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Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
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Black Figure Pottery

Black figure pottery was a pottery painting technique started in the early 7th century BCE. As opposed to the outline technique of pottery where the painter would denote a figure by leaving the flesh unpainted with a black outline, black figure painting resulted in the entirety of the flesh portrayed in black. This latter technique found more acceptance on the mainland, thus making the outline technique more or less obsolete in Attic and Corinthian painting.

Sir John Beazley noted that:

"At the end of the 7th century, the black figure takes the place of the outline technique in Attica: the exuberant ornament is reduced, the animals are powerfully stylized; the eccentricity disappears" (Whitley 7).

The effect was created by carefully firing the pottery. First, the overall design would be placed on the piece as an outline then filled in with refined clay which would turn the figures black. Then the details would be added by carving deep incisions into the clay. The incisions would be deep enough for the color of the red clay to show through. The piece would then be fired with closed vents, and the pottery would come out completely black. Finally, the vents would be opened up for the piece to cool and the negative space would turn a reddish orange while the figures would remain black. Some colors other than black such as red, white, and purple appear as well. This allowed for much more intricate and lively pottery.

Black figure pottery began with more nature-centered subject matter such as animals till the mid 6th century but the Corinthians expanded towards narrative painting. They depicted mythical matter, battle scenes, and other figure-heavy portrayals.

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According to Biers, the black figure technique likely resulted from metalworking skills. It started on a small appearing mostly on smaller shaped pottery.

A notable black figure vase painter is Exekias. He painted such vases as Achilles and Ajax Playing Checkers and Theseus and Penthesileia in the 6th century BCE.

Eventually, this pottery painting technique was replaced by the red figure technique as it allowed for a much greater level of precision and detail.

Stephanie Lee

Biers, William R. The Archaeology of Greece. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Posted at Dec 16/2007 10:17PM:
Kuy Yeon Lee: Thanks for a clear explanation!! I've always wondered what the differences were between the black figure pottery and red. But now I can tell the difference!!=)