Greek Painting: Archaic Period (c.600-480 BCE)
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.
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.
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.
of Ancient Greece (Introduction)
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART and CLASSICAL ANTIQUITIES