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Ceramics: Black to Red

The distinctive black and red color palette that characterizes Greek ceramics results from the technical process by which they were made. Greek ceramics did not use colored glazes, as is common today; rather, the black color was attained through the addition of colored slip (liquid clay). Before a vessel was fired, contours of the figures were painted upon the clay body. In the black-figure technique, the figures were then filled in with a black slip, and details were incised to reveal the clay beneath. Additional colors such as white, red, or yellow were added to enhance aspects of detail; they were sometimes applied before firing, but usually afterwards.

The development of black-figure pottery can be traced back to the city of Corinth where it was used as early as the seventh century BCE; Corinthian pottery from this period typically depicted processions of black-figured animals silhouetted against a lighter background. Yet it was in the workshops of Athens where black-figure pottery flourished. Attic black-figure became the predominant technique for figural pottery, peaking in the second half of the sixth century BCE. The red-figure technique emerged in Athens in the late sixth century. This technique inverted the color scheme of black figure, using the reserve clay body as the base color for the images. Details were painted rather than incised onto the figures, which allowed for greater flexibility in rendering details. Once invented, red-figure quickly became the preferred pottery tradition, as it allowed its artists a greater degree of liveliness. 

The contrast between black and red remains the major characteristic of Greek ceramics. Greek vase painters, however, often used significant amounts of added color on black-figure and some red-figure vessels, sometimes to a greater extent than we, as modern viewers, realize. The dominance of the black slip—regardless of whether it was used for figure or background—was probably developed not only because of the attraction to contrast, but also because its color remained stable during the firing process.