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Making Greek vases

Greek vases, crafted from refined terra cotta, underwent a meticulous process. Potters mixed raw clay with water, removed impurities, and used a technique called "wedging" to prepare the clay. Vases were shaped on a wheel, assembled, and decorated with liquid clay. A three-stage firing process resulted in the distinctive red and black color scheme. Created by Getty Museum.

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Video transcript

- Greek vases were made of terra cotta or baked clay. Before the clay could be used for pottery, pebbles and other impurities had to be removed. First, the potter mixed the raw clay with water in large outdoor pools to make a thick, silty liquid. This liquid clay stood until the heavier impurities had settled to the bottom. The refined liquid was then drained off into a second pool. The potter repeated this settling process several times. The pool was then left to evaporate in the sun, leaving behind the refined clay. The final step in preparing the clay for potting was called "wedging". The potter systematically compressed and folded the clay, making it more malleable and mixing together any parts that may settled into layers. The clay was now ready for use. Most Greek vases were thrown or formed on the potter's wheel. The complex shapes of Greek pottery often required that a vase be thrown in pieces and then assembled. For example, to make a kylix or cup the potter first centered the clay on the wheel. When it stopped wobbling the potter began a central hole. Pressure from the potter's fingers inside the hole gradually widened this opening and formed the bowl of the cup. Aside from the wheel, the potter's main tools were his hands. Although a wet sponge was often used to smooth the surface. To make the foot of the cup, the potter again centered the clay, drew it up, and then hollowed out the stem. The next day when the formed pieces had dried slightly, the bowl of the cup was trimmed with a metal shaver and received a final smoothing. The potter used wet clay to bond the separately made bowl and foot, and then smoothed over the join. Next, the potter stretched out lengths of clay and bent them into handles. Again using wet clay the potter attached the handles to the bowl. Often roughening the joining surfaces to increase the bond. The vase was now ready to be decorated. Athenian vase painters experimented with a number of different methods of vase decoration. To create a vase in the black figure technique, that is, with black figures against a red background. The vase painter first sketched the outline of the design, in this case a dolphin, onto the surface of the vessel. Then, using a highly refined liquid clay as paint the vase painter filled in the outline, creating a silhouette. When applied, the clay paint was almost the same color as the surface of the vase. But with firing it would turn black. The vase painter next used a sharp point to scratch internal details through the silhouette. The vase was then ready for the kiln. The contrasting red and black color scheme of Athenian pottery was the result of a difficult three stage firing process. Using wood-fired kilns or ovens, vases were heated to about 800 degrees centigrade in an oxygen-rich environment, causing the whole vase to turn red. Next, the potter closed off the vents of the kiln and added green wood and leafy branches creating an oxygen poor environment. As a result, the whole vase turned black. At the same time, the kiln temperature was raised causing the thin painted layer of decorative clay to become glossy and nonporous. Finally the kiln was allowed to slowly cool, and the potter reopened the vents letting oxygen into the kiln again. In this stage the unpainted areas of the vessels returned to their warm red color. But the glossy areas, which could not absorb oxygen, remained black.