Archaic Greek Painting
Guide to Panel & Mural Paintings From Early Ancient Greece.

Greek Painting: Archaic Period (c.600-480 BCE)


Remnants of Greek Paintings
Painting Materials and Methods
Panel Paintings
Etruscan Tomb Paintings

For other forms of ancient art contemporaneous with Greek Archaic painting,
please see the Art of Classical Antiquity (c.1000 BCE - 450 CE).

Remains of Greek Paintings

The remains of Greek painting are so miserable that it is hard for as to believe that Hellenistic and Roman critics thought quite as highly of it as of Greek sculpture. From the Archaic period (c.625-500 BCE) of Classical Antiquity we have some painted slabs of terracotta and stone, parts of four wooden plaques, wall paintings (particularly in underground tombs in Etruria) and the indirect evidence of vase painting. The last two sources continue in Classical Greek painting (c.500-323 BCE), and there appear also to be later copies of Classical pictures on marble panels and in wall paintings in Italy. In Hellenistic Greek painting (323-1st century BCE) vase painting soon fades out, but paintings on the walls of tombs and houses and on gravestones are more numerous and some pictorial mosaic art survives. Further, there are many references to painters and painting in the elder Pliny (the Roman author and naturalist, 23-79 CE) and other ancient writers.

All this is very unsatisfactory. In Greek art, vase painting differed from painting in technique, scale and purpose; during the Archaic period it seems to have had the same roles for composition and for the representation of anatomy and drapery, but afterwards it is mostly in abnormal experiments that one sees the influence of painting. Teracotta slabs share at least their technique with vases, the wooden plaques are small and cheap, and the gravestones not much better, while mosaic is anyhow an unaccommodating medium. The wall paintings are more imposing but mostly provincial and inferior, and with copies it is difficult to decide how faithful each may be.

As for the notices of ancient writers, these make a few useful points but in general give very little idea of artistic style. As is the case with Roman art, the fact is that we do not possess any original Greek painting of the first rank nor are we ever likely to possess one, so that though the general development of the art may be inferred we cannot reconstruct its detailed history or even form much idea of the quality of its masterpieces.

[Note: For information about ceramics from ancient Greece, including the Geometric, Black-figure, Red-figure and White-ground technique, see: Greek Pottery: History & Styles.]

Painting Materials and Methods

For surfaces on which to paint, Greek artists used walls, panels of wood or marble, terracotta slabs or plaques, and sometimes pieces of ivory, leather, parchment or linen. Of these surfaces, wooden panels, undercoated with white paint, were probably the most usual for major as well as minor works. From the seventh century on, the available range of colours for both murals and panel paintings was satisfactorily wide, except for work on terracotta where the paints had to undergo firing in the kiln.

On walls the methods of painting were tempera and fresco; on wood and marble, tempera and encaustic - a technique in which the colours were mixed with wax, applied to the surface and then `burnt in' with a red-hot rod. Encaustic was more durable than tempera, though more laborious, and had some of the richness of tone of oil painting, a medium unknown to the Greeks. It is said that encaustic first became a regular painting method on marble statues and architectural details during the sixth century, and was adopted for panel painting in the fifth, but since Greek artists often practised both sculpture and painting, it would be surprising if the interval was long.

Wood does not have much chance of preservation in Greece, but we can infer from Greek terracotta plaques that painting on wood dates from at least the end of the eighth century. Although it is unlikely that such painting had a successful outline technique of its own before about 650 BCE, or else there would have been little reason for Corinthian vase painters to develop the black-figure technique, which is based on metal engraving.


Anyhow, the earliest considerable examples of larger paintings that survive, the terracotta metopes (decorative tablets) from the Temple of Apollo at Thermon in Aitolia are painted later, around 630 BCE. Here, the pictorial field is about two feet square and the figures occupy its full height, but the style is that of Corinthian vase-painting - of a stage that is a little later than the Chigi vase (c.650-40 BCE) - and the artist has used the larger scale not to increase or improve the details of anatomy, but only to multiply the patterns of the drapery. His colour palette is no wider than the vase painter's - black, white, purple and light brown (for male flesh), all used in flat washes - but he was restricted to colours that would stand firing. A technical difference is that on the metopes, outlines and lines of inner detail are drawn and not incised, but incision would not have been effective in work of this scale, and anyhow outline drawing was common in contemporary vase painting outside Corinth. (See also: Greek Architecture: 900-27 BCE.)

These metopes were probably not the earliest paintings in this technique nor the most ambitious of their time. Light brown for men's flesh had occurred sporadically in vase painting for a generation or so before the Thermon metopes and may well have been borrowed from paintings on wood, and the unusually intricate battle scene on the Chigi vase perhaps gives some idea of the more ambitious of contemporary pictures; the Thennon metopes because of their shape allowed only single figures or small compact groups. There are some similar but slightly later metopes from Calydon, also in Aitolia, but they are more damaged.

Panel Paintings

Four small wooden plaques found at Pitsa, twenty-five miles west of Corinth, one of them according to its inscription - either dedicated or painted by a Corinthian - show the same system of coloured drawing in a style which might be that of the vase painting of Corinth around 530 BCE, if vases had still been painted in the Corinthian style. The ground is white and the colours used are black, red, light brown, dark brown and blue. Rather later are fragments of painted plaster found at Gordion in Phrygia, and wall paintings in tombs at Kizibel and Karaburun in Lycia; as well as mythological painting, themes include those from daily life, while the style near enough to that of East Greek vase painting.

The painters of terracotta plaques were usually vase painters too, but we do not know about Archaic painters on other materials; if work was plentiful, the technical differences between ceramic and other painting must have encouraged specialization, though the general uniformity of style (which is shared with relief sculpture) shows that artists in various crafts kept in touch with one another.

Etruscan Tomb Paintings

A similar stylistic relation to vase painting, this time Attic red-figure, is apparent in the fairly numerous wall paintings of Late Archaic style in Etruscan tombs. Etruscan art has acquired its own image, but the tomb paintings (while occasionally showing Etruscan details of dress and customs) are essentially Greek in style - take for example the anatomy of their human figures, their poses, and the treatment of drapery - except that Etruscan painting, like other branches of art in Etruria, tends to be more backward and provincial than typical Greek works.

Note: For details of colour pigments used by archaic Greek painters in fresco, tempera, encaustic and watercolour painting, see: Classical Colour Palette.

For more articles about the visual arts of classical antiquity, see:

Sculpture of Ancient Greece (Introduction)
Daedalic Greek Sculpture (c.650-600 BCE)
Archaic Greek Sculpture (c.600-480 BCE)
Early Classical Greek Sculpture (c.480-450 BCE)
High Classical Greek Sculpture (c.450-400 BCE)
Late Classical Greek Sculpture (c.400-323 BCE)
Hellenistic Greek Sculpture (c.323-27 BCE)
Hellenistic Style Statues and Reliefs (c.323-27 BCE)
Greek Metalwork Art (8th century BCE onwards)
Roman Sculpture (c.55 BCE onwards)

• For a detailed chronology, see: Timeline, History of Art.
• For more about sculpture in Ancient Greece, see: Homepage.

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