Black Figure was a style of pottery painting used by the Ancient Greeks believed to be used between 630-530 B.C. though this is only an approximation. This style is done by painting silhouettes of the objects you wish to paint and then using an array of etching tools to create an image in the black silhouettes. The pot is then fired in a kiln and varnished. After this occurs, the pot is finished and sold off by the artist's workshop (usually run and owned by the artist himself and a few apprentices & slaves).

This is the earliest way that artists painted their pots. This was superceeded by the Red Figure style which had many advantages over the older Black Figure style. This is not to say that the Black Figure style was primitive, it was just different. If you ask me, some Black Figure paintings (such as Ajax and Achilles playing dice by Exekias) are far more superior than their Red Figure counterparts but that's just my opinion.

The Black Figure style has three main components that define it:


This is the "blob" that is created by the black paint that is painted onto the surface of the pot. This is a rather ungraceful way of describing it but this is the essence of it. The artist creates this silhouette then uses an etching tool to etch into the surface of the paint the finer details that are needed to create the desired image.

This silhouette is an important aspect for the Black Figure style because the large black "blob" in the middle of the scene creates an area that draws your eye towards it. When posed with a picture, your eye will be lead towards the largest, darkest area first and then left to wander (though it will intermittently be drawn back). This can be a mixed blessing. It is good because the artist can have a central figure in the middle of a scene (or frieze) and the audiecnce will automatically look at the pivotal area of the piece, the part where the artist has undubitably put most of his time (artists in Ancient Greece were most probably all men). On the other hand, when painting a whole host of people/images, the large black silhouettes can cause the eye to be torn from place to place; the piece will be unbalanced. It is also a problem if the picture has blank spaces which make the piece seem sparsely populated and under utilised (though this tends to be a matter oftaste).

Artists often use large areas of silhouette to draw the eye to a particular area of the pot, usually the main theme of the pot, for example, the hero such as Hercules. Artists of the time often felt the need to balance their pictures by removing large areas of unpainted pot (these lead the eye into the non-painted areas and so away from the artist's masterpiece). This was solved by using "space fillers" which where either parts of the scene itself (such as a vine or some random satyrs) or patterns such as swirls. However, truly great artists were able to do away with these devices and used hidden lines to draw the eye around the scene in different ways. The composition of the painting brings the eye all the way around the scene but keeps your eye drawn to the picture.

A good example of this (which I have already mentioned) is Exekias' Ajax and Achilles dicing (or possibly playing draughts, its impossible to tell). In this painting Achilles and Ajax are hunched over a small black box, playing what appears to be a game of dice. Their spears are held in the crux of their arms and form a shabby upside down teepee with their straight lines leading into the centre of the black box. There is also the curved backs of the two men that curve to create a virtual circle around and over the black box, their feet completing the circle as they point towards each other (and the black box). Their shields on opposing sides of the scene are almost symmetrical in position (except that Achilles has placed his helmet ontop of his shield on the right hand side) but are opposing the curve of the backs giving a framing effect as well as pushing the eye away and up from their positions. The right leg on both warriors are upright, parallel with the sides of the black box creating a framing effect with a strong black silhouette while the left legs are at forty five degrees (I bet if you measured the angle it would not be too far out) to the framing shins, pointing to a spot just above the small black box where also their arms, beards and the chin of Ajax's helmet are all pointing to. So Exekias has managed to take your eye around the picture, keeping it inside an intricate series of frames, and all pivoting around a central, bold, black silhouette, the small black box! This is definately a picture that you should see, the details are especially intricate (I will mention them later on).

Try this site to see the picture I keep nattering on about
try the google image search to find more of the same picture


Etching is the way that the Black Figure artist would create the details in their piece. After the black silhouette had been painted onto the surface the artist would wait for the paint to dry whereupon he would use a sharp etching tool (probably looking a lot like a fountain pen but sharper and without ink) to scratch into the black paint the desired patterning. In the previous example you can see the intricate details of the mens' cloaks that have been carefully scratched into the surface of the paint. These details are about a millimeter across and are very difficult (and time consuming) to do. The little details are what often distinguish the artist. Whether he could be bothered to spend time carving little nicks into the paint to make that bit of art look that bit better. In the aforementioned example one can see the impressive cloak and realise that these were not ordinary men just messing around with a game. These were two heros from the Trojan War with their majestic cloaks and armour waiting for the start of battle (it is an incidental fact that Exekias actually names the two figures, an action rarely done in Ancient Greek art).

Additional Colours

Additional colours were occasionally used by the Greeks to add an extra exciting element to their paintings. This is especially prevalent in the painting of women. Women were nearly always painted with white skin in Black Figure paintings. It is thought that this was to show the fact that women stayed indoors (and therefore had white, pale skin) and men spent most of their time outside wrestling, fighting, philosophising etc. and so had dark bronzed skin (the black silhouettes). One case of that this doesn't occur is a painting by the Amasis painter where two Maenads are dancing together and neither of them have white skin. When the Red Figure style arrived, this convention disappeared.

Additional colours were used to liven images and to take away that monochrome affect that silhouettes and etching has. The colours weren't used every where like children use crayons, they were used for grapes a lot of the time and some items of clothing but it was used sparingly (by today's standards). When the Red Figure style arrived the use of colours dwindled probably due to the fact that the Red Figure style looks more lively in itself and not as negative as the solid black that was all over Black Figure.



  • Curves are much more of a problem with an etching tool. Curves are much easier to do with a paintbrush and so the Red Figure style is better for this. Because of these easier curves the following is possible
    • Anatomical details such as muscles and bones are easier to create in a realistic fashion so that a twisted torso (which occurs very often) is shown better.
    • The rounded form of the body is easier to reproduce such as the shoulders.
    • Foreshortening is easier to do and so depth is portrayed better.
  • Overlapping figures are not as clear with the Black Figure style. If you think about a large blob which is to represent two people at different depths, you need to use a scratch to draw the line that distinguishes the two shapes. In the Red Figure style you can more accurately portray this overlapping
  • Different types of brush stroke allow different types of line. This leads to dilute lines and relief lines which allow the artist to portray different strengths of line. This allows them to show textures better as well as subtley showing muscles with dilute lines etc. to show tension. Etching allows only one type of line.

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