Attic red and black figure pottery is an iconic part of Ancient Greek artistic culture. Even for those who are new to Greek ceramics, the bold, contrasting designs of the style are instantly recognisable. The style originated in around the late 7th, early 6th Century BC in Attica, the region surrounding Athens, from which Attic pottery takes its name. The popularity of the style lasted up until the end of he 4th Century BC, and was used almost exclusively for high quality pottery for high status customers, owing to the complexity of its production.
A New Technique
The black colour in black and red figure pottery is not a pigment or dye, but a result of firing clay in the kiln. A liquid clay, naturally dark because of iron oxide, was used to decorate either the background or the characters of the depicted scenes. The impressive designs on black and red figure pottery were created by a complex, three-step firing process which was possible thanks to the creation of the controllable domed kiln, which was invented in Corinth in the 7th century BC. Such kilns featured vents through which it was possible to visually control the firing process, insert test pieces and open and close the vents in order to create the desired firing conditions. The process lasted around 6-8 hours.
The first step consisted in placing the vessels in the kiln at around 500° Celsius. This produced red ferrous oxide in the clay and slip, which caused both to turn red. The second step followed, with a raised temperature of around 900°, the oxygen supply cut through the closing of the vents and green woods added. This produced black ferrous oxide in the clay and slip, which turned both from red to black. At this point, the clay slip applied to the vase, became a glossy black shell that was resistant to any further changes. During the last step the vents were opened again, allowing the areas without the clay slip to turn back orange-red, while the areas covered in clay slip remained glossy black. Finally, the firing process was completed and the items inside the kiln left to slowly cool down.
Black Figure Pottery
The black-figure technique was developed at the very end of the 7th Century. The first step in creating black-figure wares was to place the desired design on the piece as a simple outline, which was then filled in with a liquid clay slip. At this stage, details would be added by making incisions deep enough to allow the red clay underneath to show through and then the vessel would be fired. Additional details were added in red ochre, which when fired would turn purple to depict clothing, blood and other details. Pure clay with minimal iron oxide was used to produce white, often chosen to depict women’s skin, objects, animals and decorative patterns. The striking effect quickly became popular and this was the primary technique, especially for depicting narrative scenes, until the rise of the red-figure technique reduced its appeal.
Red Figure Pottery
The red figure technique, on the other hand, provided greater potential for more detailed designs, and its employment rose in the 6th century BC. For red figure pottery, the background and majority of the vessel are black in colour whilst the decorative figures and patterns are displayed in a contrasting red-orange colour. Whereas the black figure technique mainly featured depicted figures in profile, the red figure technique enabled enhanced detailing, for example, delicate elements such as draping in clothing could be painted with thin lines. In red-figure pottery, the background of the scenes depicted was coloured in dark liquid clay slip, while the scenes and figures were left unpainted. The talented artists used the dark liquid clay slip to draw texture into the fabric of clothing on the figures and add more facial and anatomical details.