The Getty Villa’s stunning new installation of the wares made by the potters and painters of Athens thousands of years ago showcases how expertly these gleaming red and black surfaces were made. But while most visitors come to marvel at the completed perfection that the Athenian craftspeople wanted their viewers to see, I am usually looking for what these ancient makers didn’t intend for us to see—their imperfections, and most especially, their first drafts.
The complex and finely painted images on ancient Greek ceramics might appear effortlessly made, but even the accomplished artisans of the Kerameikos (the Athenian potters’ quarter) didn’t just wing it. Behind, well actually, underneath those confident brush strokes are barely visible lines, traces of the preparatory drawings made by artisans as they sketched out the images they planned to paint on the still damp and pliable clay of their unfired pots. Made with a variety of pointed tools, these preparatory drawings range from scant lines, to ovals delineating heads and hands, to extensive sketches. And I’m starting to look for them everywhere.
My research focuses on the production practices of the Athenian craftspeople making red-figure ceramics, the pottery that depicts red figures against a black background made between the last quarter of the sixth century and into the fourth century BCE. After three years of studying the art, science and logistics of making red-figure ceramics, I’ve started to explore questions of how many people were involved in producing these objects, and whether we can actually recognize the individual handiwork of different members of the workgroup across the thousands of ancient ceramics that are in museum collections. While much of the existing scholarship on Greek vase painting identifies artists by their painted lines, for me, potentially the most recognizable of these individual ancient traces are the preparatory drawings sketched in the clay over two thousand years ago that are still preserved under the existing paintings. But seeing these hidden lines literally requires examining these surfaces under a new (60mm) lens. And using a computer algorithm.
As a Getty Conservation Institute Guest Scholar in 2017, I worked closely with David Saunders, associate curator in the Getty Museum’s Antiquities Department, to study over forty red-figure ceramics using a computational photographic technique called reflectance transformation imaging (RTI). With a tripod, a camera, a flash unit, a computer, and some trepidation, I captured datasets of between 48 to 100 high resolution digital images of the same surface under different lighting conditions; these images were then combined using mathematical algorithms to create the sense of light moving across the object’s surface, revealing details that are difficult to see in normal light.
A brief video of the RTI dataset captured for a stamnoid vessel fragment attributed to the Brygos Painter.
Consider, for example, the RTI dataset for a vessel fragment attributed to an artisan identified by scholars as the Brygos Painter, who was active about 490 to 470 B.C. The RTI allows us to clearly see how this individual sketched at least three different hand positions for the figure of a youth holding a cord, something that is not otherwise easily visible.
David suggested examining additional objects attributed to the Brygos Painter in the Getty collection, and nineteen datasets later, the images indicate that this individual tended to sketch a fair amount before the final image was painted. The deliberateness of the sketching is further reinforced by the deep and relatively wide indentations left by the drawing tool, which were made by a rounded rather than pointed implement used with significant finger pressure. I believe that these kinds of details—the extent of sketching, tool choice, and tool pressure—are idiosyncratic, and that paying attention to them across the vast corpus of extant Greek ceramics could allow us to track an individual as he, she, or they worked in ancient Athens.
Could these types of marks be individual styles we might come to see as “signatures” of specific makers? And is the person who drew the sketches the same as the person who painted the final images? While the presence of sketching lines has been known for many decades(1), the scholarship on Greek vase painting has tended to assume that the draftsperson and the painter were one and the same individual. Some forty-three of these “individuals” are known by the names painted on or scratched into the surfaces of pots, sometimes in phrases like “Nikosthenes made me.” But the vast majority of ancient Greek ceramics, 99% according to the scholar Jeffrey Hurwit, have no names identifying their makers(2). Nearly 900 painters have been given “nicknames,” most importantly by the scholar Sir John Beazley, who identified distinctive “hands” of otherwise anonymous painters, and categorized 30,000 vessels and sherds during his career(3).
David wrote a blog post on how these names, some of them whimsical or based on “stylistic quirks,” came about. And while we have names or nicknames for these artisans, we have little literary or archaeological evidence for who they actually were, what their workshops looked like, and how they worked. The most enduring trace of their existence remains their ceramics, which makes it all the more important to “excavate” the information still preserved on them.
But how can we begin to “read between the lines” across the thousands of pots in museum collections throughout the world? The ancient Greek potters and painters gave us one significant lead to follow; we have some examples of ceramics attributed to the same painters that depict the same scenes, which we might imagine were made at the same time, in the same workshop, possibly by the same workgroup.
By good fortune, the Getty collection holds a nearly identical pair of pelikai (storage vessels) attributed to the Villa Giulia Painter, who was active about 470 to 440 B.C. Both dated to 450 B.C., these pots allow a comparison of preparatory sketches on two objects, line for line. In the scene, Apollo, playing a lyre, is flanked by his mother Leto on the left, and his sister Artemis on the right. In keeping with the scene as one of offering libations to the gods, both Apollo and Leto hold phialae (ceramic or metal bowls) in their outstretched hands while Artemis pours from her oenochoe(4).
These bulbous pelikai must have been somewhat tricky shapes to paint on, even for skilled artisans used to decorating them. The RTI datasets confirm the ancient draftsperson’s need to plan out how the scene would proportionately stretch and fit into its allotted space on the pot. And the RTI images for the two pelikai reveal a remarkably similar approach to preparatory drawing. Figures are sketched in profile—nude, as in not yet dressed—using a thin pointed tool, applied with light pressure. After laying out these “placeholder” profiles, the artisan then began to “clothe” the figures, adding in lines for the drapery that would eventually be painted in (and often modified) to dress the figures in the completed image.
For example, the drawing for Apollo’s outstretched hand shows his forearm literally cut through with sketched lines for his chiton (garment). In the final painted image, his extending hand covers his garment, but we viewers, and more importantly, the ancient painter, know that clothing hangs behind his arm.
A closer look at the drawings for the Apollo figures on both objects reveals an idiosyncratic approach to delineating the top of the face with a straight line, sketching in a beaked tip for a nose and then rounding out the chin. And it’s not just Apollo who gets this treatment. The profiles of Leto and Artemis across both pelikai are also laid out this way.
Such a drawing quirk isn’t just limited to these two objects. My recent study of this kalpis-hydria (water jar) also attributed to the Villa Giulia Painter and in the Harvard Art Museums depicts a different scene than the pelikai at the Getty, though once again, we have a central male figure flanked by two female figures. In this case, a naked youth appears to have startled two women who express alarm at his presence with their upraised arms.
Dated broadly to the mid-fifth century BC, this object might have been made by the Villa Giulia Painter before or after the Getty objects. But the RTI dataset reveals a striking similarity in drawing style, most notably in the way that the face profiles are laid out. Leto, from one of the Getty pelikai is on the left; a female figure from the Harvard kalpis-hydria, is on the right. Recognize that beaked nose?
So what do these small and hidden details mean? Though this research is still in its early stages, the data gathered thus far raises intriguing questions about ancient Athenian ceramics production. What’s at stake here is the possibility of identifying artists’ “signature style” beyond just what they painted, which underpins much of the scholarship on ancient Greek pots. Paying closer attention to these sketches and their quirks could also offer us a glimpse into how many people aside from the named potters and painters worked in an ancient workshop, especially if the drawing and painting styles diverge significantly enough to suggest that two different people performed these tasks.
Recently published evidence reveals the presence of a kind of ancient post-it note, a fragment of epic poetry written in the still-damp clay of a red-figure pelike, possibly as a challenge from the potter to the painter. These hidden details—words and sketches that were never meant to be seen by anyone other than fellow artisans in the workshop—can now be recovered to gain a sense of how these ancient craftspeople worked when no one else was really looking. With more research, we may begin to recognize these artistic personalities, and follow the artists who painted within the lines, and those who didn’t.
This work was made possible with the support of a 2017 Getty Conservation Institute scholarship. I am grateful for the encouragement and enthusiasm of David Saunders, associate curator in the Antiquities Department of the Getty Museum; Karen Trentelman, senior scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute; and imaging specialists Carla Schroer and Marlin Lum of Cultural Heritage Imaging. I would like to thank the Harvard Art Museums’ Susanne Ebbinghaus, George A. Hanfman curator of ancient art; Amy Brauer, Diane Heath Beever curator of art; Angela Chang, assistant director of the Straus Center for Conservation; and Tony Sigel, senior conservator of objects and sculpture, for the opportunity to study objects in their collection.
All images photographed by Sanchita Balachandran. Use of images courtesy of the Getty (in the case of the Getty objects) and the Harvard Arts Museums (in the case of the Harvard objects).
1. See M. Boss, “Preliminary Sketches on Attic Red-Figured Vases of the Earth Fifth Century B.C.,” in Athenian Potters and Painters: The Conference Proceedings, ed. J.H. Oakley, W.D.E. Coulson, and O. Palagia (Oxford: Oxbow, 1997), 345–51; B. Cohen, “Outline as a Special Technique in Black and Red-Figure Vase-Painting,” in The Colors of Clay: Special Techniques in Athenian Vases, ed. B. Cohen (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2006), 150–60; and P.E. Corbett, “Preliminary Sketch in Greek Vase-Painting,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 85 (1965): 16–28.
3. N. T. Arrington, “Connoisseurship, Vases and Greek Art and Archaeology,” in The Berlin Painter and His World: Athenian Vase-Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C., ed. J. M. Padgett (Princeton: Princeton University Art Museum, 2017): 21–39.
4. M. Gaifman, “Timelessness, Fluidity, and Apollo’s Libation,” Res 63/64 (2013): 39–52; M. Gaifman, The Art of Libation in Classical Athens (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).
Arrington, N.T. “Connoisseurship, Vases and Greek Art and Archaeology.” In The Berlin
Painter and His World: Athenian Vase-Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C., edited by J. M. Padgett, 21–39. Princeton: Princeton University Art Museum, 2017.
Boss, M. 1997. “Preliminary Sketches on Attic Red-Figured Vases of the Earth Fifth Century B.C.” In Athenian Potters and Painters: The Conference Proceedings, edited by J.H. Oakley, W.D.E. Coulson and O. Palagia. Oxford: Oxbow, 1997: 345-51.
Cohen, B. “Outline as a Special Technique in Black and Red-Figure Vase-Painting.” In The Colors of Clay: Special Techniques in Athenian Vases, edited by B. Cohen, 150–60. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2006.
Corbett, P.E. “Preliminary Sketch in Greek Vase-Painting.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 85 (1965): 16–28.
Gaifman, M. “Timelessness, Fluidity, and Apollo’s Libation.” Res 63/64 (2013): 39–52.
Gaifman, M. The Art of Libation in Classical Athens. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.
Getty Conservation Institute, Athenian Pottery Project. Accessed 12 July 2018.
Hurwit, J.M. Artists and Signatures in Ancient Greece. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Iozzo, M. “Hidden Inscriptions on Athenian Vases.” American Journal of Archaeology 122, no. 3 (2018): 397–410.
Lapatin, K. ed. Papers on Special Techniques in Athenian Vases. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2008.
Text of this post © Sanchita Balachandran. All rights reserved.