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Greek vases: 6th - 5th century BC

The Greeks develop by far the most sophisticated tradition of early pottery, and Greek vases survive in greater numbers than any other ceramic group of comparable age.

During the period of greatest distinction, from about 550 to 480 BC, the potters of Athens and the surrounding district of Attica are the most accomplished in the Greek world. It is they who perfect the decorative style known as black-figure and then introduce the subsequent red-figure technique. Crucial to the success of both is the discovery of the Attic potters, in the 6th century, that an attractive warm colour can be given to the undecorated surface of a pot by the addition of red ochre to the clay.

In the mid-6th century the vase painters decorate the surface of the pots with figurative scenes from mythology in black silhouette. This is done by painting on a mixture of iron-rich clay and potash before the vase is fired. In this black-figure style, detail is achieved by incising lines within the silhouette to allow the reddish clay to show through.

The painters become extremely proficient in this technique, but pale details on solid black figures are the reverse of any normal drawing convention. The fashion rapidly changes after about 530 BC, when the black is first used for the opposite purpose - to form the background against which the figures will stand out in the natural colour of the vase. This is the red-figure style.

The red-figure style is a much more realistic convention. Many of the most popular scenes on vases involve mythical heroes or revelling satyrs. Such figures, to a Greek audience, seem natural if naked. The reddish-brown colour of the pottery is appropriate to Mediterranean skin, and a few linear additions to the figure provide convincing modelling for the limbs or for the suggestion of a thin garment.

From about 530 to 480, the period considered the high point of the Greek ceramic achievement, the red-figure style prevails.

Greek vases are essentially practical objects. They are made in more than a dozen standard shapes, each with a specific purpose - for storing wine or olive oil or precious unguents, for heating or cooling liquids, for pouring and drinking. Their makers are essentially craftsmen, and the potters and vase painters do not have the same prestige as painters or sculptors. But it is significant that by the 6th century it is normal for the potter to be named on the vase (with an inscription in black letters).

Often the potter alone is named. Sometimes both he and the painter are given ('Ergotimos made me; Kleitias painted me'), and on occasion a rare master has both skills ('Exekias painted and made me').

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