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The Development of Red Figure Greek Vase Painting in the Fifth Century B.C.

Updated on May 3, 2011

How Red Figure Vase Painting Began

Red Figure painting began at the very end of the sixth century BC with Bilinguism and the Pioneers as the notable surviving movements. However it did not really begin to develop as an effective technique until the 5th c BC when it took over from black figure as the main vase painting style. During this time, the style developed dramatically, from the early, more conservative, experiments of the Pioneers to the work of the far more innovative and individual General Archaic artists, with the Mannerists pursuing a sideways jump in style that focused on early Black and Red Figure techniques.

About Red Figure Painting - The Beginnings

All Red Figure vases shared common elements. The scenes – almost always of figures – were far more detailed and naturalistic then Black Figure, as “…the brush offered greater freedom” (Boardman pg12) and the leaving of figures in reserve as red clay silhouettes in black slip meant that the details and outlines could be painted on. This was less precise than the Black Figure incisions but produced far livelier and more natural appearances.

This world of naturalistic depictions opened up by Red Figure was further expanded and aided by a number of innovations. The raised relief line was used for outlines, musculature and facial features, created a bold, textured appearance. The relief line is believed to have been piped on, though this statement is contested. Researchers disbelieve that vase painting was important enough to devote time and resources towards the development of a tool which whose only main attraction was convenience, when alternative (more labour intensive) methods existed. Another material fully appreciated by Red Figure artists was honey glaze which was used to fill in features other than the facial, outline and musculature details. It also was used for shading – an entirely new concept which led onto the exploration of perspective.

This interest in perspective was reflected and expanded on in the revolutionary attention to pose and dress which would shape Red Figure techniques for the rest of the century. A final radical change was the ability end the black/white gender coding used on Black figure vases.

However, the radicalism of developments did not extend as far as it might have. The individuality of Red Figure artists was limited by a number of factors. The market demand was for familiar imagery and slants on well known scenes. There was pressure on vase painters to produce images of the ever popular Dionysus, of Apollo, warriors in or on their way to battle and ornamental patterns. The latter were commonly vegetative, featuring palmettes, tendril and lotus motifs.

Technical restrictions played a major part in the limitation of artists, especially those such as the Pioneers, who concentrated on personal interest in human form and movement.

The limited colours available – black, red, purple-red, ‘honey’ and white – made things very difficult for painters to be creative as “With no colour and less pattern compositions of overlapping figures would be confusing” (Boardman pg14). Also painting very fine lines was very difficult with paint and brushes, at least compared with Black Figure incisions.

Black ground removed all possibility of rendering depth of field” (Boardman pg14) which meant that artists had to experiment with floating figures, as in the Berlin Painter’s works which use the spotlight technique. Alternatively, figures were arrayed along one line, occasionally overlapped. Artists, such as the Niobid and Meidias Painters also used the floating ground line in their works. The first Red Figure artists appeared in the form of the Bilinguists at the end of the 6th Century, instigated by Andokides. They were largely rigid attempts to mimic Black Figure in inverted colour.

Pioneers : The First 'Real' Red Figure Artists

The first real Red Figure Artists were the Pioneers from the late 6th Century to the very early 5th century. They were one of the first identifiable and intentional artist cliques. They had “…Artistic merits, character and coherence as a group.” (Boardman pg 29) Their work was far more refined in the details of drawing and composition, for example Euphronios’ Calyx Krater, which also illustrated the group’s interest in the form and movement of the human body through the ground-breaking depictions of Antaeus and Herakles wrestling. The incision of hair contours was dying out at this time, with “relief blobs for hair ringlets, grapes and florals in figure scenes are used on some of the finer vases” (Andokides BF). They lost much interest in colour. The most prominent Vase painters of this time were Euphronios and Euthymides. Coral red bands were a common feature of their cups. “only Euphronios shows much concern still with pattern on dress” (Andokides, BF) .

The depiction and variety of poses was at this time, now down to “individual invention” (Boardman pg 31) and the Pioneers were painting plausible, if rudimentary attempts at torsion. Euphronios painted the first true attempt at foreshortening with his ‘Herakles and Antaeus’ calyx krater, but Euthymides, being in direct competition with Euphronios made his own attempts. They made almost unwarranted use of the thin paint on anatomical features of their figures.

General Archaic Artists

The next clearly identifiable faction was the less cohesive General Archaic artists. Some of the most notable of these were the Kleophrades painter, Douris, the Berlin Painter, the Brygos painter and the Nikoxenes Painter. This group ranged from the early to the mid- fifth century BC.

Kleophrades was a student of Euthymides and his teacher’s influence reveals itself through the same interests in dramatic intensity and foreshortening. Kleophrades focused on elegant lines, and painted with great attention to detail – on an epic level. Later artists were compared to him, and his style “…wet, thick and strong, [like] Kleophrades.” (Beazley: Boardman pg 95), showing his prestige and influence as an artist of the time, at that time.

Douris, one of the most prolific cup painters (produced over 300 items) painted for both Euphronios and Kleophrades in their capacity as potters. He possessed a unique style, referred to as “…dry like Douris” (Beazley: Boardman pg 95). His figures provide an interesting contrast to the work of other painters; they were tall, elegant with elongated musculature and distinctly rounded heads. These heads were shown with expressive faces, a distinctly down turned bottom lip. invariably the hairstyle would consist of hair in a helmet or hairnet with a few long, curled locks around the neck. Douris painted transparent and elaborate drapery, with many miniature, clustered folds and a thick, black hemline. He continued the interest in form with his many varied poses, creating a sense of movement. He favoured scenes of symposia (drinking parties) and the ever-popular images of fighting warriors and competing athletes. The variation of the traditional profile, through painting the back view of diners is attributed to Douris.


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    • Flynn the Cat profile imageAUTHOR

      Flynn the Cat 

      7 years ago from Auckland, New Zealand

      Hah, it's not much, yet - really I'm still testing Hubpages out a little!

    • Greekgeek profile image


      7 years ago from California

      Well done! Somewhere an archy 101 student is thanking you.

      I had no idea you had a niche of hellenogeeking over here... I must investigate further.


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