Color that MOVES!
For Grades 6–12
Table of Contents
(British, born 1931)
Acrylic on linen
40 1/4 x 38 1/4 inches (102.2 x 97.2 cm)
Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery
Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1975
- Become familiar with a work of art by Bridget Riley
- Learn about the optics of complementary colors
- Use complementary colors to create an artwork that evokes optical effects
- The Long Curve Presentation
- White paper
- Acrylic, tempera paint, or colored markers
- Quality paintbrushes
- Surfaces such as paper palette or small cups for color mixing
About Bridget Riley
Bridget Riley exhibited as an Op artist in the 1960s after studying art and painting in England in the 1950s and early 1960s. Op art was the name given to a group of artists in the 1960s who were interested in the science of optics—how our brains respond to color, lines, and shapes, and allow us to see. Op artists often created strong optical effects, including optical illusions, in their work. They felt that although their images were very abstract they were was also very democratic and that all viewers would theoretically see the same thing. For Riley’s earliest work, she limited herself to black and white, and the effects were dizzying. Commercial enterprises appropriated her work in fabric and clothes without her permission; when she hired a lawyer she discovered there were no laws protecting artists’ claims to copyrights for their creations, which inspired other New York artists to begin the fight for copyright protection.
Eventually, Riley began to add gray to her compositions. In 1967 she began to use color, an element which had frustrated her during her time as an art student. When you look closely at Sequel for a period of time, the whole painting begins to move. A closer look reveals that the wide beige and gray stripes and the narrower blue ones remain the same width from the top of the canvas to the bottom, while the red and green stripes vary. Some people see colors other than the ones just mentioned and are surprised to find they are not actually painted on the canvas.
Riley was inspired by famous painters from art history, including Georges Seurat, a late-nineteenth-century painter who also explored the science of vision in his paintings; Eugene Delacroix, a mid-nineteenth-century painter who is known for his focus on color; and others who were experts at guiding the viewer’s eye through a work of art to create the illusion of movement. Riley also says her paintings are both inspired by nature and relate to nature in the way they are experienced. She has commented, “the eye can travel over the surface in a way parallel to the way it moves over nature. It should feel caressed, soothed, experience frictions and ruptures, glide, and drift.”
About the Optics of Complementary Colors
After viewing slides 11 through 16 on complementary colors in The Long Curve Presentation, you may wonder: why an after-image? The color receptors, called cones, in the retinas of our eyes, work in pairs: red/green and blue/yellow. Scattered among the dark/light receptors called rods, they are more concentrated in the areas that make up the center of our vision. When our eyes are exposed to red for a prolonged period, the red receptors that are being stimulated become fatigued. To give the red receptors a chance to rest, the opposite receptors—green receptors—begin to fire, and the perceived result is called an after-image. Everyone has seen an after-image after they were exposed to the blinding flash of a camera—it stays even after you close your eyes! The after-image is always complementary to, or opposite of, the color that tired the receptors. Since PowerPoint works with colored light and not pigments, the primary colors of light are red, yellow, and green, and the major complements are red and cyan, green and magenta, and yellow and blue. In the case of the colored pigments used in painting, the primary colors are red, blue, and yellow. The basic complementary colors are colors opposite each other on a modern color wheel for pigments—red and green, blue and orange, and yellow and purple. If you mix two perfect complementary paint colors, you will get gray paint.
When you look for an extended period at a painting that uses complementary colors, the after-image effect you saw on the white space in the slide exercise takes place while you’re still gazing at the painting, making the colors of the painting intensify and even appear to change. As you move your eyes around the painting, more after-images are generated and more color-intensifying effects occur. This is called successive contrast. It happens all the time when you look at paintings, but you’re not usually aware of it. Sequel is, in part, about successive contrast and after-image, but you can only get this by understanding the science and spending some time with this very colorful painting.
For the Classroom Teacher
Have the students draw, with pencil, a pattern of stripes that repeats itself. Try to keep the width of the stripes and the number of stripes in the pattern consistent using rulers to mark off the stripe locations on the top and bottom of a page, then using a ruler to connect the marks. Have them choose complementary colors and alternate colors for all of the stripes. When the painting is dry, students can draw on additional stripes that change from top to bottom as Bridget Riley’s red and green stripes do in Sequel. Choose new colors and paint the new stripes as carefully as possible. Put the works up and see what kinds of optical effects the students experience.
Have each student draw his or her pattern on additional equal-sized papers, varying the orientation—for example two papers could have vertical stripes, one could have horizontal stripes, and one could have diagonal stripes. Let the students figure out how they could reproduce their pattern in a diagonal orientation. One solution would be to use a ruler to mark the stripes out on the edge of the page, but in order for the pattern to be accurate, they would really need to think carefully about how to do that. Another way would be to lay one of the other drawings on the paper diagonally, make guide marks for the stripes, and use a ruler to draw the diagonal stripes. These pages could be painted as in the original exercise or with different complementary color pairs for each drawing. A lot of discovery about visual effects will take place while the students are painting! Encourage them to experiment with their colors, or even to use black and white. Exhibit the finished drawings together in a grid.
For the Art Teacher
Teach your students about value, hue, and saturation. Have them practice selecting complements by mixing a color, looking at the color wheel, and placing it as best they can in the wheel. The colors opposite the selected color on the color wheel will give an approximation of the color they are looking for. A way to test if a color is on the right track is to mix the colors they have chosen as complements and see how close it is to gray (in theory, two perfect complements mixed together will yield gray). Then have them paint works like those above using their “discovered” complements.
Discussion for High School Students
The Op artists believed that their art was democratic—that it would be experienced similarly by everyone. Do your students agree or disagree? Have them give their arguments for why or why not. If Op art is not democratic art—art for everyone—what is? And what is non-democratic art?
- New York State Learning Standards for the Arts (Visual Arts, including the museum visit) 1, 2, 3, 4
- New York State Learning Standard for Math, Science, and Technology 4
- New York State Learning Standard for Social Studies 5 (for the discussion for high school students)
- College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading 1, 2, 8
- College and Career Readiness Anchor Standard for Speaking and Listening 2
Audio for Younger Students
Audio for High School Students
The Long Curve: 150 Years of Visionary Collecting at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery
November 4, 2011–March 4, 2012