changed. Thank you for sharing this. Had read a book called Organic Artist and that had some pigment from stones in it. Your story on Tumbler sounds interesting (what is Tumbler?) Will go back to read/see further. T

    • llawrence Says:

      Hi Lynn! According to the description, the two black colors are both vine black. I’ve got the Organic Artist, it’s a very cool book. Tumblr is a social networking/microblogging platform. Thanks for checking it out!

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