Red-figure pottery

Procession of men, kylix by the Triptolemos Painter, circa 480 BC. Paris: Louvre
The wedding of Thetis, pyxis by the Wedding Painter, circa 470/460 BC. Paris: Louvre

Red-figure vase painting is one of the most important styles of figural Greek vase painting.

It developed in Athens around 520 BC and remained in use until the late 3rd century BC. It replaced the previously dominant style of black-figure vase painting within a few decades. Its modern name is based on the figural depictions in red colour on a black background, in contrast to the preceding black-figure style with black figures on a red background. The most important areas of production, apart from Attica, were in Southern Italy. The style was also adopted in other parts of Greece. Etruria became an important centre of production outside the Greek World.

Attic red-figure vases were exported throughout Greece and beyond. For a long time, they dominated the market for fine ceramics. Only few centres of pottery production could compete with Athens in terms of innovation, quality and production capacity. Of the red figure vases produced in Athens alone, more than 40,000 specimens and fragments survive today. From the second most important production centre, Southern Italy, more than 20,000 vases and fragments are preserved. Starting with the studies by John D. Beazley and Arthur Dale Trendall, the study of this style of art has made enormous progress. Some vases can be ascribed to individual artists or schools. The images provide evidence for the exploration of Greek cultural history, everyday life, iconography, and mythology.


Red figure is, put simply, the reverse of the black figure technique. Both were achieved by using the three-phase firing technique. The paintings were applied to the shaped but unfired vessels after they had dried to a leathery, near-brittle texture. In Attica, the normal unburnt clay was of orange colour at this stage. The outlines of the intended figures were drawn either with a blunt scraper, leaving a slight groove, or with charcoal, which would disappear entirely during firing. Then the contours were redrawn with a brush, using a glossy clay slip. Occasionally, the painter decided to somewhat change the figurative scene. In such cases the grooves from the original sketch sometimes remain visible. Important contours were often drawn with a thicker slip, leading to a slightly protruding outline (relief line); less important lines and internal details were drawn with diluted glossy clay.

Detail in other colours, like white or red, were applied at this point. The relief line was probably drawn with a bristle brush or a hair, dipped in thick paint. The suggestion of a hollow needle seems somewhat unlikely.[1] The application of relief outlines was necessary, as the rather liquid glossy clay would otherwise have turned out too dull. After the technique's initial phase of development, both alternatives were used, so as to differentiate gradations and details more clearly. The space between figures was filled with a glossy grey clay slip. Then, the vases underwent triple-phase firing, during which the glossy clay reached its characteristic black or black-brown colour through reduction, the reddish color by a final re-oxidation.[2] Since this final oxidizing phase was fired using lower temperatures, the glazed parts of the vase did not re-oxidize from black to red: their finer surface was melted (sintered) in the reducing phase, and now protected from oxygen.

The new technique had the primary advantage of permitting a far better execution of internal detail. In black-figure vase painting such details had to be scratched into the painted surfaces, which was always less accurate than the direct application of detail with a brush. Red-figure depictions were generally more lively and realistic than the black-figure silhouettes. They were also more clearly contrasted against the black backgrounds. It was now possible to depict humans not only in profile, but also in frontal, rear, or three-quarter perspectives. The red-figure technique also permitted the indication of a third dimension on the figures. However, it also had disadvantages. For example, the distinction of sex by using black slip for male skin and white paint for female skin was now impossible. The ongoing trend to depict heroes and deities naked and of youthful age also made it harder to distinguish the sexes through garments or hairstyles. In the initial phases, there were also miscalculations regarding the thickness of human figures.

In black-figure vase painting, the pre-drawn outlines were a part of the figure. In red-figure vases, the outline would, after firing, form part of the black background. This led to vases with very thin figures early on. A further problem was that the black background did not permit the depiction of space in any depth, so that spatial perspective was almost never attempted. Nonetheless, the advantages outnumbered the disadvantages. The depiction of muscles and other anatomical details clearly illustrates the development of the style.[3]

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