Ancient Egyptian artists used what’s known as mixed, composite, or twisted perspective in their art. In this style, different body parts are depicted from different viewpoints. For example, the torso is shown frontally, while the head and legs are shown in profile. This blog post aims to explain why the Egyptians chose a composite perspective in their artworks instead of opting for realistic representation.
Using twisted or mixed perspective, ancient Egyptian artists aimed to emphasize the most recognizable features of each figure. The goal was to capture the essence of each body part in a clear and recognizable way rather than creating a realistic representation of the entire body. However, Egyptians applied composite perspective not only in depicting human figures but also in representing animals, plants, everyday objects, and landscapes.
Characteristics of Egyptian Art
Ancient Egyptian art, including the composition method, use of perspective, sizing of the figures, and color palette, was not primarily focused on achieving realism in the way we might think of it today. The artistic style was more symbolic and adhered to certain conventions deeply rooted in religious, cultural, and societal beliefs.
While the Egyptians were certainly skilled artists, they aimed to convey essential information, such as religious rituals, myths, or the journey to the afterlife, rather than creating a realistic depiction of the physical world, as valued in some other artistic traditions.
Egyptian artists portrayed not what they saw but what they thought. They worked with simple shapes, sharp outlines, and large, single-colored surfaces.
The rules of Egyptian painting were established during the time of the Old Kingdom, considered the sacred legacy of a legendary past, the age of gods. This general mode of representation that originated in the Old Kingdom also continued into the Middle Kingdom.
It was a mandatory rule to paint objects in a flat plane, including the stylized representation of the human body according to a specific scheme. The human figure was portrayed as if seen simultaneously from multiple perspectives: the face in profile, the eyes, shoulders, and chest from the front, the hips in three-quarter profile, and the legs again in full side view.
The twisted perspective was not only present in the depiction of people in ancient Egypt, it extended to animals as well, frequently seen in hunting scenes. These scenes reveal that Egyptian artists keenly observed nature, understanding both human and animal anatomy, even as they adhered to strict artistic conventions.
This technique is not limited to living subjects. In representations of everyday objects, we also see the combined perspective. In these paintings, such as in the image below, the leg of the table is presented in a frontal view, while the top is shown from a birds-eye perspective.
Additionally, twisted perspective is also applied to landscapes, such as the motif of fish ponds. The water surface is shown from an overhead view, while the surrounding vegetation and fish are visible in profile.
Rediscovery of Multiple Perspectives in Modern Art
Like the ancient Egyptian artists, Cubists were also interested in breaking down objects into geometric shapes and presenting them from different angles, while reassembling them in an abstract manner. In the works of Cubist artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, we can see the representation of multiple perspectives simultaneously.
If you are interested in more information on perspective, you may wish to read my article on what perspective is in art.
In ancient Egyptian art, the use of horizontal rows or registers was a common composition method, often seen on the walls of tombs and temples. This technique involved organizing and arranging different elements of a scene or narrative into separate horizontal bands that gave a sense of order and hierarchy in the composition.
Registers were used to convey a chronological sequence of events in scenes depicting religious rituals, daily life, or the journey to the afterlife. This allowed viewers to follow the narrative from one register to the next.
Sizing of the Figures
In these scenes, multiple figures were carved or painted, with the most important ones being larger than the rest. The sizing was determined not by natural dimensions but by social status or divine importance. In many cases, pharaohs and gods were depicted as larger than other figures to emphasize their importance and elevated status.
This use of scale served both practical and symbolic purposes. Practically, it helped viewers easily identify the central figures in a scene. Symbolically, it reinforced the hierarchical structure of Egyptian society.
Symbolic sizing was a common feature in ancient Egyptian sculpture, just as it was in their two-dimensional art. For example, in statues of pharaohs, you might see the ruler as significantly larger than accompanying figures such as family members or servants.
While rulers were represented with strictly defined forms and gestures, the visual representation of common people was not bound by these rules. In their case, the goal was to ensure that their tasks and activities were precisely recognizable.
Colors in Egyptian Paintings
In accordance with the rules of the Egyptian painting tradition, women’s skin was painted light yellow or pink, while men’s was painted reddish-brown. The coloring wasn’t based on the observation of nature but followed a strictly defined scheme.
In ancient Egyptian wall paintings, a limited color palette was commonly used. The colors were derived from natural sources, the most common ones being red, blue, yellow, green, white, and black.
In conclusion, ancient Egyptian art aimed to capture the essence of its subjects rather than present them in a lifelike manner.
Mixed perspective allowed artists to depict objects from their most recognizable angles. Egyptian artists employed this type of perspective not only for depicting people but also for animals, plants, landscapes, and various objects.
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My name is Debora, and I’m the founder of Drawing Fundamentals. I work as a civil engineering technician. I acquired the basic knowledge necessary for freehand and technical drawing during my school training, further developing and perfecting these skills throughout my years in the profession. Through my blog, I aim to assist anyone interested in learning to draw.