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)
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?
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
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.
Famous artists who painted black figure vases
Exekias was one of the most famous Athenian black figure vase painters.
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
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.
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.
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.
Understanding Greek Vases: A Guide to Terms, Styles, and Techniques(Getty Museum Publications 2002) by Andrew J. Clark, Maya Elston, Mary Louise Hart