An Introduction To HE: Research Trail Assignment: Bridget Riley

  1. Biographical Information

Bridget Riley was born in London in 1931. She spent her childhood in Cornwall. She studied life drawing as a student at Goldsmith’s College London, under Sam Rabin. He introduced her to the principles of pictorial abstraction.

Riley made a copy of George Seurat’s The Bridge at Courbevoie, in 1959 (reproduction courtesy of shown at left below). Soon after, she experimented with a similar Pointillism in her own painting, Pink Landscape, 1960 (reproduction* shown below at right) which evoked the sensation she had experienced when initially viewing the scene, rather than concentrating on the actual colours in the landscape.

In the 1960s she developed a body of black and white abstract paintings, which were exhibited in The Responsive Eye exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1965. Her work further evolved in the late 1960s to included sequenced greys, and in 1970-71, she introduced colour to her work. Further notable developments included the inclusion of curved forms in her work between 1974-78; diagonals and lozenge shapes in 1986-91; rhomboidal forms in 1997. Riley started to make black and white wall drawings around this time, where the wall forms an integral part of the design. Curves with vertical divisions appeared in her work in 2004.

Throughout her life, Riley has travelled widely (Japan, India, Egypt etc), has lectured, thought and written about her art, and researched and analysed the work of other artists. All new experiences and knowledge have been analysed and reflected upon and some have been incorporated into her work, fueling its development.

I think it is important to consider how her early influences, learning and practice influenced her work and its evolution.

  1. Op Art Movement

Op Art emerged from the Abstract Expressionist movement after World War II. Abstract Expressionism was practiced by artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, using gestural mark making, involving the body movement of the person making the artwork.

The term was first used in the 1950s about artist, Victor Vasarely’s art works, which feature geometrical shapes and optical illusion effects. It was later used in a ‘Time’ magazine article in 1964. The term itself has been described as more of a marketing term invented by journalists to sell newspapers. It was derived from Pop-Art (without the P) equals Op-Art – also meaning optical art.

The art works use a technique which requires the viewer’s participation (by looking at and experiencing the effects produced by the art) to create sensations in the body.

Many of the artworks including those of Riley were imitated and copied for commercial products such as fashion clothing and accessories. Riley felt that this devalued her art, fearing that it would be treated as a ‘here today-gone tomorrow’ trend.

I think that Riley did not want to be pigeon-holed as part of this movement, (although she initially was), because her art work was more than just a gimmick or fashion.

  1. Science versus Art Debate

At the time of the Op Art Movement, some critics dismissed the art works as optical illusions that merely illustrated scientific principles, and therefore, they felt, had no intellectual content.

Riley’s art does make use of interactions between colours, contrasts and optical mixing (where separate units are blended into a whole image by the brain) and ‘dual visual awareness’ (the viewer swaps between regarding the whole painting, and the patterns formed by individual units within the composition), but I feel that there is a great deal more to her work, as is evidenced by her influences and experimentation leading to the development of her work over time.

  1. Influences and Inspirations

Riley studied figure drawing at the colleges she attended.  This practice involves careful observation, information gathering and conversion of that visual and emotional information into marks made onto a two-dimensional surface.

She copied and studied works by ‘Old Masters’ such as Rubens and Titan to follow their thought patterns and intentions. Works by Seurat, Cézanne and Mondrian also influenced her method of structuring and composing art.

The abstracted shapes, patterns, balance and colours of such artists find echoes in Riley’s distilled and simplified vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines, colours and shapes, repeated with variations in her art works.

  1. Bridget Riley’s Process

Throughout my reading and research for this artist, I have been struck by how thoroughly she investigates the work of other artists and tries to understand their work by analysing their intentions, the balance, flow and structure of their paintings (for example, in discussing Paul Cezanne’s Tall Trees at the Jas de Bouffan c.1883, she decided that the painting appealed to her because of the strong diagonals and opposing vertical lines of the tree trunks. (My diagram at bottom right attempts to illustrate this structure.)

Riley Notes 6_0001

I feel that the results of such careful analysis can be seen in her own works, such as Vespertino, 1988 (A small image of which can be found at the link provided, or view the real thing in Edinburgh**).

From the 1980s Riley has made a number of collage studies for her paintings, showing variations of composition, such as this Collage Study, Bassacs, Further revision of June 11, 2005.

Riley Notes 7_0002

This allows her to try out different configurations to find out what works best, prior to working on the final painting.

She uses assistants to help in the production of the artworks, working according to her instructions, using colours mixed by her.

  1. Development of Bridget Riley’s Work

As discussed in Sections 1 and 4, Riley’s work has evolved and developed over the years. She seems to take inspirations from artists and their art work, travel, and her own analysis, reflections and subsequent learning as ‘grist to her mill’.

The links to her art works below, and postcard images from The National Galleries Scotland, show some of the stages through which her work has evolved. The simple black & white ‘optical illusions’ of the 1960s, with introductions of greys adding another layer of variation and depth. The colour and diagonal lines of Rattle, making the eye rush in one direction than in another, with an almost three-dimensional feel in places. The introduction of curves, lozenge shapes and verticals (eg as seen in the collage above) manipulate the speed and direction of the viewer’s gaze and the sensations evoked. With works such as Clair Obscur, Riley seems to have simplified her works again with a return to black and white, yet maintaining the complexity that the curves and variations of shape bring to the viewer’s experience of the work.

Fall, 1963

Deny II, 1967

Bridget Riley Rattle 1973

Rattle, 1973, Acrylic on linen, 153.3 x 381.3 cm

Bridget Riley Clair Obscure 2015

Clair Obscur, 2015, Acrylic on AP polyester support, 153.3 x 381.3 cm

This example of a virtuous learning cycle (Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle of doing/experiencing -> reviewing/reflecting -> concluding/learning -> experimenting -> and so on – as discussed in the OCA’s Introduction to HE course) seems to be at the heart of Riley’s artistic career. She analyses and learns from artists and experiences; and experiments to see how she can incorporate this new layer of learning into her own practice. As a result her art work express a structure, balance, flow, pattern and movement that evokes recognition and resonance in the eyes of the viewer.



Crow, Thomas “The Rise of the Sixties” Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996

Follin, Frances “Embodied Visions: Bridget Riley, Op Art and The Sixties” Thames & Hudson, London 2004

Hornung, David “Colour: A Workshop For Artists and Designers” 2nd Edition. Laurence King Publishing Ltd, London 2012

Kerrigan, Michael “The World’s Greatest Art: Modern Art” Flame Tree Publishing, London 2005

* Wiggins, Colin; Bracewell, Michael; Prather, Marla “Bridget Riley: Paintings and Related Work” National Gallery Company, London 2010


** Bridget Riley: Paintings, 1963 – 2015 at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

15 April 2016 – 16 April 2017 (visited on 4 June 2016)


Riggs, Terry “Bridget Riley: Artist Biography” 1998

Tate Gallery

Newspaper Articles/Documentaries:-

Buck, Louisa with Wiggins, Colin “Shimmer & Dazzle: Seeing What Bridget Riley Sees” BBC Radio 4 Extra, Just Radio Production (listened to on 31/05/16 via BBC i-Player).

Sooke, Alastair “Bridget Riley: Learning From Seurat, Courtauld, Review: ‘A Rare Insight Into An Artist’s Mind'”

Research notes for this article can be found here and here.

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