The making of Athenian painted ceramic vases

In Archaic and Classical Greece, about 620–300 B.C., very large pots and unsophisticated housewares were formed by placing soft clay coils on top of one another, and then the interior and exterior walls of the pots were smoothed. In contrast, most of the Attic, or Athenian, decorated vases were formed on a potter’s wheel. These vases were produced in a broad range of shapes and sizes, as discussed in the article, "An overview of Athenian painted ceramic vases."
In this article, we’ll examine the process used for making decorated vases in the region of Attica—dominated by the city of Athens and its environs—during the Archaic and Classical periods.
Making decorated vases involved several steps: throwing, turning, joining, and burnishing.
Throwing gives a vase its general shape by using a potter’s wheel to form the clay. To throw a vase, the desired amount of clay is centered on the rotating wheel. While the wheel rotates, the potter pulls up the clay and forms it to the desired shape. The vase is then cut off the wheel by pulling a wire or cord through the base, and the vase is set aside to dry and harden.
Turning is the process of trimming and removing superfluous or uneven clay in order to refine the shape of a vase or reduce the thickness of its walls after it has been thrown. When the vase has dried to a leather-hard state, it is centered on the wheel again if the shape has to be refined. While the vase rotates, various tools made of wood, metal, or bone are used to trim and refine the shape. Extra clay is removed, and the surface is smoothed with a wet sponge or leather. Details such as grooves can be made at this stage. If the vase has been made in sections, they are now joined, and the whole vase is turned on the wheel.
Burnishing is an essential step in creating a perfectly smooth surface on the vase in preparation for painting. When the clay is leather-hard, the surface of the vase is vigorously rubbed with a hard, smooth object, most likely made of leather, wood, or smooth stone. The process of burnishing compacts and smoothes the surface of the clay, making it shiny and less susceptible to abrasion.

Molded (plastic) vases

Molded, or “plastic,” vases are partly in the shape of a small sculpture, most often a human or animal head or face, and on occasion, a complete figure. The term "plastic" is derived from the German word plastik(sculpture). The sculptural component was usually made in a two-part mold, but sometimes it was modeled by hand. The vase's mouth and foot were usually wheel-made, and the handles modeled, although some handles were made in molds.
A mold is a hollow, negative impression of a model. Using it to manufacture ceramics allows the potter to make multiple clay copies with relative ease. To create a mold, an original model (or prototype) is sculpted, and a mold consisting of two or more sections is made around it. Fired clay was a common material for molds in antiquity. The fingerprints seen on the interior walls of plastic vases are evidence that Greek craftsmen pressed soft clay carefully into the interior of molds. We know of a number of plastic vases by Sotades, the Brygos Painter, and Euphronios, both of whom signed their work.

Painting vases: black-figure technique

This technique for painting vases, invented in Corinth around 700 B.C. and adopted by Athenian vase-painters, produces figures in black that are painted in silhouette against the lighter-colored unpainted clay background, as seen below.
To paint a vase in black-figure technique, its surface was first burnished and polished. Then an ocher wash might have been applied to ensure an attractive orange-red color, and the surface burnished again. A preliminary sketch outlined the design of the figures, which were then filled in with black. Red or white colors were sometimes applied on top of the black. Before firing, incisions were made through the black gloss, or the colors, with a sharp, pointed tool to delineate details of the figures in the lighter color of the underlying clay. White, produced from fine white clay, was used for the skin of women, details of clothes, shields, furniture, etc. Red (purple and brown tints made of red iron oxide) was frequently used on black-figured vases for garments, blood, inscriptions, wreaths, bands, and other details. White and red colors were usually applied over the black silhouette.

Painting vases: red-figure technique

Around 530 B.C. in the Kerameikos (the potters' quarter in ancient Athens, near the city's cemetery), a new technique came into being that revolutionized vase-painting: red-figure. Those vase-painters who developed the red-figure technique, and who were the first to explore the full range of its possibilities, are known as the Pioneers.
In red-figure technique, the background is painted black, and the figures and ornaments stand out as orange-red spaces in which details are painted in black lines, as seen in the Water Jar with Herakles Wrestling the Nemean Lion shown above. This technique offered the painter much greater freedom of expression than had been possible with the incised lines of black-figure. The fluidity of the painted line in red-figure encouraged increased naturalism.
The older technique, black-figure, continued side-by-side with red-figure, but by 470 B.C., black-figure vases of significant artistry were no longer being produced, with the important exception of Panathenaic amphorae (example at the left).
Filled with olive oil from trees in Athena’s sacred groves, the amphorae were awarded as prizes for victory in the Panathenaic games, a festival of sports held every four years in Athens to honor Athena, the city’s patron deity.
Attic red-figure continued into the 4th century B.C. The last decades of the 4th century saw one final display of inventiveness: Red-figured vases were embellished extensively with white, pastel colors, details in raised relief, and even gilding, as seen below. The overall effect is dazzling and unlike all that came before.

Continuing the tradition beyond Athens

By about 320 B.C. or, at the latest, by 300 B.C., artists stopped making figured vases in Athens. The style of the late-5th century B.C., however, had been successfully transplanted around 430 B.C. to the Greek cities in southern Italy and Sicily, where a new tradition of red-figure vase painting flourished for more than a century.

Content revised and excerpted from:  Understanding Greek Vases: A Guide to Terms, Styles, and Techniques by Andrew J. Clark, Maya Elston, and Mary Louise Hart. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002