Friday, December 2, 2011

The Making of Exekias’s “Achilles and Ajax playing a dice game”: An Artist Speaks

By Kira of Attica, 525 BCE

 Born in Greece in 545 BCE, Kira is a freelance journalist and art contributor for the Daily Attica. She was published in a 526 BCE essay entitled, “Origins of the Orient: Orientalizing Art in the 7th Century BCE”.

Exekias: Master of the black-figure
Exekias ( c. 550–525 BCE), Greek potter and painter, and widely considered the finest and most original black-figure masters of the mid-sixth century BCE. Exekias is one of the major figures in the history of vase painting with thirteen vases (two as painter and potter and eleven as potter) attributed to the artist. A painter of heroes, he demonstrates his careful attention to detail and insight into Greek mythology with his most famous work: the amphora vase at the Vatican showing Achilles and Ajax playing a dice game[1](see fig.1 ). Earlier this month, Exekias took us inside his workshop to discuss the origins of the black-figure vases and his inspiration for the amphora featuring Achilles and Ajax, and gives us a once in a lifetime look behind the process of creating the black-figure vase from start to finish.

A style develops
Inside the workshop of Exekias, vases featuring Greek heroes line the walls depicting stories from historical writings and shockingly realistic interpretations of Athenian life. The styles of the vases appears noticeably different from eight century BCE Geometric art featuring abstract motifs[2] (see fig. 2), and instead show human portrayals that appear to emerge from the painting and I wonder what inspired these black-figure vases.  Exekias says, “I adapted the black-figure technique from the Corinthians, who originally invented the technique of vase painting in the seventh century BCE. Corinthian artists would paint black silhouettes and then incise linear details within the forms. Early examples of black-figure vases feature Orientalizing animal friezes, with the organization of Geometric painted vases[3] (see fig. 3).”

Though Exekias’s vases show a clear influence from Geometric and Orientalizing art, his most famous work of art, Achilles and Ajax, differs from its predecessors in many ways.  He claims, “I wanted to create a vase with more emotion and intensity, something artists before me had overlooked[4].” Now into the sixth century, Athens is quickly becoming the principal centre of pottery manufacture in Greece, overtaking Corinthian rivals from the overseas markets. The success is at least partially due to the improvement in technique. “I knew that if I wanted to succeed in the pottery business, I had to create something new and innovative[5],” he said. “I learned how to obtain the orange-red surface of the vases by mixing red ochre with clay from the vases; and, after many trials and errors, I was able to perfect a shiny black pigment that was more radiant and lustrous than anything that had been achieved up until now and can be seen on my work, Achilles and Ajax playing a dice game[6].”

Achilles and Ajax playing a dice game
Exekias’s’ black-figure ceramic amphora created c. 540-530 BCE firmly stands at 61.1 cm high with a 27.8 cm mouth diameter. Unlike earlier Athenian black-figure vases of Kleitias (see fig. 4), the surface of the vase is not divided into horizontal bands; rather, monumental figures are shown in profile view on a single large framed panel[7].  I asked Exekias to describe the scene on the vase:  “As indicated by the inscriptions, at the left is Achilles, fully armed, playing a game of dice with Ajax, thought to be a close friend. The warriors are seated on low supports and both lean towards a pedestal, reaching the dice with their right arms. The numbers tesara (four) and tria (three) are called out by the warriors, specified by the inscriptions that emerge from their mouths almost like speech bubbles.”[8].

Greek heroes are important to Greeks as they explain the origins of the world. He explains, “I was greatly inspired by Homer’s “Iliad”, wherein Ajax is described as second only to Achilles in power. He is the only one of the great heroes who does not receive assistance from the Gods. He is the great-grandson of Zeus, but manages to excel on his own in a way that puts him far above the Greeks. The humanization of the two legendary figures in Greek art helps makes a connection between the average person and the hero and by extension, between the average person and Greek gods[9].”

A rested warrior
In Homer’s “Iliad” Ajax and Achilles are described as close friends.  On Ekesias’s amphora Achilles is on the left and Ajax is on the right, both resting and playing a game instead of participating in combat. I asked about the departure from the action scenes favoured by Greek artists. Exekias clarifies, “I attempted to capture a moment of intensity when the two heroes have temporarily laid down their arms, a clear contrast to the Archaic preference for dramatic action. The spears direct the viewers eyes toward the thrown dice where the two heroes’ eyes are fixed, bringing the viewer into the moment of deep concentration. Although Ajax appears to have taken off his helmet, both men hold their spears with their left hands with their shields close by. Each man is ready for combat given a moment’s notice[10].”

When comparing Exekias’s amphora to other works of art of the period, it is clear that the artist is working towards finding a freer world. Where there was rigidity in the forms, there is now a mix of sternness and charm. He says, “I am much less interested in violent action than my predecessors, and take pleasure more in soft deliberate movements and small though not insignificant activities that last for some time and reflect a realistic view of Athenian life[11].”

Making and decorating the black-figure vase
What cements Exekias as more than just a potter is his meticulous craftsmanship; he is with his piece of art from its conception to the finishing stages. The first stage in making the vase is to dig the clay out of the ground. This is tedious as any pieces of grit and plant matter must be removed before the clay can be used,” Exekias told me.  “This is done by mixing clay with water and letting the heavier impurities sink to the bottom as many times as necessary until completely free of debris. The clay is then left to dry.”[12]

Before decorating, Exekias considers the shape of the vase. He describes the laborious process of creating the amphora vase: “I first shape the vessel on the wheel with my hands. Some of my larger pots are made in sections and attached after the neck, body and foot have also been shaped.” He goes on, “I allow these sections to dry for about twelve hours before assembling them and attaching handles, glued together with clay slip.[13]

The details and decorations of the clothes on the amphora with Achilles and Ajax are engraved with particular care. This is evident in details such as the pattern on the heroes’ cloack, highlighted with delicate touches of white. The figural and ornamental motifs that are characteristic of the black-figure vase painting brilliantly stand out against the red clay background. The arch formed by the backs of the two warriors reflects the shape of the amphora. This shape is echoed throughout the piece, appearing again in the space between the heads and spears of the two men[14]. Exekias goes on to describe how he begins to create the painting after the vase itself has been made. “When I have an idea, I create a preliminary sketch on the vase using a stick of charcoal. The motifs are applied with special clay slips that turn black during firing, while the background is left the colour of the clay.[15]”  Black slip is used for the silhouette-like figures which we see on the amphora with Achilles and Ajax. It is composed of a finely purified form of the same clay that was used for the body of the vase. Exekias continues, “The inner details of the figures are incised using sharp tools and other details are made by adding white and purple enhancements using a mixture of pigments and clay. To achieve the colour red I add red iron oxide pigment to the black slip, and apply white with pure, kaolin-rich clay. I use various thicknesses of brushes to create different effects.”[16]

Firing the vase
The distinctive red and black colour scheme of Exekias’s Achilles and Ajax vase are a result of a skilful exploitation of the high iron content of Athenian clay by a process of differential firing. “The black areas of the vase are coated in a fine solution of the same clay that was used for the body of the vase. Before the vase is placed in the kiln, it is actually orange-red in colour, with the coated areas slightly deeper in tone,” he says[17].

The firing process involves three stages. Exekias explains, “During the first oxidizing stage air is allowed into the kiln, turning the entire vase the colour of the clay. Green wood is then introduced into the chamber and the oxygen supply is reduced which causes the vase to turn black from the smoke. Lastly, air is reintroduced into the kiln and the reserved portions turn back to orange, while the glossed areas remain black.”[18]

An artist’s signature
I take a closer look at the finished product. What was once clay dug from the ground, is now a beautiful masterpiece ready to be displayed in the home of an art appreciator. Naturally, the amphora bears the signature “Exekias epoiēsen me”, or “Exekias made me”, and I ask the artist the importance of signing your piece of work in a time where his vases are being exported and copied. “We’re in the Archaic period, where the art of vase painting is currently at its height. The signature shows my pride for my creation and functions almost as a brand name for a large export market[19],” he says, confidently. “Someone buying my piece knows that it is not merely a copy.”

The Attic black-figure style appears to be well-developed, with figures being rendered in a mature Archaic style much influenced by contemporary developments in sculpture from the Geometric and Orientalization period, but right now is the generation of Exekias, the greatest master of the technique. Exekias excels in painting and in finely engraved detail, and succeeds where others have failed, in endowing his figures with mood and emotion, as well as the capacity for action. Exekias’s involvement in his work of art from beginning to end warrants his signature and he certainly sets the precedents for potters to come[20].

I would like to thank Exekias for inviting me into his workshop for a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the conception of the black-figure vase.

[1] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "pottery," accessed December 01, 2011,
[2] Fred S. Kleiner, Gardner's Art through the Ages: The Western Perspective, (Los Angeles, California: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2010), 100.
[3] Kleiner, 90
[4] Kleiner, 101
[5] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "pottery," accessed December 01, 2011,
[6] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "pottery," accessed December 01, 2011,
[7] Kleiner, 100
[8] Kleiner, 100
[9] Kleiner, 87
[10] Kleiner, 100.
[11] J. D. Beazly, The Development of Attic Black-Figure, (Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1986), chap. 6.
[12] The British Museum. "Making and Decorating Athenian Vases." Last modified 2010. Accessed November 28, 2011. making_and_decorating_athenian.aspx
[13] Department of Greek and Roman Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Athenian Vase Painting: Black- and Red-Figure Techniques". Last modified October 2002. Accessed November 28, 2011.

[14] Kleiner, 100.
[15] Beth Cohen, and Susan Lansing-Maish, The Colors of Clay: Special Techniques in Athenian Vases, (Los Angeles, California: Getty Publications, 2006), 45.
[16] The British Museum. "Making and Decorating Athenian Vases." Last modified 2010. Accessed November 28, 2011. making_and_decorating_athenian.aspx
[17] The British Museum. "Firing Athenian Black and Red Figure Vases." Last modified 2010. Accessed November 28, 2011.

[18] Department of Greek and Roman Art. "Athenian Vase Painting: Black- and Red-Figure Techniques". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2002)
[19] Kleiner, 100
[20] J. D. Beazly, The Development of Attic Black-Figure, (Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1986), chap. 6.

No comments:

Post a Comment