Museum Home Past Exhibitions The Colors of Clay: Special Techniques in Athenian Vases

June 8–September 4, 2006 at the Getty Villa

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Colors of Clay features over 100 vases made in and around Athens between 550 and 340 B.C., including some of the greatest masterpieces of Athenian pottery.

The exhibition goes beyond the two standard techniques of Athenian vase-painting—black-figure and red-figure—to explore alternative techniques, such as coral red, white ground, and gilding, that gave Athenian vases their wide range of shapes and colors. Most of these techniques were first developed around 525 B.C., an extraordinarily fertile period of experimentation in the Athenian pottery industry.

The exhibition also presents new insights gained by conservators and scientists into the methods and materials used by ancient vase makers.

The Making of Athenian Vases
Most of the clay vases in this exhibition, as in ancient Athens as a whole, were constructed and decorated in workshops owned and operated by potters. The workshops were usually family businesses, with sons following their fathers in the trade. Potters often painted their own vases, but they sometimes hired artisans who specialized in vase-painting.

We know the names of many ancient potters, but fewer vase-painters. Painters with recognizable styles are often given nicknames, such as "the Brygos Painter" or "the Painter of the Wedding Procession," based on potters with whom they worked or subjects in which they specialized.

Painting and Firing
A three-stage firing process was key to achieving the distinctive look of Athenian vases. Before firing, vase-painters painted the red-orange clay with a liquid clay slip, or clay-water mix. During the three-stage firing, the clay slip turned into shiny black gloss, coral-red gloss, or matte white, depending on the type of clay slip used. Vase-painters sometimes applied further decoration, including bright, colorful pigments and gilding, after firing.

The exhibition is located at the Getty Villa, Museum, Floor 2.


See how vases were made in ancient Athens (4:09)

More About Greek Vases

Understanding Black- and Red-Figure Vases

New Discoveries about Ancient Vases