Greek Paintings – An Exploration of the Best Ancient Greek Paintings

In our modern era, very little is known about the ancient Greek painters and the Greek paintings they produced. Classical Greek artworks that still exist today are mostly sculptures, architecture, and some vases, but very few ancient Greek paintings even made it into the 20th century. So, what was significant about Greek paintings, and why do we know so little about the painting aspect of the Greek arts?

An Introduction to Greek Paintings
There are very few examples of ancient Greek paintings left for us to admire, and most of what we do know about the ancient Greek painters and their artworks comes from written descriptions. As with other Greek arts, much of what we have left today are Roman replications of the original Greek artworks that have been lost to time. These copies, however, give us much insight into the styles and techniques that were employed by the ancient Greek painters.


What Was Significant About Greek Paintings?
Ancient historians such as Pausanias and Pliny have stated that panel paintings were the most respected and common art form of the ancient Greek period. These depicted still-lifes and portraits painted in tempera and encaustic wax. Unfortunately, not even copies exist from the very early period due to the perishable nature of the medium, and political as well as environmental factors also destroyed many of them.

Many of the surviving ancient Greek paintings are those that had been painted on structures that would stand against the harsh elements over time, such as murals and wall paintings in the temples and tombs of Greece and Rome.

Wall painting of a procession of women from Hagia Triada. Depicted above are five women with their right hands raised to their head, perhaps as a gesture of mourning. Below are another seven women, walking in the same direction as those above, each laying her right hand on the shoulder of the woman in front of her, c. 1450-1350/1300 BC. Found at a Minoan villa in Hagia Triada; ArchaiOptix, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Many of the Greek sculptures were also originally painted in bright and vivid colors, in a technique known as polychromy. Most of the time, the paint was used to color clothing and hair, and the skin was left the natural color of the statue stone, although there are also examples where the skin has been painted a light brown color. Another useful source for learning about the techniques of the ancient Greek painters is from the ceramic vases that were discovered in Etruscan tombs.

Although not made by the Greeks themselves, they were imitations of the style of ancient Greek paintings and therefore still impart useful information to us about the early days of the Greek arts.

Famous Ancient Greek Painters
Virtually no paintings still exist that were originally created by the ancient painters of Classical Greek art. Although there has been much written about the artists and their art, we do not have many examples beyond a few frescoes and vases, and the descriptions of ancient historians. However, it is still useful to give you some information about the creators of these lost treasures.

Agatharchus (c. 5th century BCE)
Agatharcus was born on the island of Samos in the 5th century BCE. He is noted as the first artist to use perspective on a large scale, and also pioneered the idea of bringing out the shadows of objects by placing them against the sun. He is credited with bringing the concepts of illusion and perspective to scenic painting. His most famous artwork was the backdrop he painted for the play Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus.


Apollodorus (c. 5th century BCE)
Apollodorus is considered to be one of the most influential painters from the 5th century in Greece. He was known for his masterful use of shadows in his compositions, known as Skiagraphia. This technique would influence the artists of later periods, such as the painters of the Italian Renaissance who further developed the technique of having dark and well-lit elements of a composition, known as chiaroscuro.


Zeuxis (c. 5th century BCE)
Zeuxis was born in Heraclea in Southern Italy sometime during the 5th century and was an ancient Greek painter that was revered for his ability to paint still-lifes with great realism. Although Apollodorus had created the shadow technique, it was perfected by Zeuxis, and his use of light and shadow helped create volumetric illusion instead of the flat appearance of the ancient Greek paintings of other artists.

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