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Black Figure Pottery: Technique & Style

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

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.

It Figures

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.

Black figure pottery
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.

Techniques

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 with animal scene
Black figure pottery

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.

Black figure pottery with Pegasus
Pegasus

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.

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