A major source of evidence for ancient Greece is painted pottery. The two most popular decorative styles are black-figure vase painting, practiced in the late 7th and 6th centuries B.C.E., and red-figure vase painting, largely the product of the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E. Decoration included non-figural designs, as well as scenes with figures and activities from myth and daily life.
The red-figure technique of vase painting was invented in Athens around 530 B.C.E. and its invention is often attributed to an artisan referred to as the Andokides Painter (1). This technique of vase painting is essentially the reverse of black-figure vase painting. In the red-figure technique, the background of a vessel's surface is coated with a black slip. The decorative figures are left to stand out in reserve, that is, in the red-orange color of the base clay. Details on the decorative figures were indicated by black lines of slip, eliminating the need for incision, the method for indicating such details in the black-figure technique (2).
The production of red-figure vases was a lengthy process and it began with the procurement of the clay. Potters in ancient Athens used a process called levigation, whereby clay is mixed with water and heavy impurities were allowed to sink to the bottom. This process was repeated until the clay had reached a sufficient level of purity and therefore plasticity. The clay was wedged to eliminate air bubbles before it was thrown on the potter's wheel. In ancient Greece, the potter's wheel was a large wooden or stone disk attached to an axle, which sat atop a pivot point on the ground. The wheel was kept in motion by a slave or potter's assistant, allowing the potter to use both hands to form the vessels. Most pottery was made in sections and appendages like lids, spouts, and handles added after the vessel had dried to a leather-hard state. At this leather-hard stage, too, the vessel could be burnished. The process of burnishing a vessel involves rubbing it vigorously with a hard, smooth object, probably leather, wood, or a smooth stone, in order to compact and smooth the surface of the clay (3). A light coating of red ochre was sometimes applied and the vessel re-burnished, enhancing the natural red-orange color of the clay (4).
At the leather-hard stage, after any burnishing and color enhancing, the ancient vase painter used charcoal to sketch the positions of figural details. This sketch was then outlined with a relatively wide strip, referred to as the eighth-of-an-inch strip, of black slip (5). This strip functioned as a dam, preventing slip from entering the areas reserved for decoration while the painter coated the background of the vessel with black slip. Once the sketch was completely outlined, details were added using a dilute slip. This slip is the same as that used to cover the entire vessel, but diluted so that it fires to a brown or golden brown color, as opposed to a deep black; this dilute slip was used to render fine details like hair or fine garments (6). The same dilute slip was used to create relief lines, which served to outline figures against the background or to delineate details like individual locks of hair; relief lines are so thick that they leave a visibly raised line (7).
After the addition of background slip and of details within the reserved red-orange areas of the decorative figures, added colors were applied. Added color was used considerably less in red-figure vase painting than it was in black-figure vase painting. In black-figure vase painting, for example, women's skin was often colored white, while in red-figure vase painting, the flesh of both male and female figures was left in the reserved red-orange clay.
Once the vessel was decorated, it progressed through the same three-stage firing process that vases painted in the black-figure technique did. This three-step firing process, which consisted of a cycle of oxidizing, reducing, and re-oxidizing the atmosphere inside the pottery kiln, was necessary to achieve the lustrous black gloss and the reserved red-orange decorative panels (8). The three-stage process occurred in the following order:
- Oxidizing: the kiln was heated to 800 degrees Celsius. Air admitted through vents allowed oxygen to enter the firing chamber and, at this stage, any slip on the surface of the vase turned a brownish-red color while the reserved clay areas fired to a light red color.
- Reducing: any vents were closed to reduce the level of oxygen in the kiln and the temperature was increased to 950 degrees Celsius. In addition to these changes, wet sawdust or green wood was added, causing incomplete combustion. The combination of robbing the oxygen from the red clay and releasing carbon monoxide, rather than carbon dioxide, allowed the reserved areas of the vessel's surface to turn from light red to a matte dark gray while the the slip-covered areas of the surface sintered -- a process in which the quartz particles in the slip fused together, enclosing the clay beneath -- to a deep shiny metallic black (9).
- Oxidizing: oxygen was re-admitted to the kiln and the temperature was reduced to 900 degrees Celsius. The reserved areas of the vessel absorbed the oxygen and reverted back to their red-orange color while the slip-covered areas remained black because the sintered surface could no longer absorb oxygen. It is important to note that if the temperature inside the kiln exceeded 1050 degrees Celsius during this third phase, the entire pot would re-oxidize and any black color would be lost (10).
The first group of vase painters to explore the new red-figure technique at the end of the 6th century B.C.E. and the beginning of the 5th century B.C.E. were called the Pioneers, the most famous of whom were Euphronios and his rival Euthymides. Members of the Pioneers did not just use this new technique, but they explored its limitations by learning how to foreshorten the limbs of their figures and attempting new poses to give their figures more of a three-dimensional appearance (11). A well-known example of the Pioneers' innovative work is an amphora painted by Euthymides, which shows three men dancing, with their bodies twisted and moving in a tour-de-force of representation, and is accompanied by an inscription that taunts and challenges the painter's rival, declaring "As never Euphronios."
High quality black-figure vases continued to be produced alongside red-figure pieces in the late 6th and early 5th centuries B.C.E. In the generations of vase painters after the Pioneers, however, all major vase painters worked exclusively -- or nearly so -- in the red-figure technique (12). Toward the end of the 5th century B.C.E., Athenian pottery workshops began producing fewer and fewer painted vessels. What had been a productive and lucrative export market dwindled and had all but ceased by the middle of the 4th century B.C.E. A new center of pottery production developed in the workshops in South Italy and Sicily and for the rest of the 4th century B.C.E., South Italian vase painting, which continued in the red figure style, predominated.
The CU Art Museum's collection contains two examples of red-figure decoration: a late 5th or early 4th century B.C.E. Attic lekythos, as well as a 4th century B.C.E. pelike from a South Italian workshop.
This essay was written to accompany a collection of Greek artifacts at the CU Art Museum.
- Andrew J. Clark, Maya Elston, and Mary Louise Hart, Understanding Greek Vases: A Guide to Terms, Styles, and Techniques (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002): 138
- Dyfri Williams and Lucilla Burn, "Vase-Painting in Fifth Century Athens," in eds. Tom Rasmussen and Nigel Spivey, Looking at Greek Vases (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991): 107
- Clark, Elston, and Hart, Understanding Greek Vases: 72.
- Clark, Elston, and Hart, Understanding Greek Vases: 118.
- Clark, Elston, and Hart, Understanding Greek Vases: 124.
- Clark, Elston, and Hart, Understanding Greek Vases: 85.
- Clark, Elston, and Hart, Understanding Greek Vases: 139.
- Clark, Elston, and Hart, Understanding Greek Vases: 91.
- Clark, Elston, and Hart, Understanding Greek Vases: 92.
- Andrew Wilson, "The Chemistry of Athenian Pottery," The Classics Pages (http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~loxias/chemistry.htm), accessed 31 January 2019.
- Clark, Elston, and Hart, Understanding Greek Vases: 138.
- Martin Robertson, A Shorter History of Greek Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987): 66.