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What is Op Art?

Op Art is short for 'optical art' and describes a style of art that developed in the early 1960s. Op artists are interested in how our eyes read an image. They experiment with abstract geometric shapes and patterns to explore a range of perceptual phenomena including dazzling, afterimages and the illusion of movement. They also experiment with creating 3D effects on 2D surfaces – such as the impression of warping and swelling.

Op artists often use black and white or complementary colours as highly contrasting colours maximise the effects that confuse and stimulate our vision.

Gespenstische Gestalt

Gespenstische Gestalt c.1963

Jeffrey Steele (1931–2021)

Walker Art Gallery

Popularity and influence

Op Art reached its peak in 1965 with an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The exhibition, called 'The Responsive Eye', included work by Bridget Riley. The exhibition was extremely popular with the public and sold out on the first day that tickets went on sale.

As a movement, Op Art captured the public's imagination. With its combination of art and science, it seemed to reflect the spirit of modern society in the 1960s.

It had a huge influence on 1960s design, media and fashion. Patterns inspired by Op Art appeared on posters, clothing, wallpaper and textiles.

Discussion activity: first impressions

Introduce Op Art to your students, using the artworks in the carousel below. (To find out more about the artworks click the images to view the artwork page.)

You could ask students:

  • what are your first impressions of Op Art? What does it look like?
  • what words would you use to describe the artworks?
  • describe the shapes, patterns and colours the artists have used.

Who is Bridget Riley?

'No painter, dead or alive, has ever made us more aware of our eyes than Bridget Riley.' – Robert Melville, 1971

Bridget Riley (b.1931) burst onto the art scene in the early 1960s with a series of black-and-white, abstract, geometric paintings. Her work focuses on perception – how we look and see. Rather than presenting the viewer with a realistic image of a subject from the visible world, she uses abstraction to create a perceptual interaction with the viewer.

She was the first British contemporary artist and the first woman to win the International Prize for Painting at the Venice Biennale in 1968.

Bridget Riley

Bridget Riley 1963

Ida Kar (1908–1974)

National Portrait Gallery, London

Riley had a traditional art education and learned drawing and painting skills, such as how to use tone and shadow to realistically render her subjects. She began her art career painting scenes of people and landscapes.

Woman at a Tea-Table

Woman at a Tea-Table

Bridget Riley (b.1931)

The Ingram Collection of Modern British and Contemporary Art

Seurat and Pointillism

Bridget Riley was interested in the history of painting. She was particularly interested in the Post-Impressionist paintings of artist Georges Seurat

Bridge at Courbevoie

Bridge at Courbevoie 1886–1887

Georges Seurat (1859–1891)

The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust)

Seurat had researched the colour theories of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to invent a painting technique called Pointillism.

Coming out of Impressionism, Pointillism involved the application of thousands of separate dots of pure colour. Close-up Seurat's paintings look abstract, but when you stand back and look, the colours merge together to create a recognisable image.

Study for 'A Sunday on the Island of La Grand Jatte': Couple Walking

Study for 'A Sunday on the Island of La Grand Jatte': Couple Walking

Georges Seurat (1859–1891)

The Fitzwilliam Museum

Through making copies of Georges Seurat's paintings and analysing his technique, Riley learnt about how perception works and how colours can be used to create optical effects.

'I learned from Seurat this important thing about colour and light, that a 'light' can be built from colour. I learnt a great deal about interaction, that 'a blue' in different parts (the same, blue) will play all sorts of different roles.' – Bridget Riley

Early abstraction

In the early 1960s, Riley turned away from painting representational subjects to abstraction. She painted pared-down, minimal compositions in black, white and grey, experimenting intensively with shape, tone and pattern. She used simple forms – circles, lines, curves and squares. Although minimal, she wanted her paintings to have movement and dynamism.


Fugitive 1962

Bridget Riley (b.1931)

National Trust, 2 Willow Road


In the late 1960s, Riley introduced colour into her paintings. She did this in small steps, carefully choosing just two, three or four colours, and examining the relationship between them.

If you look at Riley's coloured paintings for long enough, the few colours generate other colours – and what we see might differ from someone standing next to us, as we all see colours differently. 

Rise I

Rise I 1968

Bridget Riley (b.1931)

Sheffield Museums

Technique and process

Riley hand mixes all of the paints she uses so that she can control the exact tone and intensity of the colours. Her paintings are painted by hand – without masking tape! (Her large-scale paintings from the 1970s onwards were painted with the help of a team of assistants.)

Preparatory drawings

Before making a painting, Riley makes small studies to experiment with colour, shape and composition and work out how to create the effects that she wants. When she is happy with the study, she makes a full-size preparatory drawing on paper (called a cartoon) and paints her final painting from this.

Study for 'Sultan'

Study for 'Sultan' 1983

Bridget Riley (b.1931)

Harris Museum, Art Gallery & Library

Watch this video to find out more about Bridget Riley's drawings:

Explore artworks by Bridget Riley

Visit the artist's page on Art UK to explore more artworks by Bridget Riley.

Discussion activity: optical illusions

Discuss the two paintings below as a class. You could start by discussing first impressions, using these nudge questions if helpful:

  • what is your first response to the paintings?
  • how would you describe the paintings? (Imagine you are describing the paintings to someone who hasn't seen them!)
  • Bridget Riley wanted her paintings to appear dynamic, do you think she has achieved this?

Formal elements

Now for each painting look closely and analyse the formal elements:

  • What colours has Bridget Riley used?
  • How has she used shape, line and composition to create the effect of movement?
  • Think about her painting technique. How has she applied the paint? What sort of brushstrokes do you think she used? (Quick and gestural or slow and careful?)

Teacher notes


Riley has used lots of closely spaced, black, wavy lines to make this painting. By repeating the lines and carefully spacing them, the single lines become a wave-like pattern.

The pattern makes the flat surface of the painting look three-dimensional – it looks as if it is undulating.


Fall 1963

Bridget Riley (b.1931)


The waves of the lines are more extreme and closer together towards the bottom of the page. This gives the impression of collapsing downwards – an impression that is echoed in the title of the artwork.


Hesitate is composed of rows of hundreds of dots.

At the bottom of the painting, the dots are round but at a point around three-quarters of the way up the painting, Riley distorted the dots, flattening them into ovals, and then very narrow ovals! (The dots become so narrow that they appear like tiny slits.) This makes it look as if the dots are receding. She then undoes this process, enlarging the dots gradually so they look as if they are coming towards us and flattening out.


Hesitate 1964

Bridget Riley (b.1931)


As well as playing with the shape of the dots to give the impression of warping of the surface of the canvas, Riley also experiments with colour and tone. The black dots fade to grey and then pale grey. This creates the effect of a highlight and makes the surface appear almost shiny.

Brushstrokes and surface

Riley used tiny, careful brushstrokes to paint these paintings.

If she had used quick and gestural brushstrokes – as were used by Abstract Expressionist painters in the 1950s and 1960s – the paintings would have looked very different. The surfaces of the paintings would be textured and effects of optical illusion would have been lost. The movement and dynamism would have been created by the brushstrokes and gestural marks rather than by the shapes, lines and patterns.

Discussion activity: colour and rhythm

In the late 1990s, Bridget Riley began to make large-scale paintings using curved blocks of colour.

Red Movement

Red Movement 2005

Bridget Riley (b.1931)

Southampton City Art Gallery

Look at and discuss this painting as a class, using these nudge questions if helpful:

  • how is this painting different from Hesitate and Fall – the paintings that we looked at earlier?
  • is the pattern a random pattern or do you think it is organised?
  • can you see diagonal lines within the pattern?
  • describe the colours and shapes Riley has used. Do they remind you of anything?
  • what effect do you think Riley is trying to achieve with the painting?

Teacher notes: about the painting

Rather than creating an optical illusion of depth or dynamic movement, Riley has used shape and colour to explore a sense of order and rhythm. There is also a suggestion of gentle undulating movement in the direction of the shapes. (This is a painting to contemplate rather than be confused or startled by!)

To create the composition she used an underlying grid of verticals and diagonals on which the shapes are arranged.

Although this painting isn't directly representational, it suggests shapes and rhythms from the natural world. The curved shapes remind us of leaves or petals. This sense of gentle movement suggests the regular insistent movement of ocean waves.

Nature is an important inspiration for Riley (as can be seen in the titles of many of her paintings, such as Sea Cloud and To a Summer's Day). As a child during the Second World War, she lived in Cornwall, and she has spoken about how the shapes and colours of the Cornish landscape made a lasting impression on her. She recalls lying in a shallow pool and seeing the colours of the seaweed and anemones and a reflection from the cliff above:

'The mixture of all colours that you could perceive laying one upon another … generated an extraordinary after-image'.

The sense of movement in the painting also suggests music and dance. The simple, repeated shapes and undulating rhythm are perhaps reminiscent of Henri Matisse's cutout paintings of dancing figures or shapes from nature.

The Dancer

The Dancer (from the Prints for Schools) 1949

Henri Matisse (1869–1954)

Pallant House Gallery

Art activity: make an Op Art drawing or painting

You will need:

  • Pencil
  • Ruler
  • Paper (to draw on)
  • Felt-tip pens or crayons
  • Acrylic or gouache paint (optional)

Watch and discover

In this video, award-winning art teacher, Andria Zafirakou shows you how to create your own Bridget Riley-inspired Op Art drawings using simple materials.

Use coloured pencils or gouache paint rather than felt pens if you prefer. Or have a go at scaling up this activity onto a larger piece of thick paper or card, and use acrylic paint to create an Op Art painting.

Teacher notes: development ideas

Encourage students to explore other ways of using simple lines and shapes to create an Op Art artwork.

  • How else could they space the lines?
  • How could they use dots or other shapes?
  • Think about using image editing tools on a computer to warp or manipulate shapes.

They could also experiment with colours – using three or four colours and arranging them in different ways.

  • Try using complementary colours to maximise the optical effect!
  • Or use analogous colours (colours that sit next to each other on a colour wheel) to create a sense of harmony – as we see in Bridget Riley's later works that are inspired by nature.

Winter Palace

Winter Palace 1981

Bridget Riley (b.1931)

Leeds Museums and Galleries

Art activity: make a paper rhythm collage

You will need:

  • Coloured paper (this can be recycled or scrap paper)
  • Scissors
  • Glue
  • A larger sheet of paper for the background

Activity outline

Since the 1990s, Bridget Riley has often used repeated shapes, organised using a simple grid to create paintings that suggest a sense of rhythm and movement. The paintings reflect the inspiration of nature and music. Although painted, the flat shapes have a cut-out appearance.

Task students with designing and creating an abstract collage of simple, repeated shapes.

  • Like Riley, they could use the inspiration of shapes from nature for their collage, or shapes inspired by other aspects of the visible world (such as buildings or characters from games). Or they could use geometric shapes for their artwork.
  • Encourage them to experiment with how they repeat the shapes to create a sense of rhythm.
  • They should think about the effect that they want their collage to have on the viewer. Do they want their collage to have a dynamic and fast-paced rhythm, or a slower more contemplative one?
  • They should also think about how they can use colour to help put across the mood of their artwork.

Watch and be inspired!

This short video shows students creating a collage from coloured paper. It may help to provide some initial ideas for approaching this task.

Be inspired by abstract artworks that use repeated shapes to create a sense of rhythm, in the carousel below.

You could discuss the artworks as a class, using these questions to get the discussion going if helpful:

  • what shapes can you see?
  • do you think the artist abstracted shapes from the visible world (from nature or objects)?
  • how has the artist repeated the shapes to create a sense of rhythm?
  • how have they used colours? Are the colours bright or subtle? Have they repeated colours?
  • is the overall effect of the artwork dynamic or contemplative?


Development ideas

  • Create a lino or silkscreen print from the collages.
  • Or use them as the starting point for a textile design project.



Weavatouch 2014

Glynis Owen

Scarborough Museums and Galleries

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