Making and decorating Athenian black- and red-figure vases


Jan van der Crabben
by Trustees of the British Museum
published on 02 August 2011

The first stage in making a pot is to dig the clay out of the ground. Pieces of grit or plant matter must be removed before the clay can be used. This was done in ancient times, as it is today, by mixing the clay with water and letting the heavier impurities sink to the bottom. This process could be carried out as many times as necessary. When judged to be sufficiently fine, the clay was left to dry out to the required consistency.

Red-Figure Owl Cup

To make a vase the potter kneaded a lump of clay of suitable size and placed it centrally on the flat surface of the wheel. As the wheel revolved, the potter drew the clay up into the required shape with his hands. Scenes on the vases themselves show that potters' wheels were discs, presumably made of wood, clay or stone, about two feet in diameter, with socketed bases fitting over low, fixed pivots. It seems to have been usual to have a boy, presumably an apprentice potter, to turn the wheel by hand. Particularly large vases were thrown in sections, and in the case of shapes such as cups, the foot would be thrown separately from the body. The handles of most shapes were hand-made. When all the components had been allowed to dry for about twelve hours, they were glued together with clay slip.

Remove Ads


A preliminary sketch was generally made on a figured vase, probably with a stick of charcoal. 

A preliminary sketch was generally made on a figured vase, probably with a stick of charcoal. Occasionally traces of this process can be seen in the form of faint indentations in the surface of the vase. The painting was done with specially prepared clay slips. Black slip, used for the silhouette-like figures on black-figure vases and for the background on red-figure pots, was a finely purified form of the same clay used for the body of the vase. On a black-figured vase many of the inner details of the figures were incised through the slip with a sharp tool. On a red-figured vase, the inner details were painted with thinner or thicker solutions of the normal black slip. In both techniques, other details could be added in purplish-red or white: the red was the normal black slip with the addition of red iron oxide pigment, while the white was a pure, kaolin-rich clay. All these slips were applied with brushes of varying thicknesses.

Editorial Review This Article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication.

Remove Ads


Help us write more

We're a small non-profit organisation run by a handful of volunteers. Each article costs us about $50 in history books as source material, plus editing and server costs. You can help us create even more free articles for as little as $5 per month, and we'll give you an ad-free experience to thank you! Become a Member

Recommended Books


Cite This Work

APA Style

Museum, T. O. T. B. (2011, August 02). Making and decorating Athenian black- and red-figure vases. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Chicago Style

Museum, Trustees O. T. B. "Making and decorating Athenian black- and red-figure vases." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified August 02, 2011.

MLA Style

Museum, Trustees O. T. B. "Making and decorating Athenian black- and red-figure vases." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 02 Aug 2011. Web. 18 Sep 2019.

Remove Ads


Powered by Mailchimp


Our latest articles delivered to your inbox, once a week:

Are you a...?

Remove Ads


Visit our Shop

Ancient History Merchandising
Remove Ads


Our Videos

You can also follow us on Youtube!