Tools & Technology Used in Classical Greek Art


The ancient Greeks developed notions of ideal proportions and mathematics, which they applied to sculpture and architecture. The Parthenon, for example, contains a number of careful mathematical and optical refinements. The importance of mathematics and proportion to Greek architects finds an echo in the work of Greek sculptors, who composed human figures according to idealized proportions of human anatomy. For the Greeks, sculpture, painting and architecture were much closer disciplines than they are in the modern era--hence art historians of Ancient Greek art consider architecture as part of art.

The Classical Greeks thus developed tools for measurement and alignment in order to create these subtle mathematical and architectural refinements.

Post-and-Lintel Construction

  • The Classical Greeks used a relatively basic form of architecture known as "post-and-lintel" construction. Post-and-lintel refers to how an architectural structure supports weight--in Greek architecture and other ancient cultures, two vertical posts supported a horizontal lintel, somewhat like a doorway.

    Post-and-lintel construction cannot support much weight--if there is too much pressure over the middle of the lintel, the lintel will break. Thus the Greeks used colonnades, series of columns to support the weight of the roof.

    Examples of post-and-lintel construction in Classical Greek architecture include the Doric Temples at Paestum, the Temple of Artemis in Corfu and the Parthenon. The Parthenon includes two colonnades: the exterior is ringed of columns, while the interior room, or "cella," has columns at the front and back.

Architectural Orders and Proportions

  • There are two types of Classical Greek orders: Doric and Ionic. Doric is simpler and generally squatter--the proportions of column diameter to column height are 7:1. Ionic columns are longer (the column proportions are 9:1), and the top is capped by a scroll-shaped capital called a volute. The Propylaia of the Acropolis in Athens, by the architect Mnesikles is an example of the Ionic order (the Parthenon's exterior is Doric).

    The Corinthian order developed during the Late Classical period, which is very similar to the Ionic but has a capital carved a bundle of acanthus leaves instead of a volute.

    The proportions of each Greek architectural order echo the importance of proportions in Classical Greek figural sculpture. As Galen remarked on Polykleitos' Doryphoros (Spearbearer) from 450-440 BCE: "[Doryphoros] holds beauty to consist not in the commensurability or "symmetria" [ie., proportions] of the constituent elements [of the body], but in the commensurability of the parts, such as that of finger to finger, and of all the fingers to the palm and wrist, and of those to the forearm, and of the forearm to the upper arm, and in fact, of everything to everything else, just as it is written in the Canon of Polyclitus."

Measuring Tools

  • Greek measuring units were also based on human body parts. The "dactylos," for example, is the breadth of one finger.

    Greek mathematicians developed sophisticated tools for measuring large objects (even astronomical distances) and surveying tools--though Greeks recorded the development and use of these tools, their exact nature is not always known to modern scholars. Nevertheless, such tools assisted in the construction of Greek architectural marvels like the Parthenon, where the Greeks measured, cut and carved the elements of the building before erecting them with levers and pulleys.


  • The Athenians of the Golden Age (also known as the Age of Pericles) used Pentelic marble--marble collected from Mt. Pentelikon, somewhat northeast of Athens. Pentelic marble is white with a hint of yellow (which makes the material glow warmly in the sun), and without streaks.

    Pentelic marble is a particularly hard type of marble, and the Greeks often used harder tools for marble carving than later cultures used.

Carving Tools

  • Greek sculptors mainly used the hammer and chisel to carve out the basic forms of a sculpture. A chisel is metal bar with a sharp edge and the sculptor hammers the chisel to carve stone.

    However, hammer and chisel leave a rough surface, so the Greek sculptor would smooth with an abrasive emery stone to create the smooth curves that Greek sculptors are so famous for. After sanding, the sculptor used a slightly softer stone to add polish, also called a patina.

    Some Classical Greek sculptors also treated their works with a sealing compound to create a glowing effect (this process was called "ganosis").

    The classical sculptor Praxiteles first used the "smoky" style endowed by ganosis. Praxiteles wanted to create soft lights and shadows that flowed along the contours of his figural sculptures.

Cast Bronze

  • Outside of marble sculptural decorations for architecture (like the Acropolis of Athens), the Greeks created many bronze sculptures. Many Greek bronzes are lost, as later civilizations melted them down to reuse the metal in times of war. A few bronzes lost in shipwrecks and recovered during the modern era stand in museums.

    The Ancient Greeks used the "indirect lost-wax" technique for bronze casting. Many cultures separately developed the lost-wax process, and it is particularly effective for metal sculptures. The lost-wax process involves a positive and negative mold. The sculptor creates a positive sculpture and then creates a cast (usually of plaster or clay). The positive sculpture is then placed inside the negative mold, with a thin layer of wax between them. Pins hold the positive still inside the negative and the caster applied heat to melt the wax away. The caster then pours bronze, which sets and creates a hollow sculpture.

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  • "History of Art: The Western Tradition"; H.W. Janson; 8th ed., 2009
  • Photo Credit an olive grove in crete, greece image by donkey IA from
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