The technique known as 'white-ground' was developed in the late 6th century BC, but came into its own in Athens in the 5th century BC. The vase would be covered with a light slip of 'kaolinite', perhaps to make it appear more valuable, or even to ceate the illusion of ivory or marble.
A favourite shape in the white-ground technique was the slim, elegant lekythos. Used to hold olive oil (a false neck was inserted for economy), these were often used as grave markers in lieu of expensive gravestones ('stelai'), or they would frequently be placed on the steps of a tomb or stele. The scenes are usually pensive, tender and evocative. Accents of reds, blues, greens and ochres bring to life the delicately drawn figures, their clothing and the context in which we are invited to glimpse them. Their imagery reminds us of the transition between life and death, the poignancy of parting and the fragility of the human condition.
There are also a number of kylikes (or drinking cups) in the white-ground technique, as well as various shapes, but the lekythos remains the dominant one. Famous Athenian painters in the white-ground technique include the Achilles Painter, the Sabouroff Painter, the Reed Painter and the Phiale Painter.