Ancient Greek Pottery – contextual research

The Ancient Greek empire spread across over a thousand years so it’s unsurprising that over this time their pottery techniques developed hugely and demonstrate a broad range of styles.

Because their earthenware was predominantly made for functional purposes the shapes remained similar throughout this time and can be roughly divided into four categories:

  • storage and transport vessels,
  • mixing vessels,
  • jugs and cups
  • vases for oils, perfumes and cosmetics

The names used for them now may not be the same terms that the Greeks themselves used but have been widely adopted by historians, and often relate to the purpose of the vessel.

Styles of decoration also went through seven approximate stages:

  •  Protogeometric styles
  •  Geometric style
  •  Orientalizing style
  •  Black figure
  •  Red figure
  •  White ground technique
  •  Hellenistic period

I’ve added some examples to my Broad St. Pinterest board:

278613r-148BF68942863A8335C ArchaicPot1 screen-capture-211319171390737

The two styles I feel would be most applicable to my work are the Red and Black-figure periods as, suggested by the names, these are the most figurative, illustrative methods. Although the red-figure type (characterised by a background of black slip and areas of clay exposed with slips details delicately painted over to describe figures etc.) affords more detail I thing that the black-figure pots (essentially the inverse of the red figure, using sgraffito through the slip to create line and detailing) are more immediately striking and typify most peoples impression of Greek pottery.

Yesterday I made a selection of red clay test tiles which I intend to use to experiment with a variety of decorative techniques including slips, sgraffito, stencilling, imprint and water-slide decal printing.

During my reading on the above today I also found reference to the purpose of the Greek’s decorations. When you consider how little they had in terms of physical records or methods of communication you begin to realise how important ceramics would have been in education and demonstration to such a large civilization. It is believed that they used ceramics to communicate stories from mythology as well as some kind of primitive “How to guide” on everything from sports and swordsmanship to harvesting, schooling and cooking. Many of these were mainly pictorial, however it was not uncommon for Greek pots to carry inscriptions too; demonstrative if nothing else of what a high literacy rate they had. When I considered this in relation to my theme I had the idea of making my pots almost parody instructive guides on “How To Drink & Enjoy Yourself Properly” or “How to Behave When Intoxicated”. One of my main strands of thought of what I want to say with this work was that I’d like to conjure the impression of an outsider’s point of view, to portray the role of alcohol in our society as if to an alien, in order to bring into perspective the surreality. I really like the idea of that combined with such an ancient style and craft.

Another thought was, continuing on from the idea of ‘stages’ linked to the different forms for different purposes (see previous blog post), to have the style of the illustrations almost devolve in-keeping with the Greeks styles; to move from the detailed red-figure back to the geometric, with its naive stick man figures.


Title:  Ten thousand years of pottery (4th ed.)
Author:  Cooper, Emmanuel


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