Attic pottery production

The black-figure technique was invented in Corinth in about 700 B.C. and adopted by the Athenian workshops in approximately 630 B.C. How were the characteristic black-figure and red-figure vases actually made?

Black-figure technique

The pot was shaped on the potter's wheel and then allowed to dry until it became 'leather hard'. The painter applied the decoration with 'clay paint', a solution of concentrated clay paste. 
In the black-figure technique the figurework, comprising humans and animals, is filled in with clay paint while the background remains blank. During the painting process the figurework hardly stood out visibly against the clay-coloured background. Subsequently, the figures were enlivened with details in two colours: white (a very fine, white pipe clay) and red (red oxide or iron pigment). Lastly, all kinds of details were defined by incised lines drawn with a sharp stylus. Afterwards the vase could be put in the kiln and fired.

Red-figure pottery

In red-figure the figurework consists of orange-red silhouettes which stand out against a black background. The technique is, so to speak, the opposite of black-figure. First the painter outlined the figures with a line of clay paint about a centimetre wide and then filled in the background solid black. The inner details like anatomical features and garment folds are indicated by so-called relief-lines which were made of thickened clay paint applied by means of a brush with a few hairs, perhaps even only one. Finally the vase was put in the kiln.

Firing process

The kiln was shaped like a dome, had a door and a grill on which the pottery could be stacked. The stoking chamber was underneath. The temperature of the firing chamber containing the pottery gradually rose to 800-900° C. The firing of Attic pottery entailed three phases, which were the same for both black- and red-figure. The first is the oxidation phase, during which the kiln's door remains open to let oxygen in. The iron-bearing particles, which are a trait of Attic clay, absorb oxygen and the entire vase turns orange-red, with the sections covered with clay paint becoming orange-brown. 

The reduction phase follows and the kiln door is closed. As oxygen can no longer enter the firing chamber, it is extracted from the clay and, owing to the damp wood used as fuel, the firing chamber fills with smoke. The pottery becomes, as it were, smothered or 'reduced', and the particles on the surface of the painted areas sinter, that is, they move into alignment with each other and fuse, becoming impervious and lustrous black.

At the reducing stage the background of black-figure and the figurework of red-figure turn grey. In the final phase 'reoxidation' takes place. The door of the firing chamber is opened and the amount of oxygen increases. The porous, unpainted surfaces absorb oxygen and turn orange-red, whereas the painted surfaces remain lustrous black. As a result, in black-figure the figurework is black and shiny and the background orange-red, whereas in red-figure the effect is the reverse.

  • Black-figure pottery from Athens.

  • Red-figure pottery from Athens.

Items related to this story