Ancient Greek Art: Black and Red Figure Pottery

The Idea:

Black and red figure pottery was a revolutionary discovery for Greek artisans that created a whole new meaning to decorations on pottery.  The method, originally pioneered in 700 BC, was created in the town of Corinth, the main hub of black-figure paintings early on after its creation.  That is until Athens eventually perfected the technique and reigned supreme starting 625 BC.

The Process:

To create these decorations and figures, images were painted onto special glossy slips (a more liquid-like clay) that turn black when being fired.  The pottery is put into the kiln after it is shaped and handled.  The overall design is be outlined and filled in with the slips.  Then the details would be carved into the pottery.  This was so that the red clay would eventually show through to provide specific details around the black figures and shapes.  The firing process behind red and black figure pottery consists of the same steps.  The key to getting the different colors was the kiln.  With a normal piece of clay, the temperature inside the kiln would reach at least 450 degrees Celsius. 

Diagram showing a typical ancient kiln

The Stages of Firing Black and Red Figure Pottery:

The first stage is the oxidizing stage. The potters let air into the kiln, allowing for the whole piece to turn into the typical orange clay color.  At this stage, the temperature reaches up to 800 degrees. 

Then, the oxygen is reduced by closing the air vents, allowing the temperature to increase to 950 degrees.  A special kind of green wood is introduced to increase the moisture in the air and to create carbon monoxide, with smoke erupting.  Both the closing of the air vents and the moisture allow for black smoky color to appear on the clay.  

The last step is the reoxidization stage. Now, the vents are opened and oxygen reenters the kiln. The temperature decreases to about 900 degrees because of this.  The reintroduction of oxygen causes the clay not covered with the slip to turn back into the typical orange color.   Checking the temperature of the kiln throughout this process was very important to achieve the desired result. 

Black-figure pottery
Athenian Black-Figure Vase on display at The Met

For the clay to turn red though, you do everything the same, just opposite!  Artisans developed and refined this technique around 530 BC.  The artisan paints slip parts as the background area instead of in the shape of silhouettes or other patterns.  Thus, the whole pot would turn black leaving the figures and design to be the red-orange of normal clay.  Red-figure pottery has advantages because artisans can add more details in black quite easily. On the other hand, the design must be carefully put together and painted with black-figure pottery in order to come out with the desired look.  Hence, red-figure designs are more life-like and refined while black-figured are harder to have such detail.

Red-figure pottery
Red-Figure Hydria on display at the British Museum

The Magna effect of Black and Red Figure Pottery

The Red-figure technique, pioneered in Athens, was quite popular and was produced even after the Archaic period.  Black-figure pottery was the most popular of the two in the beginning, but red-figure pottery dominated.  But, black-figure pottery was more commonly used for traditional ware, such as a piece depicting the Gods.  There were various different designs that were made with both techniques, some very detailed by master artisans, but some were mass-produced with more basic designs. It’s crazy to think that such methods of producing a large number of goods in a small period of time were so prevalent even back in ancient times! 

There was such high production in order to sell the pottery through trade.  At the time, items from Magna Grecia were highly sought after and coveted, especially ones from well-known artisans.  The goal of establishing multiple trade routes was to achieve dominance over nautical trade.  While traveling around and trading, they established several coastal towns, and by the 6th century, controlled much of the Aegean Sea.  One major trading port that imported quite a bit of Greek pottery was in the Nile Delta, a port town called Naukratis.

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