Alternative Ceramic Traditions

Black and red dominated the palette of Greek pottery, particularly in the city of Athens. These colors and the styles that typically corresponded to them, however, should be seen as part of a fuller range of color experiments within the pottery tradition. Alternative approaches to color were developed alongside black-figure and red-figure techniques and were sometimes used in conjunction with them. For instance, the white ground technique, in which white slip was applied to the vessel before firing, was initially used with black-figure scenes in the later sixth century BCE but was soon adapted for broader use. This technique provided a neutral background to which a greater range of colors could be applied.

The idea of adding colors on top of a black ground—the reverse of the white ground technique—was also explored at different times. This approach was developed in Athens between approximately 530–400 BCE. It became popular again during the Hellenistic period, with production centers known in Southern Italy, Attica, and Crete. All of these variations include the application of different shades of white, red, and yellow over the glossy black surface of the vessel. The treatment of the decoration is often painterly, with attention given to fine details and the modeling of forms.  

Another multi-colored technique was developed in the town of Centuripe, Sicily. This type of pottery is fully polychrome and depicts figures, usually women, in a painterly style that may emulate mural painting. The painted surfaces of these pieces are particularly fragile, and this technique was used only for ceremonial and funerary objects rather than for objects used in daily life. Limited function seems to have been linked to limited production. Nevertheless, the sensitivity towards color seen on these vessels from Centuripe, as on white-ground and black-ground vessels, provides dramatic evidence for an alternative set of traditions that falls outside of the black and red model with which we are most familiar