Greek Black Figure Pottery
By no means an esoteric subject of design history, black figure pottery—very literally named for its color and subject matter—is familiar imagery even if you’ve never stepped foot in a museum. To be sure, if you have had only one experience viewing antiquities in a museum setting, it is probably one of the things you saw in your brief perusal.
Some things are well known because they deserve to be so; not to say that other less well known genres are less deserving, but this type of Greek pottery (later adapted by other regions as well) has proven itself to be a lasting example of a unified, developed style at a level which is extremely difficult to achieve. It is this well-defined, cohesive, recognizable quality that gives the style its iconic nature and has allowed the style to influence designers and artists for thousands of years.
The abstraction of complex narratives into relatively simple shapes that are easily digested by the viewer (many times using only one color) and the fluid translation of the same style into purely decorative motifs that merge seamlessly with the subject matter have made the imagery a touchstone for similar design ideas throughout the ages.
First produced circa 700 BCE in a region in what is now south-central Greece called Corinth, the style traveled and went on to define Athenian decorative arts from 625 BCE onward. Through Athens’s influence, it became the preeminent pottery on the Mediterranean market for 150 years. Other more minor contributors to the genre were Laconia in the early 6th century BCE and a similar style modified and adapted by the Etruscans.
Perhaps even more significant than their stylistic importance is the value of black figure pottery as a historical record, as they “provide the oldest and most diverse representations of Greek mythology, religious, social, and sporting practices.”
The black figure technique was closely followed by (and even overlapped with) its counterpart, the red figure technique, which was adopted to portray flesh tones more realistically.