Ancient Egyptian art includes arts such as architecture, sculpture, and painting produced in Egypt from about 3000 BC to 100 AD. Egyptian artists used stone, wood, paintings, and drawings on papyrus in producing their artworks. Sculpture and painting, which were both symbolic and highly stylized, reached a particularly high level during this time. Much of the surviving art comes from monuments, on which were recorded past events, and tombs, in which scenes relating to Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife were shown.
Symbolism was used extensively in Egyptian art, and included such things as a pharaoh’s regalia (used to show his power), and symbols of animals, and Egyptian gods and goddesses. The colors used in the artwork were more symbolic than natural, and were used to represent stylized aspects of the figures being portrayed. Another characteristic of Egyptian art was using the size of the figures being portrayed to indicate their relative importance. Usually gods and pharaohs are the largest figures, while other figures become increasingly smaller as their importance decreases. Egyptian art changed very little over the 3000 years that it was produced.
Egyptian reliefs were not always painted, and many less important works that were painted were simply painted on a flat surface. Some higher-quality limestone could be painted on directly, but other stone surfaces were prepared by whitewash, or a layer of coarse mud plaster with a smoother top layer. Mineral pigments (which would not fade in strong sunlight) were normally used. True fresco (i.e. painting on wet plaster) was not used. The paint was applied to dried plaster, with a resin or varnish often used as a protective coating. Many of these paintings that were not exposed to the elements have survived because of Egypt’s very dry climate. Even many paintings that had some exposure to the elements have survived quite well, but those that were fully exposed to the weather seldom survived.
Many of the surviving paintings were found in tombs, where they were well protected from the elements. These paintings were usually meant to help make a pleasing afterlife for the deceased. Many of the themes of the paintings included a representation of the journey through the afterworld, protective gods introducing the deceased to the underworld gods (who would, presumably, protect them in the afterlife), and activities that the deceased wished to continue in the afterlife.
Monumental Egyptian sculpture is known throughout the world, and most of the larger works that have survived are from tombs and temples. Huge stone statues were made to represent gods, and pharaohs and their queens. These were frequently placed in open areas inside or outside temples. Many temples had roads lined with large statues which included sphinxes and other animals. Quite a few large wooden statues of rich administrators and their wives have also survived to the present (due to Egypt’s dry climate), along with very high quality smaller stone sculptures. These smaller stone figures were often made using a method called ‘sunk relief’ (which is a type of relief where the highest points of the carved figures are level with, or below, the original surface into which they are carved, making the figure appear sunken into the surface), which is especially suitable for use in bright sunlight.