The craft of pottery developed in Greece sometime before 1000 B.C., and the basic techniques of making pottery were well established by the 700s B.C. By this time, potters were producing a wide variety of items, such as vases, flasks for oil, bowls for mixing wine and water, storage jars for food and drink, drinking cups, and jugs. During the next 200 years, the Greeks refined their methods of painting and decorating pottery and produced increasingly elaborate and refined works of art. These advanced techniques enabled pottery painters to show more detailed scenes and to depict the human form in more realistic ways.
Geometric and Orientalizing Styles of Pottery. The earliest existing Greek pottery dates from about the late 800s and early 700s B.C. This pottery was typically decorated with regularly repeated, abstract geometric shapes, such as zigzag patterns, circles, and lines that were painted in dark colors over the natural red clay of the pots. It is called the Geometric style. The few images of humans that appear were usually simple silhouettes that reflected little concern for lifelike accuracy.
From the late 700s B.C. to the early 600s B.C., pottery painting reflected the growing contact that the Greeks were having with Eastern cultures. The orderly geometric patterns gave way to a freer and more casual style that featured curved lines and a looser arrangement of figures. Another characteristic of this Eastern style was the portrayal of real and imaginary animals. Greek artists developed an interest in showing scenes from Greek myths and poetry, which led to more realistic representation of the human form and greater depiction of everyday activities.
Black-Figure and Red-Figure Pottery. About 700 B.C., potters in Corinth developed the black-figure technique of painting pottery. In addition to using the natural mineral pigment (iron oxide) found in the clay, painters used a fine clay glaze to paint the outline of figures. Details, such as hair, muscles, or clothing, were then etched into the glaze to reveal the clay underneath, and the pot was then heated three times in an oven, or kiln. The glaze figures on the finished pot appeared shiny black against the red clay background, and the fine details were highlighted in red. The technique gave the artist more control over the work, and the result was both more refined and more realistic.
About 525 B.C., Athenian artists developed a new technique, called red- figure painting. Artists applied a black glaze over the entire pot, except for the figures, which were left as silhouettes in the original red clay. Details were then painted into the red figures. Pots decorated using this technique had a highly polished black finish, with red-clay figures that seemed to float on top of the black background. The effect was elegant, and the technique enabled artists to render fine details with remarkable precision. Pottery from this period shows just how much Greek artists knew about the human body and how it moved.
By the late 300s B.C., the red-figure style was replaced by less expensive methods and less elaborate decoration. Athens, which had been the most important center for the production of pottery, lost its celebrated position to locations in Italy, and the Romans gradually replaced the Greeks as the main producers and exporters of pottery in the Mediterranean region. (See also Art, Greek; Crafts and Craftsmanship; Pottery, Roman.)