Ancient Greek pottery styles

Greek pottery styles

Protogeometric styles

Vases of protogeometrical period (c. 1050 – 900 BC) represent the return of craft production after the collapse of the Mycenaean Palace culture and the ensuing Greek dark ages.

protogeometric-style - Polytropon Art, at Delphi Greece

Indeed, it is one of the few modes of artistic expression besides jewelry in this period since the sculpture, monumental architecture and mural painting of this era are unknown to us. Yet by 1050 BC life in the Greek peninsula seems to have become sufficiently settled to allow a marked improvement in the production of earthenware. The style is confined to the rendering of circles, triangles, wavy lines and arcs, but placed with evident consideration and notable dexterity, probably aided by compass and multiple brush.

Geometric style

Geometrical art flourished in the 9th and 8th centuries BC. It was characterized by new motifs, breaking with the iconography of the Minoan and Mycenaean periods: meanders, triangles and other geometrical decoration (from whence the name of the style) as distinct from the predominantly circular figures of the previous style. The best examples we have were grave goods, which often allows us to differentiate Attic, other mainland and island styles since we may assume they were produced in a batch for the sole purpose of burial. However our chronology comes from exported wares found in datable contexts overseas.

geometric-style - Polytropon Art, at Delphi Greece

With the early geometrical style (approximately 900-850 B.C) one finds only abstract motifs, in what is called the “Black Di pylon” style, which is characterized by an extensive use of black varnish, with the Middle Geometrical (approx. 850-770 BC), figurative decoration makes its appearance: they are initially identical bands of animals such as horses, stags, goats, geese, etc. Which alternate with the geometrical bands. In parallel, the decoration becomes complicated and becomes increasingly ornate; the painter feels reluctant to leave empty spaces and fills them with meanders or swastikas. This phase is named horror vacui and will not cease until the end of geometrical period.

In the middle of the century there begin to appear human figures. The best known representations of which are those of the vases found in Dipylon, one of the cemeteries of Athens. The fragments of these large funerary vases show mainly processions of chariots or warriors or of the funerary scenes: πρόθεσις / prothesis or ἐκφορά / ekphora. The bodies are represented in a geometrical way except for the calves, which are rather protuberant. In the case of soldiers, a shield in form of a Diabolo, called “Dipylon shield” because of its characteristic drawing, covers the central part of the body. The legs and the necks of the horses, the wheels of the chariots are represented one beside the other without perspective. The hand of this painter, so called in the absence of signature, is the Dipylon Master, could be identified on several pieces, in particular monumental amphorae.
At the end of the period there appear representations of mythology, probably at the moment when Homer codifies the traditions of Trojan cycle in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Here however, the interpretation constitutes a risk for the modern observer: a confrontation between two warriors can be as well a Homeric duel as a simple combat; a failed boat can represent the shipwreck of Odysseus or any hapless sailor.
Lastly, we have the local schools that appear in Greece. Production of vases was largely the prerogative of Athens – it is well attested that as in the proto-geometrical period, in Corinth, Boeotia, Argos, Crete and Cyclades, the painters and potters were satisfied to follow the Attic style. From about the 8th century BC on, they created their own styles, Argos specializing in the figurative scenes, Crete remaining attached to a more strict abstraction.

Orientalizing style

The orientalizing style was the product of cultural ferment in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean of the 8th and 7th centuries BC. Fostered by trade links with the city-states of Asian Minor the artifacts of the East influenced a highly stylized yet recognizable representational art. Ivories, pottery and metalwork from the Neo-Hittite principalities of northern Syria and Phoenicia found their way to Greece, as did goods from Anatolian Urartu and Phrygia, yet there was little contact with the cultural centers of Egypt or Assyria. The new idiom developed initially in Corinth (as Proto-Corinthian) and later in Athens between circa 725 BC to 625 BC (as Proto-Attic). It was characterized by an expanded vocabulary of motifs: sphinx, griffin, lions, etc., as well as a repertory of non-mythological animals arranged in friezes across the belly of the vase. In these friezes, painters also began to apply lotuses or palmettes. Depictions of humans were relatively rare. Those that have been found are figures in silhouette with some incised detail, perhaps the origin of the incised silhouette figures of the black-figure period. There is sufficient detail on these figures to allow scholars to discern a number of different artists” hands. Geometrical features remained in the style called proto-Corinthian that embraced these orientalizing experiments, yet which coexisted with a conservative sub-geometric style.


The ceramics of Corinth were exported all over Greece, and their technique arrived in Athens, prompting the development of a less markedly Eastern idiom there. During this time described as Proto-Attic, the orientalizing motifs appear but the features remain not very realistic. The painters show a preference for the typical scenes of the Geometrical Period, like processions of chariots. However, they adopt the principle of line drawing to replace the silhouette. In the middle of 7th century BC, there appears the black and white style: black figures on a white zone, accompanied by polychromy to render the color of the flesh or clothing. Clay used in Athens was much more orange than that of Corinth, and so did not lend itself as easily to the representation of flesh. Attic Orientalising Painters include the Analatos Painter, the Mesogeia Painter and the Polyphemos Painter.

Crete, and especially the islands of the Cyclades, are characterized by their attraction to the vases known as “plastic”, i.e. those whose paunch or collar is moulded in the shape of head of an animal or a man. At Aegina, the most popular form of the plastic vase is the head of the griffin. The Melanesian amphoras, manufactured at Paros, exhibit little knowledge of Corinthian developments. They present a marked taste for the epic composition and a horror vacui, which is expressed in an abundance of swastikas and meanders.

Finally one can identify the last major style of the period, that of Wild Goat Style, allotted traditionally to Rhodes because of an important discovery within the necropolis of Kameiros. In fact, it is widespread over all of Asia Minor, with centers of production at Miletos and Chios. Two forms prevail: oenochoes, which copied bronze models, and dishes, with or without feet. The decoration is organized in superimposed registers in which stylized animals, in particular of feral goats (from whence the name) pursue each other in friezes. Many decorative motifs (floral triangles, swastikas, etc.) fill the empty spaces.

Black figure

The black-figure period coincides approximately with the era designated by Winkelmann as the middle to late Archaic, from c. 620 to 480 BC. The technique of incising silhouetted figures with enlivening detail which we now call the black-figure method was, as we saw, a Corinthian invention of the 7th century and spread from there to other city states and regions including Sparta, Boeotia, Euboea, the east Greek islands and Athens.


The Corinthian fabric, extensively studied by Humfry Payne and Darrell Amyx, can be traced though the parallel treatment of animal and human figures. The animal motifs have greater prominence on the vase and show the greatest experimentation in the early phase of Corinthian black-figure. As Corinthian artists gained in confidence in their rendering of the human figure the animal frieze declined in size relative to the human scene during the middle to late phase. By the mid-6th century BC, the quality of Corinthian ware had fallen away significantly to the extent that some Corinthian potters would disguise their pots with a red slip in imitation of superior Athenian ware.

At Athens, researchers have found the earliest known examples of vase painters signing their work, the first being a Dinos by Sophilos (illus. below, BM c. 580), this perhaps indicative of their increasing ambition as artists in producing the monumental work demanded as grave markers, as for example with Kleitias’s François Vase. Many scholars consider the finest work in the style to belong Exekias and the Amasis Painter, who are noted for their feeling for composition and narrative.

Circa 520 BC the red-figure technique was developed and was gradually introduced in the form of the bilingual vase by the Andokides Painter, Oltos and Psiax.[14] Red-figure quickly eclipsed black-figure yet in the unique form of the Panathanaic Amphora, black-figure continued to be utilised well into the 4th century BC.

Red figure

The innovation of the red-figure technique was an Athenian invention of the late 6th century. The ability to render detail by direct painting rather than incision offered new expressive possibilities to artists such as three-quarter profiles, greater anatomical detail and the representation of perspective. The first generation of red-figure painters worked in both red- and black-figure as well as other methods including Six”s technique and white ground; the latter was developed at the same time as red-figure. However, within twenty years, experimentation had given way to specialization as seen in the vases of the Pioneer Group, whose figural work was exclusively in red-figure, though they retained the use of black-figure for some early floral ornamentation. The shared values and goals of The Pioneers such as Euphronios and Euthymides signal that they were something approaching a self-conscious movement, though they left behind no testament other than their own work. John Boardman said of the research on their work that “the reconstruction of their careers, common purpose, even rivalries, can be taken as an archaeological triumph”


The next generation of late Archaic vase painters (c. 500 to 480 BC) brought an increasing naturalism to the style as seen in the gradual change of the profile eye. This phase also sees the specialization of painters into pot and cup painters, with the Berlin and Kleophrades Painters notable in the former category and Douris and Onesimos in the latter.

By the early to high classical era of red-figure painting (c. 480 to 425 BC), a number of distinct schools had evolved. The mannerists associated with the workshop of Myson and exemplified by the Pan Painter hold to the archaic features of stiff drapery and awkward poses and combine that with exaggerated gestures. By contrast, the school of the Berlin Painter in the form of the Achilles Painter and his peers (who may have been the Berlin Painter’s pupils) favoured a naturalistic pose usually of a single figure against a solid black background or of restrained white-ground lekythoi. Polygnotos and the Kleophon Painter can be included in the school of the Niobid Painter, as their work indicates something of the influence of the Parthenon sculptures both in theme (e.g., Polygnotos’s centauromachy, Brussels, Musées Royaux A. & Hist., A 134) and in feeling for composition.

Toward the end of the century, the “Rich” style of Attic sculpture as seen in the Nike Balustrade is reflected in contemporary vase painting with an ever greater attention to incidental detail, such as hair and jewellery. The Meidias Painter is usually most closely identified with this style.

Vase production in Athens stopped around 330-320 BC possibly due to Alexander’s control of the city, and had been in slow decline over the 4th century along with the political fortunes of Athens itself. However, vase production continued in the 4th and 3rd centuries in the Greek colonies of southern Italy where five regional styles may be distinguished. These are the Apulian, Lucanian, Sicilian, Campanian and Paestan. Red-figure work flourished there with the distinctive addition of polychromatic painting and in the case of the Black Sea colony of Panticapeum the gilded work of the Kerch Style. Several noteworthy artists’ work comes down to us including the Darius Painter and the Underworld Painter, both active in the late 4th century, whose crowded polychromatic scenes often essay a complexity of emotion not attempted by earlier painters. Their work represents a late mannerist phase to the achievement of Greek vase painting.

White ground technique

The white-ground technique was developed at the end of the 6th century BC. Unlike the better-known black-figure and red-figure techniques, its coloration was not achieved through the application and firing of slips but through the use of paints and gilding on a surface of white clay. It allowed for a higher level of polychromy than the other techniques, although the vases end up less visually striking.

The technique gained great importance during the 5th and 4th centuries, especially in the form of small lekythoi that became typical grave offerings. Important representatives include its inventor, the Achilles Painter, as well as Psiax, the Pistoxenos Painter and the Thanatos Painter.

Hellenistic Period

The Hellenistic period (which we take to be roughly the late 4th century to the 1st century BC) is one of cultural decline in the traditional centres of Greek pottery production. Red-figure painting had died out in Athens by the end of the 4th century BC to be replaced by what is known as West Slope Ware, so named after the finds on the west slope of the Athenian Acropolis. This latter style consisted of painting in a tan coloured slip and white paint on a fired black slip background with some incised detailing, representations of people diminished with this idiom to be replaced with simpler motifs such as wreaths, dolphins, rosettes, etc. Variations of this style spread throughout the Greek world with notable centres in Crete and Apulia, where figural scenes continued to be in demand. Bricks and tiles were used for architectural and other purposes. Several Greek styles continued into the Roman period, and Greek influence, partly transmitted via the Ancient Etruscans, on Ancient Roman pottery was considerable, especially in figurines.

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