Red Figure was a style of pottery painting that succeeded Black Figure in Ancient Greek art. It was used around 530-500 B.C. and onward though this is an approximation.

Though it was a refinement of the Black Figure style it did not take over straight away. It took some time for the different artists to learn the new style as well as fashions to change. It does produce a different sort of image and so was not just a better way of making paintings than Black Figure. This meant that the two styles' time frames overlapped slightly and also meant that bilingual pots were produced for a time (see below).

This style is done by painting black the background of the image that you wish to do. You would leave blank the entities of your picture, so bodies etc. would be the red from underneath that hadn't been painted over. Then details are added with brushes, some of which were very fine, using the same black paint that was used in the first step. When this is finished it is fired in a kiln where the black paint (obviously) goes black and the parts that were left go an orangy red.

To see the differences in the styles you should look at bilingual pots. Try searching the google images for bilingual pots and you should find some pictures of them though I had a little difficulty. My favourite Red Figure is a painting of Ajax and Hector fighting. It is in a very small frieze (the only one on the pot) along the top of the bell of the Amphora which has the two heros fighting with spears. Ajax is winning, beating back Hector who is falling back. Unfortunately I can't seem to find a picture of this either.

The Red Figure style has three main elements that define it.


Since the Red Figure style left the main aspects of a scene the original colour of the pot on a background of dark black there was often the affect of a spotlight. This meant that the main characters in a scene would stand out from the rest of the scene due to the sudden contrast of the orange/red against the black. This is similar to the Black Figure style's silhouette affect though it differs slightly.

One of the main advantages of the Red Figure style is that the spotlighting tends not to unbalance the scene in the same way that the silhouettes used to. Though it was still important for the artist not to have one side of the scene persistently red, and the other persistently black, the spotlighting did not require the same excessive balance that can be seen in some Black Figure pots. This meant that the artist had more freedom in the positioning of items in the scene (and the removal of restraints on the artist is often seen as one of the most important advances in an artistic medium).

Painted Detail

Since all the details of the piece come from the use of painted lines this is obviously an important area. The way that an artist uses these details is what distinguishes one from the other. There are different types of line that can be produced with the paintbrush. Two important types of line (that were used to great affect to increase the naturalistic portrayl of bodies) were relief and dilute lines. Since all images had a body of some sort (the Greeks weren't much into landscapes) these were very important to the artist.

Relief lines are the thick bold lines that can be seen in an image. They are used to show the distinct features of an image such as the fingers or muscles that stand out well (such as the pectorals). These lines were thick and often were substantially higher than the surface of the pottery. This meant that they stood out very strongly from the orangy/red colour of the background that they were painted on.

Dilute lines are created by mixing water into the black paint that is used elsewhere. The diluted paint came out much lighter when fired in the kiln and were not as bold as their relief counterparts. This allows the artist to create subtle lines that hint at the existence of something (such as a tensed muscle). They also came in useful when painting clothes since it was now possible to show more natural distinction in material. Also, since you cannot show the form of a woman well when they are wearing clothes (unlike the men, women were never shown naked), artists had to find a way of hinting at the form of the body beneath the clothes. The lines that were used to show the pleats and folds in a dress (for example) could now be of different widths and boldness. This means that the dress can be shown to be composed of different types of cloth and/or be falling in different ways. Legs could now be shown as being bent even though you cannot see them actually bent themselves in a very natural fashion and the thighs were hinted at beneath the clothes by the way that the cloth fell about the legs. Also breasts could be shown to alter the fall of dresses much better than the Black Figure style (women in the Black Figure style often looked positively diseased by the way that their dresses fell in strange ways over lumps on their chest that did not resemble breasts).

Additional Colours

The use of additional colour faded over time when the Red Figure style became popular. The additional colours were often used in the Black Figure style to offset the black silhouettes that drew the eye around as well as to liven the scenes up a bit (when you have a lot of pure black blobs all over the image it can be a bit boring as well as macabre).

Since the Red Figure style had bright orange spotlights in meant that the scene looks overall brighter. So the use of additional colours was not as necessary to alter the general feel of the piece or to attract the attention of the eye since artists were very proficient at it by this point (especially with the enhancements that the Red Figure style gave).

Also women stopped being painted white like they were in the Black Figure style. Whether this was due to the changing view on women or whether it was just a pain in the arse I don't know. I personally favour the former view because it can be seen that even in late Black Figure images (notably the paiting by the Amasis painter of Dionysus and the two maenads, neither of whom are painted white) that women were starting to be portrayed not white. This is very slim evidence though so is probably wrong.

Bilingual Pots

A bilingual pot is a pot that became popular in the transitional period between the use of the Black Figure style and the Red Figure style. It consisted of a pot with the same image on both sides. One would be in the Red Figure style and the other would be in the Black Figure style. This allows great comparison between the two styles since it allows us to compare how well the artist pulled off different aspects of the image. So did the Red Figure allow him to show depth better or did the Black Figure? Are the muscles of Herakles more natural in the Red Figure or the Black Figure style? et cetera, et cetera.

These pots were given to the winner of the games that were held in honour of Athena in Athens every year. They were nearly always Amphora (sometimes Neck Amphora) and were filled with olive oil.


  • Curves were so much easier to do with a brush. This means that bodies can be done more naturally and foreshortening is also easier.
  • Images had less of a tendancy to become unbalanced when too many areas of spotlighting occured. This meant that the artist did not have to worry about trying to balance the picture with space fillers or patterns.
  • Different types of line could be used to create different effects. This meant that details of bodies and clothing could be shown more naturally. Clothes can be shown with different textures, bodies can be shown bending and tensing realistically.
  • Overlapping entities are more clear in the Red Figure style.
  • The artist was less restricted by the framing (not to sure about this one but my teacher told me it so it is here). It can be seen in many pots were the images are in strange areas (such as under handles or inside the pot) that certain aspects of the image are cutting into the framing patterns round the edge of the scene.
  • Dangling locks of hair were easy to do.
  • Pubic hair could be done very easily. Though pubes were not often depicted in Greek art there were some instances of it and these tended to be done in the Red Figure style as opposed to any other style (see for a picture of Herakles fighting the giant Antaios).


  • The brushes could only reach a certain fineness which stops very small details being done correctly. The etching tool used for the Black Figure style on the other hand made it much easier for the artist to scratch small and intricate details onto the image (for example Ajax and Achilles playing a game by Exekias).
  • It does not always seem quite as dramatic as the Black Figure style (just my opinion). The stark black silhouettes were very dramatic and drew the eye much better than the spotlighting in Red Figure.
  • Hair was more difficult to portray in some respects. Hair in the Red Figure tended to just be a painted blob of black. This was not overly troublesome for humans since it could be ignored but with some beasts (a favourite theme in Ancient Greek art) such as lions or equivalent animals it looked rather strange just having a black blobby mane. In the Black Figure style the hair could be black but with intricate curls etc. to add detail to it.

    In One respect though the Red Figure was better at hair. It could handle easily locks of hair dangling down from around the head, something which was very important for women.

  • Patterning was a bugger in Red Figure. Since you had to leave the main object and paint the background, intricate patterns were difficult to pull off. It can be seen that the use of patterns declined possibly due to this difficulty.

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