Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.05.27

Ioanna Kakoulli, Greek Painting Techniques and Materials from the Fourth to the First Century BC.   London:  Archetype Publications, 2009.  Pp. x, 157.  ISBN 9781904982425.  £35/$70.00.  

Reviewed by Christina A. Salowey, Hollins University (

[Table of contents is listed at the end of the review.]

Ioanna Kakoulli's book, Greek Painting Techniques and Materials from the Fourth to the First Century BC, makes accessible a long line of technical studies on ancient painting and contributes a new investigation of eleven paintings, some previously studied, from eight different Mediterranean sites, plus pigment pellets from Delos. The core of the book derives from the author's D.Phil. research at the University of Oxford (p. ix), which clearly shows in the useful synopses of previous technical studies. But the true value of Kakoulli's work lies in her explanation of the scientific methods used to identify pigments and the techniques used to apply them. The numerous figures (144) and the accompanying captions are particularly worthwhile, clarifying the points made in the text about the results of different analyses. Given the proliferation of scholarly interest in paint and color in ancient art, both visible and not, this book provides a readable introduction to the analytical techniques used to study pigments.1 New advances in non-destructive methods of analysis coupled with microscopic and spectroscopic analytical tools requiring miniscule amounts of material have created possibilities for examining painted objects in order to clarify the chemical composition of pigments, binders, and substrates. Many studies have been completed but have been buried in the pages of journals that classicists and ancient art historians rarely browse (e.g. X-ray Spectrometry, Chemie für Labor und Betrieb, Analytic Chemistry) or the proceedings of international symposia that many libraries do not carry. Even if one should come across these technical studies, the specialized jargon and required scientific documentation and notation could be forbidding to a non-specialist. Kakoulli's book digests much of this previous material and offers a new study into a select group of painted artifacts.

Not so strong are the author's brief historical introductions, overviews of iconography, and outline of ancient painting techniques. In fact the opening chapters somewhat confuse the reader about the topic of the book. Chapter 1, "Introduction", states "this book aims to provide an overview of the materials and techniques of paintings reflecting the Hellenistic culture," (p. 1), and provides the chronological (fourth to the first century BC) and geographical (Balkans to the Levant and "as far afield as India," (p. 1)) limits. The chapter then goes on to give a brief historical and art historical overview only of Macedonia. Chapter 2, "Ancient Painting Techniques", defines fresco and secco painting techniques then summarizes what is known about wall preparation and pigments in Egypt, the Bronze Age Aegean, the Etruscan necropoleis, Rome, Pompeii, other Campanian cities, and Roman Cyprus, with a brief section about painted Classical marbles. It is not until page 21 of Chapter 3, "Scientific Methodology for the Study of Painting Techniques and Materials" that the reader learns that the materials and explanations in the book draw on research done on 110 samples from monumental paintings at the sites of Vergina and Delos in Greece, Nea Paphos on Cyprus, Marissa, Jericho, and Acre in Israel, and the Gabbari necropolis and the ex-English Consulate area in Alexandria, Egypt. The specific contexts for the paintings from these sites, i.e. location, size, time period, history, archaeological investigations, are confined to Appendix 1, "Technical Studies of Late Classical And Hellenistic Paintings", along with the experimental procedures and list of samples undertaken in each place. A more detailed list of samples is presented in Appendix 2. A reorganization of some of this material into the first two chapters would have served as a better introduction to the book and its topics, but this failing does not detract from the utility and clarity of the scientific material in the chapters that follow.

Chapter 3, "Scientific Methodology for the Study of Painting Techniques and Materials", presents and explains the results obtained from non-invasive and invasive analytical techniques. Non-invasive techniques such as diffuse, raking, and ultraviolet light are clearly defined, and excellent figures show exactly what these methods can reveal. Infrared and ultraviolet photography are also discussed and illustrated. A clear philosophy for the sampling of pigments and/or substrates of ancient paintings precedes a discussion of the preparation of samples for optical, chemical or instrumental methods of analysis. Each analytical method used and its abbreviation, e.g. PLM, FTIR, XRF, are listed but extensive definitions are not given, most likely as being beyond the scope of the book. Appendix 3 does provide some definitions of terms used in the discussion of the optical properties of crystals found in ancient pigments and is worth reading before tackling Chapter 3. The information yielded from these analyses with, again, excellent illustrative figures, provides a good introduction to Chapters 4, "Late Classical and Hellenistic painting techniques and materials", and 5, "Pigments and Colorants", in which the interpretation of the data is presented. These two chapters collect and present the evidence for Hellenistic painting comprehensively and will serve as an easily consulted compilation of pigments, their characteristics, and analysis.

In Chapter 4, Kakoulli gathers evidence from ancient authors and the technical studies completed by her and others to present a full discussion of what is known about the supports and substrates for secco and fresco painting, organic binding media, and preparatory drawings. Chapter 5 presents the methods of identification and occurrence of 29 pigments found in the paint fragments and pigment pellets and powders of Kakoulli's study. The author found and studied pigments both in a pure form and in admixtures. Again the well-chosen, annotated figures strengthen the points made in the text and demonstrate the utility of these micro-analytical techniques. Some of the points the figures illustrate are the different microstructures of dark and light Egyptian blue (Figs. 5.3-5.6), the admixture of Egyptian blue and a red organic lake colorant to create a purple color (Figs. 5.20-5.21), and the conclusion that two red pigments, haematite and jarosite, were used in a brown paint layer (Figs. 5.31-5.32). In her discussions of pigments, Kakoulli includes ancient testimonia (primarily from Theophrastus' De Lapidibus, Vitruvius' De architectura, Pliny's Naturalis Historia, and Dioscorides' De Materia Medica) on the colorants, their place of origin, or synthesis. The chapter also includes a table (pp. 58-60) of paintings studied by her and others, grouped by country of origin, with the pigments found, binder medium, and analytical methods used for the identification.

Chapter 6, "Production of Egyptian blue", provides the ancient evidence for the manufacture of the synthetic pigment Egyptian blue and a synopsis of the conclusions of modern studies on the pigment. Kakoulli conducted several laboratory trials attempting to reproduce Egyptian blue with the same color and microstructure of ancient pigment samples. Different mixtures of starting materials and firing conditions that varied in heat, duration, and oxidation condition, were tested in an attempt to reproduce an Egyptian blue containing leaded glass. Appendix 5 provides the details of each laboratory trial. These experiments illuminated the conditions that significantly altered the quality of the pigment produced but also raised new questions about the provenance of raw materials used. The scanning electron microscope-wavelength dispersive spectroscopy (SEM-WDS) results on Egyptian blue are presented in Appendix 4.

Chapter 7, "Pigment alteration and colour changes in Hellenistic paintings" outlines the climatic conditions at archaeological sites that are most likely to damage ancient paintings and examines the chemical changes that occur when those paintings are exposed to moisture, heat, and microorganisms. Previous studies on the chemical processes behind the alteration of copper-based pigments, lead-based pigments, and cinnabar are presented. Kakoulli's research has made new contributions to the understanding of the dissolution of the glass phase of Egyptian blue, the discoloration of green earth into limonite producing a color change from green to yellow, and the darkening of gum arabic in certain microbiological conditions. The understanding of these chemical and biological processes can aid in the interpretation of damaged paintings and perhaps help create methods to halt or reverse decomposition.

Chapter 8, "Discussion", explores four topics to which Kakoulli's study contributes new information. In her discussion of intercultural links and artistic transmissions, Kakoulli makes her most interesting point about the use of glaucophane for a blue pigment in Aegean paintings before "circa 1500 BC," (p. 76) and Egyptian blue afterwards, proposing that the volcanic eruption on Thera might have cut off the supply of glaucophane. On the styles of Hellenistic paintings, she highlights techniques that seem new to the period, such as polishing the plaster surface before application of pigments in secco, the use of organic lakes to create transparency, and the premixing of pigments for ready use. She stresses that choice of inorganic pigments seems to have been dependent primarily on local availability and that more valuable pigments were imported, occurring only rarely. Her fourth topic, the conservation implications of her study, summarizes her findings from Chapter 7. Some of the material in this chapter is redundant but does bring together disparate findings from her study under the four headings. Chapter 9, "Conclusion", does not go any further with the material Kakoulli has already presented but just outlines in brief the result obtained from her analyses of "numerous paintings from Late Classical and Hellenistic houses and tombs in Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt," (p. 83). This chapter might have better served as an introductory overview to the book as a whole.

Kakoulli's book brings together art historical examination and technical analyses to further our understanding of the materials and techniques used in Hellenistic painting. The real accomplishment in this study is the straightforward presentation of complex scientific procedures to the non-specialist with careful definitions and explanatory illustrations. This book is essential for anyone wishing to have a grasp on the new micro-methodologies being used to analyze the material composition of painted works of ancient art. Parts of the book, especially chapters 3-5, could be used to supplement discussions on color and ancient painting in an upper level art history or classics courses. While some of the broader conclusions about cultural interactions and the interchange of artistic methodologies must be considered speculative because of the small corpus of objects studied, the book convinces that sophisticated scientific analysis has some fascinating and important information to offer ancient historians and art historians.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Introduction
Chapter 2 Ancient Painting Techniques
Chapter 3 Scientific Methodology for the Study of Painting Techniques and Materials
Chapter 4 Late Classical and Hellenistic Painting Techniques and Materials
Chapter 5 Pigments and Colorants
Chapter 6 Production of Egyptian Blue
Chapter 7 Pigment Alteration and Colour Changes in Hellenistic Painting
Chapter 8 Discussion
Chapter 9 Conclusion

Appendix 1 Technical Studies of Late Classical and Hellenistic Paintings
Appendix 2 List of Samples
Appendix 3 Optical Properties of Crystals Considered for the Identification of Pigments
Appendix 4 Egyptian Blue: SEM-WDS Results
Appendix 5 Experimental Trials for the Production of Egyptian Blue


1.   Vinzenz Brinkmann, Die Polychromie der archaischen und frühklassischen Skulptur, Studien zur antiken Malerei und Farbgebung v. 55 (München: Biering & Brinkmann, 2003); Beth Cohen, The Colors of Clay: Special Techniques in Athenian Vases (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2006); Vinzenz Brinkmann and Raimund Wünsche, eds., Gods in Color: Painted Sculpture of Classical Antiquity (München: Stiftung Archäologie Glyptothek, 2007); Hariclia Brecoulaki, La Peinture funéraire de Macédoine: Emplois et Fonctions de la Couleur IVe-IIe S. av. J.-C. (Athens: Centre de recherches de l'antiquité grecque et romaine, Fondation nationale de la recherche scientifique, 2006).

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