Greek Black Figure pottery – Art in Ancient Greece

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Black-figure amphora by Exekias showing Achilles and Ajax playing checkers

Black figure amphora by Exekias showing Achilles and Ajax playing checkers

What does “black figure” mean?

In Athens, in the Archaic period, potters kept right on making clay pots with mythological scenes on them. Gradually the scenes grew and took over more of the pot, and the geometric decoration took up less and less.

(More about Geometric vase painting)

At the same time, a new painting technique developed. It got started about 700 BC in Corinth and became the main style in Athens by 600 BC.

(More about Corinth at this time)

Instead of painting figures of people in outline, the Athenian potters began to paint people in silhouette: we call this black-figure, because the people are all black and only the background is red.

Did they use black paint to make black figure vases?

Dionysos turns a ship into grapevines, and the bad sailors into dolphins (Athenian black-figure vase from the 500s BC)

Dionysos turns a ship into grapevines, and the bad sailors into dolphins (Athenian black-figure vase from the 500s BC)

No, actually, black figure is done all with one type of clay. The clay found near Athens has a lot of iron in it, so it looks black when it is wet. But if you fire it in an oven where there is plenty of air getting in, the clay rusts, and turns red.

This is because the iron mixes with the oxygen in the air. If you fire it in an oven with no air getting in, the iron can’t mix with oxygen, and the pot stays black. So you can have either red or black pots.

How to make black figure pottery

Prometheus with the eagle eating his liver (Black figure vase ca. 550 BC, Vatican Museum)

Prometheus with the eagle eating his liver (Black figure vase ca. 550 BC, Vatican Museum)

So how do you get a picture? You make a pot the regular way, and let it dry a little (“leather-dry”). Then you mix a little of the wet clay with a lot of water, to make a kind of paint (called the slip), which you use to make the black part of the picture. (You can’t see it very well while you are painting, because it is all the same color). And you let the whole thing dry.

(More about making black-figure pottery)

Famous artists who painted black figure vases

Exekias was one of the most famous Athenian black figure vase painters.

(More about the painter Exekias)

a red figure vase showing a woman sitting and working on a large clay pot. Smaller pots hang from the ceiling over her head

A red figure vase showing a woman making a large pot, in a pottery workshop (Caputi hydria, by the Leningrad painter. Athens, about 490-470 BC)

Amasis was also an important Athenian painter at this time. Most of the time, the potter who made the vase and the painter who painted it were different people. Both men and women made vases.

Some of the potters and painters may have been enslaved, but others (like this woman) were not. Some of the vase painters knew how to write and signed their names (and sometimes the name of the potter) on their work.

The end of black figure vase painting

Hercules fighting the Nemean Lion - Athenian black-figure vase, 500s BC

Herakles fighting the Nemean Lion –
Athenian black-figure vase, 500s BC

By around 550 BC, Corinth got out of the pottery industry. Athenian potters made most of the fine black figure pottery from then on. Athenians sold their pottery to people in all directions.

Their pottery went west to the Etruscans in Italy, to the Carthaginians in North Africa, and to Spain. Black figure vases went north to the Scythians. They went south to Egypt and Sudan, and east to the Persian Empire.

(More about Etruscan pottery)

The Etruscans also made black-figure pottery, and so did other city-states in Greece, but the Athenian vases were the most expensive kind.

Black figure pottery was very popular all over, until about 520 BC, when red figure pottery became more and more popular and gradually replaced the older style.

(Learn more about Greek red-figure pottery)

Painters were frustrated with black figure because if two figures were overlapping, like Herakles fighting the Nemean Lion here, it was hard to tell them apart. The new red figure style solved that problem.

Learn by doing: a vase painting project
More about black-figure pottery

Bibliography and further reading about Greek pottery:

Ancient Greek Art, by Susie Hodge (1998)- easy reading.
Understanding Greek Vases: A Guide to Terms, Styles, and Techniques(Getty Museum Publications 2002) by Andrew J. Clark, Maya Elston, Mary Louise Hart

More about Black-Figure vases
More about Red-Figure vases
Ancient Greece
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By |2018-05-29T13:11:20+00:00July 3rd, 2017|Art, Greeks|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Greek Black Figure pottery – Art in Ancient Greece. Quatr.us Study Guides, July 3, 2017. Web. October 22, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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