Grecian Urns

There are two main styles in Greek vase painting–black figure and red figure. Mostly before about 530 BC, people painted in black figure, and after that time, people gradually began to paint in red figure. Black figure is called that because the people–the figures–are black, and the background is red. In red figure, on the other hand, the people are red, and the background is black.

Black figure is done all with one type of clay. The clay found near Athens, Greece has a lot of iron in it, so it looks black when it is wet. But if you fire it in an oven where there is plenty of air getting in, the clay rusts, and turns red. This is because the iron mixes with the oxygen in the air. If you fire it in an oven with no air getting in, the iron can’t mix with oxygen, and the pot stays black. So you can have either red or black pots.

So how do you get a picture? You make a pot the regular way, and let it dry a little (“leather-dry”). Then you mix a little of the wet clay with a lot of water, to make a kind of paint (called the slip), which you use to make the black part of the picture. (You can’t see it now, because it is all the same color). And you let the whole thing dry. When your pot is dry, you fire it in a kiln. First you give it a lot of air, so the whole pot turns red, slip and all. Then you shut off the air supply, but just for a little while right at the end of the firing. When the air runs out, the fire sucks oxygen right out of the clay of the pot. But the places where there is slip, the slip is thinner and easier to suck air out of. So the slip turns black (the color of iron with no oxygen in it) faster than the rest of the pot (which is red, the color of iron with oxygen in it).

At first the Greek potters didn’t know much about drawing people, and at first, their people looked a little funny. Later, they refined their technique, and they got better at depicting people. They began to care more about drawing the muscles and the eyes with greater accuracy. They were especially careful about arranging the people in the picture in a pleasing way. Black figure vase painting lasted until about 525BC.

Around 530BC, Athenian potters were more and more frustrated by the black-figure way of vase-painting. They wanted to paint figures that overlapped, for instance, which was very difficult to do in black figure without the whole thing looking like just a big black blob. And they wanted to be able to show the muscles better too.

So somebody had an idea: instead of painting the people black, why not paint the background black and leave the people red? This is harder because you have to carefully paint all around the people in the picture, but it makes the people look much more real. The slip and the firing are exactly the same as in black figure. Some of the greatest vases are in red figure.

But by around 450 BC, just eighty years after the invention of red-figure painting, hardly any vases were still being produced. We don’t really know why this happened. Maybe it just went out of style. Some people think that the Athenians became so rich that they all used metal (bronze or silver) dishes instead of pottery. Maybe the Athenians were rich enough that they didn’t need to sell their pottery to other people. Also, the Etruscans, who had bought a lot of this pottery, were no longer doing very well by 450BC, and maybe they couldn’t afford to buy Athenian pottery anymore.

Minoan Pottery*

The very first flowering of civilization in Greek lands took place in Crete.

An island lying to the south east of the Greek mainland, Crete measures some 150 miles East to West and a mere 20 miles North to South. Considering its small size, isolated location and somewhat unsettled history, the civilizations of the island of Crete made some truly remarkable contributions to both Greek and Western European civilizations.

From the years 2600 BC to 1500 BC, the island of Crete was the center of a wondrous civilization. “Minoan” (after the legendary King Minos) was the name given by Sir Arthur Evans (an excavator early this century of the island of Crete) to the specifically Cretan culture that would otherwise be classified as Copper and Bronze Age.

Today, Minoan art and artifacts are widely known. Especially the ceramic ware created in a dazzling variety of forms, techniques and patterns.

The creating and building of pots is an art form first developed in Neolithic times. The need for pots arose when the food gathering peoples became food producing peoples. The cultivation of cereal crops meant that the produce had to be stored for future use, in baskets or pots.

Perhaps it was an accidental discovery that led to the making and firing of clay pots. If a clay lined basket had been accidentally burned, the people would have seen that clay – when fired – became hard and could be refired without harm being done to it. Thus, the possibilities of cooking would have been enormously extended. Eventually, pottery would become and art form in itself as knowledge of building and decorating increased.

The Minoans were one such society whose knowledge of simple pottery blossomed into magnificent art forms. Harriet Boyd Hawes (an early excavator of Crete) gives an overview of Minoan pottery, the Minoan potter and the inspiration for both:

“The Cretan potter’s first appreciation of nature was subjective, not distinguishing clearly between himself and the world in which he moved… The line left on the sand be receding waves, the ripple on water as the wind crossed it, the mysterious inner markings of a shell, the thousand varieties of spirals in shells and in tendrils, the shadow cast on his path be interlocking twigs, the stir of leaves and the bending of branches, the flight of petals and seed vessels and the whirl, which is at the basis of so many forms of motion, gathering particles to one focus and flinging them forth again – these attracted him. His aim however was not to imitate what he saw, but to rather record an impression.

At the height of his power, the Minoan potter went directly to nature for his inspirations. His designs are full of grace and exuberance Reeds, grasses and flowers adorn his vases: the life of the sea is represented with astonishing fidelity.”

In early times, all Minoan pottery was handmade, for the true potters wheel did not come until the period of the early Palaces. These early pots were rather clumsy, round bottomed jugs and bulbous jars decorated with simple linear patterns on a red or brown semi-lustrous paint. This style was an early form of the so-called black glaze of Classical Greek pottery. In all actuality, a glaze was not used for decorating, rather an iron red clay slip which oxidizing conditions (clean fire) would fire red but under reducing conditions (smoky fire) would turn black. Absolute control over color was not achieved for a long time.

Eventually, Minoan pottery – as well as growing in artistic merit – grew more fanciful in shape and much less dull in pattern. The always experimenting artists created elaborate and exciting shapes. The potter created jugs with spouts somewhat reminiscent of toucan’s beaks as well as knobby, spined “barbitone” pots. This last style seems to have started with the sticking of shells into wet clay.

Then there came beauty. Vasiliki ware was decorated in a variety of colors … red, orange, yellow and white were often used. The paint was applied over the entire surface of the vessel and a mottled effect was achieved by holding burning twigs against the vase while it was still hot from the firing process. Vasiliki ware was the forerunner to the noted Kamares ware.

Art, being closely related to religion, found its way into the shrines of the Minoans. The Minoan people lifted their eyes to the hills and chose (as did many other cultures) to believe that their protective divinity resided in the caves of the mountains. They carved votive offerings in great abundance … the indestructible part of which was in the form of pottery. The cave of Kamares is one such cave (mountain shrine) and the richness of discovery that it afforded the archaeologists caused them to give the name to an entire style of pottery – Kamares ware. Unlike earlier Cretan Pottery, Kamares ware was thrown on the wheel and the shapes were more delicate – sometimes eggshell thin. The crudity of barbitone knobbiness, or of toucan like spouts had gone and the Minoans were now displaying an exuberance that was sophisticated, self-confident and controlled. The decoration was an elaboration of the white on black style of Vasiliki pottery, the patterns drawn in white, red, orange and yellow against a black ground.


*Minoan Art resources written by Andrea Mulder-Slater of Kinderart.

Grecian Urn Art Project