Explore the development and techniques of the ancient Greek art of black figure pottery and test your understanding about artistic production and the ancient world.
At some point in human history, people realized that vases were boring. Sorry, vase enthusiasts, but it’s true. So, ancient artists began decorating the vases with paints, fancy ornamentation, and unique shapes.
jpg” alt=”Black figure pottery” />
Black figure pottery is one of the first recognizable pottery styles unique to ancient Greece. Black figure pottery is easy to recognize because it features black silhouette figures of people and events. It became popular between the 7th and 5th centuries BC, before being replaced by a new style called red figure pottery.
The black color in black figure pottery is not a pigment or dye, but a result of firing clay in the kiln. As the vases were being made, a liquid clay called slip was applied to patch up weak areas or hold pieces together.
The slip turned black during firing, and potters began intentionally painting on the slip in distinctive shapes before firing, resulting in black figures.The firing was a three-step process. First, the vase was fired with oxygen in the chamber, and the entire vase turned orange-red. Next, green wood was added and the vents were closed, smoking the vases completely black. In the final step, oxygen was re-introduced and areas without slip turned back to red while areas with slip remained black. After the vase cooled, artists could paint details onto the figures.
Black figure pottery became very popular and was a major trade item all across the Mediterranean, from Syria to Italy. The high quality of the vases, as well as the new style of decorations, helped Greek vases spread all over the Mediterranean and helped establish Greece as the leading producers of art and economic power in the ancient world.
Development and Styles of Black Figure Pottery
One of the earliest recognizable styles of pottery in the Mediterranean was the orientalizing style, which used simple outlines, dots, and silhouettes to create images. By the 7th century BC, different regions in Greece began exploring a new technique that created black silhouetted figures. The first ceramics in this style emerged near Corinth, where potters learned that the clay slip that turned black during firing could be used to create figures.
Early vases depicted mostly scenes of animals or animal-hybrids. By the 6th century BC, more potters were moving towards human figures, often depicting mythological scenes.
Depictions of Heracles, or Hercules, were very common. The artists used various paints to add color and detail to the figures.Eventually the city of Attica replaced Corinth as the leading producer of ceramics due to the high-quality red clay in that region. Due to the unique styles developed in each region, black figure pottery was the first art form in Greece that archeologists could identify the works of individual artists.
Although their names are lost, each artist had a unique style. Eventually, these artists began experimenting with new techniques and flipped the style so that the black gloss covered the background, and the figures were made from the natural red color of the clay. This style is called, you guessed it, red figure pottery. Red figure pottery replaced the black figure style by the end of the 5th century BC.
Black figure pottery was the first ceramic art unique to ancient Greece, and its popularity helped make Greece a center for artistic production in the Mediterranean. It replaced an early style, called orientalizing, which was mostly dots and outlines of independent figures.
Black figure style, however, created full silhouette figures and portrayed scenes from nature, history, or mythology. To make black figure pottery, a liquid clay called a slip was added. Originally, the slip was used to hold parts of the vase together during kiln firing, but Greek artists started using it for design because it turned black in the kiln.
The vase was first fired with oxygen, to turn it red, then fired with green wood and no oxygen to turn it all black. Finally, oxygen was added again and the areas without slip turned back to red, while the areas with slip stayed black, creating the figures. The figures became very popular because nobody likes a boring vase.