How Bridget Riley Creates Her Optical Illusions

Bridget Riley’s After Rajasthan. An Op Art screenprint of combined green, red, orange, and grey geometric shapes against a white background.After Rajasthan © Bridget Riley 2013
Jasper Tordoff

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"I couldn’t get near what I wanted through seeing, recognising, and recreating, so I stood the problem on its head. I started studying squares, rectangles, triangles and the sensations they give rise to."
Bridget Riley

In the realm of art, few have succeeded in truly captivating the viewer's eye and mind as Bridget Riley. A renowned artist of the 20th century, Riley's name has become synonymous with optical illusions that challenge perceptions and intrigue the senses. Her works, characterised by their mesmerising play of colour, shape, and pattern, have redefined the boundaries of visual art, inviting audiences to not only observe but to also actively participate in their interpretative journey. The genius of Riley's creations lies not just in their visual appeal but in the meticulous precision with which they are crafted. Deeply rooted in mathematical principles, every line, dot, or curve is thoughtfully plotted to play a pivotal role in conjuring the illusion. The seamless confluence of art and mathematics in her pieces is what lends them their unique allure. Beyond the aesthetic, there's a fascinating science at work, a choreographed dance of geometry and perception.

Bridget Riley: The Woman Behind the Illusions

Bridget Riley, born in 1931 in London, embarked on her artistic journey against the backdrop of a world undergoing rapid change. In her formative years, her family's temporary relocation to Cornwall due to the war exposed her to the serene beauty of landscapes, planting the initial seeds of her love for art. Pursuing her passion, Riley trained at the Goldsmiths College and later, the Royal College of Art, refining her skills and solidifying her visual language.

Riley's exploration into optical art, commonly termed Op Art, marked a significant departure from the prevailing art forms of her time. Her debut in the 1965 Museum of Modern Art exhibition titled The Responsive Eye heralded her as a revolutionary figure in contemporary art. Her skillful manipulation of shapes and patterns, combined with a discerning use of colour, challenged conventional perceptions, rendering her works instantly recognisable.

Over the years, Riley's contributions have been celebrated globally. She's been honoured with numerous accolades, including the prestigious Praemium Imperiale for painting. Today, she stands as a monumental figure with her legacy punctuated by her relentless quest to challenge and engage audiences.

The Artistic Style of Bridget Riley

Riley's works, emblematic of Op Art's core principles, restructure simple geometric forms, like lines and dots, through carefully orchestrated repetitions and variations. These patterns, often monochromatic or featuring limited palettes, engage the viewer's eye in a manner that the static image appears to be in motion or transforming.

Riley's expertise in this style became evident in her iconic black-and-white compositions of the 1960s, where she meticulously orchestrated contrasts to create sensations of push and pull. Her works invite the viewer into a dynamic interaction, a dance between the canvas and the eye, revealing the immense possibilities of art when it converges with science and perception. Through Op Art, Riley redefined the visual experience.

What process does Bridget Riley use to create her artwork?

Bridget Riley’s Colour Palette

In her early career, Riley predominantly utilised a black and white colour palette. This decision was more than just aesthetic; it allowed her to emphasise the movement and distortion effects without the influence of colour. She achieved these effects through the precise arrangement of geometric shapes, especially squares and lines. The strategic placement of these shapes, often in repetitive patterns, creates the illusion of movement, vibration, or undulation, a phenomenon that engages and sometimes even challenges the viewer's perception.

As her career progressed, Riley began to introduce colour into her works. Notably, after a trip to Egypt in the early 1980s, she was inspired by the vibrant colours she observed there and began incorporating what became known as her Egyptian palette into pieces like RA (Inverted) and Achæan. This transition not only added depth and vibrancy to her pieces but also showcased her versatility and adaptability as an artist, proving that her command over colour was as profound as her mastery of form and illusion.

"It is as though there is an eye at the end of my pencil, which tries, independently of my personal general-purpose eye, to penetrate a kind of obscuring veil or thickness."
Bridget Riley

Preparatory Drawings

Before diving directly into her canvases, Riley engaged in an exhaustive preparatory phase. This step wasn't just about sketching a rough draft. It was about evolution and refinement. As she explored her ideas in these drawings, she allowed them to change, adapt, and mature. This process in particular was instrumental in her science of seeing and developing meticulously thought-out compositions. These preparations were her playground, where she could experiment with the balance between form and illusion, ensuring that when an observer looked at her finished canvas, they were met with a harmonious blend of precision and perceptual play.

Her interests in the optical effects of colour and line led her to study the works of Hermann von Helmholtz, who explored the psychological aspects of vision. Studies about how the brain perceives visual information as a whole rather than as individual parts is a concept reflected in Riley's use of repetition and pattern to create visual effects. By exploring the science of seeing, Riley created a body of work that remains both visually captivating and intellectually engaging.

Mathematical Formulas

Riley's art, though deeply rooted in perception and illusion, wasn't devoid of logic. In fact, she frequently used mathematical formulas to plot points on her canvas. This wasn't about reducing art to mere numbers but ensuring a precise geometry. This technique ensured that every line, curve, and shape was positioned with intent. Each mark on her canvas was the outcome of a deliberate calculation, guaranteeing its role in the overall illusion. Such a methodical approach allowed her to master the balance between spontaneity and precision, making her works mathematically sound yet aesthetically profound.

What influenced Bridget Riley optical illusions?

Riley's early exposure to the landscapes of Cornwall during her childhood influenced her appreciation for nature's patterns and rhythms. This sensitivity to the world’s ebbs and flows would later be echoed in the patterns of her works. From an artistic perspective, the Modernist movement, with its focus on abstraction and breaking away from traditional forms, played a role in shaping Riley's direction. Her admiration for Georges Seurat, the pointillist master, is evident in her attention to detail and the use of dots to create larger visual narratives.

Additionally, the scientific explorations into perception, repetition and visual phenomena during the mid-20th century played a crucial role. These scientific inquiries into how the human eye perceives motion and depth resonated with Riley, influencing her to push the limits of static art into the dynamic realm of optical illusion.

Bridget Riley's Experiments and Inventions

Pulsating Stripes

One of the cornerstones of Riley's artistic journey is her signature "Riley Stripe." Through carefully juxtaposed parallel colours, in Stripes, Riley orchestrated a series that seemed to be alive — vibrating, shimmering, and moving. This wasn't just about placing lines next to each other but about comprehending and leveraging the interplay of colours to induce captivating optical phenomena.

Curves that Dance

While linear patterns dominated Riley's early works, she soon ventured into the world of curves, experimenting with concentric circles and sinuous waves. Most visible in her Dominance suite, these forms, with their inherent sense of continuity and flow, brought forth artworks that seemed to spiral and swirl, beckoning viewers into a visual vortex of movement. In monochromatic compositions like Fragment 5, Riley employs curves not for their inherent shape, but as a tool to create a sense of height. These curved elements, by manipulating spatial perceptions, add an additional layer of depth, creating new dynamics in her compositions.

Building Tension with Diagonals

Riley's exploration of diagonals introduced a new dynamic to her portfolio. By slanting lines and patterns, she created works like Fragment 3 that gave viewers a sense of teetering imbalance. These tilted compositions stir up sensations of unrest, making the static canvas appear in perpetual motion.

Crafting Depth and Dimension through Gradients

Delving further into her colour experimentation, Riley began to play with gradients. Beautifully executed in Nineteen Greys, Riley masterfully transitions between the spectrum of grey with tones that appear to be metallic alongside shades of blue, black, and white. In this collection, she not only showcased her understanding of colour theory but also crafted illusions of depth, making two-dimensional canvases exude a tangible three-dimensionality.

"Far removed from Riley’s monochromatic origins, Riley’s Lozenge works sees the abstract artist at her most confident with colour."
Jasper Tordoff, MyArtBroker

Vibrant Lozenges

Within the Lozenges series, Riley's Red Red Blue stands out as a testament to her mastery over colour dynamics. The artwork spotlights interlocking planes of red, pink, and blue set against a stark white canvas. These abstract central shapes, carefully arranged, introduce a kinetic quality to the piece, exemplifying the series' commitment to optical experimentation and Riley's play with form and hue.

Creating Illusions with Waves

Riley's Waves transforms the static canvas with illusionary ripples. Using a softer blend of mixed hues, she amplifies the sense of motion. Her rhythmic lines and systematic colour sequences create an integrated visual field.

Bridget Riley's Impact on Op Art and Beyond

Bridget Riley's influence on the Op Art movement is indisputable. As one of the pioneering figures, her groundbreaking explorations have not only defined the essence of Op Art but have also left an indelible mark on the broader art world. Riley's ingenious blend of mathematical precision with artistic intuition revolutionised how artists approached optical illusion. Through her patterns and rhythmic sequences, she showcased the limitless potential of static artwork to evoke dynamic sensations. This transformative approach inspired a generation of artists to approach visual perception, propelling Op Art to global prominence.

Beyond Op Art, Riley's influence permeates various art disciplines. Her emphasis on viewer engagement and interactive experience reshaped contemporary art's landscape, emphasising art's capability to be not just observed but viscerally experienced. Her interdisciplinary approach, bridging art with science and psychology, has also been a beacon for artists venturing outside traditional norms. This holistic perspective has encouraged collaborations between artists, scientists, and thinkers, fostering an environment of innovation and exploration.

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