Ancient Egyptian art, easily one of the world's most recognisable and influential art forms, is characterised by its flat, two-dimensional depictions of the Pharaoh and life along Nile. Spanning a time period beginning 3,000 years before the birth of Christ and extending through the third century, ancient Egyptian art was created by craftsmen bound to a strict set of rules that trumped any sort of creativity or artistic expression. These rules are evident in all ancient Egyptian art forms, from the awe-inspiring pyramids to the most humble Egyptian pottery.
Balance and Symmetry
Ancient Egyptian artists used balance and symmetry to create artistic compositions that were highly ordered and easily understood. Artists used large panels of flat colour, simple shapes and clearly defined outlines to create horizontal scenes called registers. Trained to produce art that resonated with order and clarity, Egyptian craftsmen had no interest in capturing emotion or creating illusions of depth and atmosphere.
Before starting any painting or sculpture, Egyptian craftsmen drew horizontal and vertical grid lines on its surface to create precisely measured proportions. The proportions of the human body were marked in terms of the width of the palm of a hand, with 18 palms equalling the entire human body from head to foot. The use of these grid lines resulted in artwork that displays remarkable order and uniformity.
Size indicated the importance, or social status, of the subject. Kings are usually depicted in larger-than-life proportions, symbolising their godlike powers. Wives, other family members, servants, even trees and architectural elements, are rendered in smaller scale to reflect their relative importance.
Multiple Points of View
Ancient Egyptian artists used multiple points of view to show each feature most fully on flat surfaces. For example, the legs and arms of people are drawn from a side view, while the shoulders are shown facing front. Egyptian heads are drawn in profile, but the eye stares straight ahead.
Colour and Symbolism
Colours hold symbolic meanings in Egyptian art. Blue and green symbolise water, the Nile and life; yellow and gold represent the sun and the sun god; and red and red-orange are associated with power and vitality. Symbols from the natural world, such as the sun, animals, birds, insects and the Nile, often represented Egyptian gods and goddesses.
While they paid little heed to the realistic size of the people and things shown in their art, the ancient Egyptians were painstaking in their attention to details of the natural world. This can be seen in the care given to accurately depicting the human anatomy and, most strikingly, in the Egyptians' meticulously detailed depictions of animals.
Hieroglyphs, the Egyptian writing based on pictures and symbols, and art are nearly inseparable in Egyptian art. As an example, the figure of a seated man also is a hieroglyphic character for "man." Often, hieroglyphic writing on a sculpture or painting identifies the figures or explains what is happening in the art. Some hieroglyphs are prayers and praises to the gods.
Poses and Gestures
Ancient Egyptian artists used poses and gestures as shorthand to explain what a figure was doing. Both hands extended forward with hands raised up show a figure worshipping. One arm stretched forward with the palm open means the figure is summoning someone. A figure bent on one knee with one arm raised and the other pressed against his chest with a closed fist is praising the gods.
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