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Red 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 history, techniques, and styles of red figure pottery and test your understanding of ancient Greek culture, artistic production, and Mediterranean trade.

Seeing Red

Red figure pottery was one of the two most dominant styles of the ancient Greek art form vase painting, the other style being black figure pottery. The difference is fairly simple; red figure pottery has a black background and red figures, black figure pottery is the opposite. In the ancient Mediterranean world, Greek vases were very desirable for their high quality and were traded across the region. Red figure pottery was developed around 530 BC, likely by the workshop of the famous Greek potter Andokides, and quickly replaced black figure pottery as the most popular style.

Figure in front of an altar
Red Figure Pottery

Athens was by far the leading producer of red figure pottery, with ceramic producing workshops in Greece and Southern Italy. They dominated the market across the Mediterranean. Archeologists have identified more than 40,000 fragments of individual red figure vases from Athens alone. 20,000 fragments from Southern Italy have been discovered.

Figures of sportsmen
Red Figure Pottery

Making Vases

Both black and red styles of pottery share many similarities in how they are made. The potter first selected the clay, then shaped it on a wheel. The shape and size of the vase depended on its intended function. Vases could be used for pouring, storing, and transporting water, olive oil, and wine. Larger vases were generally built in sections, then attached them with slip, clay in a liquid form. In ancient Greece, the ratio of clay to water was about 20/80. Ancient Greek slip was naturally dark because of iron oxide.

Originally, slip was used to hold the pieces of the vase together. Artists soon began using it to create figures and designs on the vases, since the slip would turn black during firing. At first, they painted figures with slip, creating black figure pottery. Around 530 BC, artists began using slip to color the background, leaving the red-orange unpainted areas to create the figures. The talented artists used the slip to draw texture into the fabric of clothing on the figures and add more details.

There were three stages of kiln firing that achieved the red figure pottery style:

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