The use of colour in Cycladic art

Much of the modern admiration for Cycladic figurines and vessels stems from their abstract simplicity, which is greatly enhanced by the almost transparent quality of the white marble. However, we know that Cycladic artisans used to decorate their creations with bright colours, either for practical or for symbolic reasons. Traces of colour have been preserved on a wide variety of artifacts, namely marble figurines and vessels, clay vases, and bone tools. Their detailed study is possible through traditional methods, chemical analysis, and ultra-violet photography.


Red and blue are the most common colours used in Cycladic art. Green and black are also used, but less frequently. All colours were produced from minerals:
red from iron oxides (hematite), red ochre or cinnabar (mercury sulfide); the latter material is not native in the Aegean and was probably imported from Asia Minor or the Balkans;
- blue from azurite (copper carbonate);
- green from malachite or hydroxide of azurite;
- black was probably produced by oxidization of another mineral, possibly azurite.

Red ochre 


Tools and marble vessels
Traces of red and blue colour have been detected on numerous marble vessels and bone tools. In the Cycladic collection of the MCA there are several shallow bowls with the interior entirely covered in red. There are also examples of vessels with linear decoration on the exterior surface. Some deeper bowls preserve thick layers of blue pigment and were most probably used as containers. Blue pigment in tiny amounts is also found in some miniature clay “aryballoi”, in which case we assume that it was used for cosmetic purposes.
A number of grinders and grinding stones that bear traces of red and blue colour were most probably used for processing the pigments. Some peculiar bone tubes with blue or red colour in the interior may have been used as containers.

The use of colour on figurines is not always easy to attest. In some cases, there are clearly visible remains on the marble. More often, however, the only trace is a “paint ghost”, i.e. a smoother part of the surface or the outline of a painted feature (e.g. an eye, a diadem) that looks as if it has been rendered in low relief: in fact, the pigment applied in those areas protected the marble surface from the erosion suffered by the rest of the figurine and appears today smooth, lighter in colour and slightly raised in comparison to the uncoloured areas.

Black and blue were normally used to define or emphasize anatomical details of the head and body, such as the eyes, eyebrows, hair and pubic triangle. Red was used to emphasize incised details and depict ornaments (necklaces, bracelets), power or status attributes (diadems, bands) and various decorative motifs on the face and body. The ears, mouth and nostrils were usually not painted.

The meaning of painted motifs 

Hypothetical reconstruction of painted decoration on a Cycladic figurine
  The interpretation of the abstract motifs which were painted on the face and body of several figurines is a contested issue. Some scholars believe that they represent instances of body piercing or painted decoration for particular social or ritual occasions. Others believe that they were status symbols. According to another theory, they were meant to express different attributes of the represented figure. It has even been theorized that they functioned as characteristic symbols of a common cultural or social identity. This discrepancy of approaches should not come as a surprise, since the study of painted motifs on Cycladic figurines is still at an early stage.

We should stress that most painted figurines belong to the so-called “canonical” type of the Early Cycladic II period (2800-2300 BC), although we have instances of coloured decoration in earlier types, too, mainly the violin-shaped figurines and a few examples from the Plastiras and Louros types. The practice seems to die out at the final stages of EC II, when the colour gives way to relief decoration.

Reconstruction of the painted decoration on
a figurine from Naxos (E. Hendrix:
 “Painted Early Cycladic figures”, Hesperia 72 [2003], 422 fig. 8)