Painting in Ancient Greece

Ancient Greek painting is one of the most difficult disciplines of Greek art to analyze objectively due to lack of resources. Due to vandalism and natural erosion, few original Greek paintings or copies of them have survived.

Among the remains that remain are some stone and terracotta slabs, fragments of wooden planks, frescoes on walls and copies that inspired Roman mosaics.

Due to the lack of quality works for the direct study of Greek painting, ceramic painting is often used, of which there are numerous pieces, to extrapolate characteristics and conclusions about the aesthetics of Greek painting. The problem with this indirect analysis is that the ceramic painting is technically conditioned on the small, curved surface of the vessels and a limited palette of colors whose pigments withstood the heat of the furnace.

Other sources of study of Greek painting are the literary works of historians of Antiquity such as Pliny the Elder or Pausanias of Lydia. Thanks to these texts we know that painting was as appreciated as Greek sculpture (while ceramic painting was considered a minor craft), the names of the most important Greek painters and the preferred subjects.

Characteristics of Greek painting

In Ancient Greece, painting was used abundantly in the decoration of architectural works of all kinds: religious, civil, funeral…. The clothes and hair of the sculptures (exceptionally also the skin) were also painted. This activity was considered an art in itself, not a mere finish or decoration.

According to historians, however, the most valued paintings were those painted on wood. But since wood is such a vulnerable material to erosion, we do not have any masterpiece for its study with the exception of the funeral tablets found in Egypt (Fayum’s portraits), which are considered a continuation of the Greco-Roman pictorial tradition. .

The origin of Greek painting was associated with geometric and idealized forms strongly influenced by Egyptian and Assyrian art . Although the hegemony of line and drawing was maintained in painting and flat color masses, it also developed its own identity and characteristics.

Among the innovations that Greek painting has brought to the history of art we can mention:

  • Introducing novel views of the human body and its parts (beyond frontality).
  • A knowledge of perspective (superposition of figures) and naturalism that will not be overcome until the Renaissance.
  • The beginning of the modeling of folds and curved objects emphasizing the thickness of the lines and with striped patterns. A primitive form of chiaroscuro.

Materials and techniques of Greek painting

The most used surfaces therefore in Greek painting were the walls, the wooden planks and the terracotta or marble slabs. Ivory, leather, parchment and linen were also used less frequently. Of all this variety of surfaces it is believed that the most popular support was the wooden table with a white paint base.

Regarding the pictorial techniques, tempera and encaustic painting were used mainly on the boards, slabs and sculptures of wood and marble, and fresco and, again, tempera painting on the walls .

The color palette of Greek artists featured red , yellow , black , white , green, blue , purple, and brown. However, ceramic painting will be mainly limited to the use of four pigments capable of withstanding the high temperatures of the furnace and their combinations (red, yellow, white and black), which has led us to believe that the palette of Greek painters was much more limited.

Greek painting themes

Greek painters were prized for their depiction of mythological scenes, legends, and historical battles. Although votive tables abound to carry to temples, they were not so highly regarded.

Portrait, caricature and landscape scenes were developed that would become more important. They also painted scenes from everyday life (erotic and pornographic scenes included) and still lifes, private commissions of genre and decorative style paintings (cornucopias, garlands …) that would gain popularity during the last stage of Greek art.


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