A British Icon: The Life and Work of Bridget Riley

A British Icon: The Life and Work of Bridget Riley

British artist Bridget Riley has been creating art for over 70 years, becoming one of the most iconic painters of our time. Riley is known for her Op Art works, which involves using geometric forms and bright colors to create optical illusions. In this article we take a look at the life and work of this well-known artist, exploring some of her most famous paintings and analyzing what makes them so sought after by collectors worldwide.


A Life in Art: The Early Years

Born in London in 1931, Riley studied at the Cheltenham Ladies' College before moving to France to study art at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. After a year of study, she returned to London and enrolled at the Royal College of Art, where she met fellow artists Peter Blake and Frank Auerbach.


In 1955, Riley had her first solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, which showcased her early black-and-white paintings. These works were influenced by the work of German artist Hans Arp and American painters Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.


A Life in Art: The 1960s

Upon graduation in 1955 Riley initially worked as a graphic designer, during which time she met abstract artist Victor Pasmore who taught her how to paint with acrylics. This was also the period Riley began experimenting with abstract art and optical effects created by geometric shapes.



In 1960, Riley had a formative experience while looking at a painting by the Hungarian-French Op artist Victor Vasarely, which made her realize that "with just a few simple forms, I could create an infinite number of variations”.


This epiphany led to a series of black-and-white works in which concentric circles, stripes, and other shapes seem to vibrate and move as the viewer's gaze travelled across them.


In 1961, Riley created one of her famous works, "Movement in Squares”, the first piece in her Op Art series. Shortly after, she garnered international fame for her eye-popping compositions comprising overlapping colored squares set against a black background.


Movement in Squares (1961)


Five years later, Riley began experimenting with color, creating works like "Cataract 3”, in which stripes of contrasting hues seem to pulsate and flicker. These so-called "Colour Field" paintings were inspired (in part) by the work of American artist Barnett Newman. The use of contrasting colors in conjunction with the optical illusion created by the play of curves and straight lines in the work captivates the viewer from different perspectives.


Riley's early Op Art paintings were hugely successful and helped establish her as one of the leading figures of the Postwar Avant-Garde. In 1967, she represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, winning the International Prize for Painting.


In 1968, Riley had a major retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London, which cemented her reputation as one of the most influential artists of her generation.

A Life in Art: The 1980s – 21st Century

In the early 1980s, Riley suffered ill health, which forced her to take a break from painting. Around this time, she began gained an interest in printmaking and etching.


She also started to work on larger-scale commissions, such as a mural for London's Barbican Centre and a tapestry for the United Nations building in New York.


Royal Liverpool Installation, 1983


In the late 1990s, Riley returned to her roots with a series of black-and-white works that played with the viewer's sense of depth and perspective. These complex geometric compositions are often compared to works by the Dutch artist M.C. Escher, whose work also uses optical illusions to make impossible-to-perform actions seem possible.


Riley has also been awarded numerous prestigious prizes during this time, including the Order of Merit (2007). In 2014, she became the first living artist to have a solo exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Bridget Riley at the Hayward Gallery, 2019



Bridget Riley has been a mainstay in the art world for over 70 years, and for very good reason. Groundbreaking, influential and institutionally important, her output stands an inspiration to many, with her work continuing to challenge the viewer with its optical illusions and abstract designs.


To this day, Riley continues to push the boundaries of what art can be; her paintings are a testament to the power of creativity and imagination.