The characteristics of Egyptian art followed certain specific rules which gave little or no room for creativity. For instance, painters were to use a falcon’s head to represent the god Horus; the purpose of the red color was to indicate power.

Today, ancient Egyptian sculpture characteristics are among the top attractions at Egyptian tourist sites due to their complexity and uniqueness.

Read on to discover the various characteristics that governed ancient Egyptian paintings and the purpose of Egyptian art.

Ancient Egyptian Art Characteristics

Egyptian art was the best in the Mediterranean due to its preference for order and form. These characteristics did not suffer external influences due to the geography of Egypt. The deserts and hills surrounding Egypt and the Nile prevented any invasion, so the Egyptians were free to develop the various branches of their art form.

The Functions and Characteristics of Egyptian Painting

Most ancient Egyptian paintings included gods and goddesses in their depictions. This is because Egyptian society was a deeply religious one, so one of the functions of Egyptian art was to honor them.

They believed their livelihoods depended on their gods so the gods were central to Egyptian painting style. They also thought of their pharaohs as gods, therefore, they depicted them in their paintings to honor them.

Characteristics of Egyptian Painting

When it came to the characteristics, the Egyptians valued order and rules, which all artists needed to follow. For instance, the social status of an individual influenced how they were represented in painting.

In a scene depicting high-ranking Egyptian official and their slaves, the size of the official’s figure would be bigger than that of the slaves. The purpose was to reflect the status of the official relative to the slaves.

Anyone who saw the painting described above could easily deduce that the bigger figure ranked higher than the smaller ones. Also, when drawing humans and animals, the painters had to depict the hands and legs in profile. The purpose of this was to show both the side and front view simultaneously. If the artist desired to depict a fishing scene, they were mandated to do it on a background of reeds and water.

The rules also made provision for the kind of colors to be used in painting. The Egyptian artists were to stick to red, black, yellow, green, gold and blue. The gods were to be drawn in order of their hierarchy and they had specific symbols that represented them. For example, the god Anubis was always to be represented by the head of a jackal.

Egyptian Tomb Paintings

In the 6th Dynasty, Egyptian sculptors used paints rather than carvings to decorate tombs. This was due to the cheaper price of painting compared to sculpting. The Middle Kingdom saw coffins being painted to depict a house because they believed coffins were the houses in which the corpses would stay.

Artists painted the exterior of the coffins with hieroglyphs indicating the title and names of the dead. They then painted mats, windows and doors to give a semblance of a real house. The false door through which the soul would pass was at the head of the coffin, and they also included the eyes of Horus to help the dead see the living.

They painted the interior of the coffins with gifts that were given to the dead. These gifts included vegetables, bread and meat, along with the properties of the deceased. They drew head clothes at the head of the coffin and sandals at the feet so that the dead would not be naked in the underworld.

The Function and Meaning of Colors in Ancient Egyptian Art

As already mentioned, the Egyptians used only six colors in their artwork, and each color symbolized something.

The artists used red to show power, anger, fire, victory or life; important names were also written in red. On the other hand, the Egyptians depicted growth, fertility and new life with the color green.

Blue in ancient Egyptian art represented rebirth and creation. The rules allowed the artists to use yellow to represent the sun and gold. Yellow also indicated the Pharaohs, the sun god Ra and eternity, which is why the Egyptians painted the head of the caskets and funeral masks yellow, as it also meant eternal life for the deceased.

The artists represented purity and all things sacred with white. This is why they used white in designing all objects associated with their religion, and priests would also use white while performing religious rites.

Black was the color that symbolized death, which the Egyptians also used to represent the underworld, night, and the black fertile soil of the Nile region. Thus, black could also be used to symbolize regeneration.

The Purpose and Characteristics of Egyptian Sculpting

Sculpting in ancient Egypt was straightforward. The Egyptians used materials such as bones, wood and ivory to carve simple figures. These figures included antelopes, birds and fish, which they placed inside coffins to bury the dead. Prehistoric carvings were done in relief with the scene slightly projecting out of its background.

The carvings depicted Egyptians worshipping their gods in shrines made of reed. The chiefs of the locals were also depicted living in similar structures. To commemorate their victories, the Egyptians carved maceheads and palettes in relief, as was the order of the day.

The sculptors were careful to follow the agreed principles of carving human images, which was that human images were to be depicted both in the frontal and side view. In sculpting, the artists were to depict kings as lions or bulls. These sculpting skills were unique to the Egyptians and made them stand out among other kingdoms in the ancient world.

Egyptians Decorated Their Tombs With Relief Sculptures

Early tombs contained reliefs that showed stilted figures carved in either stone or wooden panels. The characteristics of tomb reliefs featured the head, bust and legs in profile while the eyes and shoulders were in frontal view. The craftsmen depicted the waist and the hips in a three-quarter view.

The craftsmen then carved the titles and inscriptions identifying the deceased. This they did in hieroglyphs which were symbols of animals and objects. The carvings also depicted a scene indicating the deceased seated in front of a table. Under the deceased, the sculptors carved a false floor where the soul of the dead would enter and leave the tomb.

Purpose and Characteristics

The purpose of the art was to enable the deceased to gain access to eternal life, so funeral incantations are chanted to activate the table of offerings and the soul of the dead. Lively scenes were then painted on the sides of the image of the deceased, which depicted laborers of the deceased going about their normal duties. These laborers were to be frozen in mid-step to indicate their daily work for their deceased master.

The sculptors arranged all these scenes horizontally. Their depictions did not feature distance and perspective to indicate depth. They made up for this by making use of registers, with lower registers indicating closeness to the viewer and higher ones indicating long distances.

The Egyptian artist sometimes filled the walls of the tomb with each figure standing in its proper place. The care and diligence of the sculptors ensured that there was no overlap.

The Characteristics of Egyptian Architecture

This article would not be complete without mentioning the epitome of Egyptian art, which is the pyramids. The Egyptians designed and built the pyramids as tombs for their royals. This was to prepare them to become gods after their death, so a great deal of attention and skill went into the design and construction of these pyramids.

The masons built the pyramids from sandstone, granite and limestone. They laid these bricks very close to each other because there were no binding materials, and the builders also used ramps as the buildings went up. When the builders finished laying the bricks, they started designing the pyramids from the top.

The architects painted the topmost part of the pyramid gold to reflect the sun’s rays, as they believed that the light from the sun would give life to the deceased. The pyramid itself contained a few openings that led in and out. The painters then decorated the pyramids with hieroglyphs and the carvers carved out various relief sculptures.

The Purpose of the Pyramids

The purpose of the designs was to illustrate the various stages the pharaoh would undergo before becoming a god. The prominent Egyptian buildings in 2600 BC had columns made from stone, and later architects implored faceted cylinders, which were also carved out of stones. These columns were then painted in hieroglyphs and relief sculptures carved onto them.

However, modern scientists and historians are at a loss as to how the pyramids were actually constructed. The ingenuity of the ancient Egyptians in building such magnificent structures is outstanding. No wonder the huge edifices are among the seven wonders of the world.


So far, we’ve discovered characteristics of ancient Egyptian art and the purposes they served. Here is a summary of what we’ve learned.

  • Ancient Egyptian art followed order and form rather than expression.
  • Depiction of gods and humans had to follow a specific pattern.
  • Gods were depicted with animal heads, their chest and waist facing the front while their legs were to the side.
  • The Egyptians also depicted humans both in the frontal and side view but without animal heads.
  • Painters designed tombs to help the deceased prepare for the afterlife.
  • Various colors had specific meanings and purposes.
  • One Egyptian art structure that has confounded modern architects and scientists is the building of the pyramids.
  • Prominent Egyptian buildings had columns that were carved out of stone and decorated with pictures and relief sculptures.

Egyptian art continues to intrigue people to this day, and many who visit the Great Pyramids and other ancient Egyptian sites testify of the complexity and beauty of Egyptian ingenuity. It has also boosted the economy of Egypt as more people tour these sites, because Egyptian art is so unique that an untrained eye can easily spot it among other ancient art forms.

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