Op art was a major development of painting in the 1960s that used geometric forms to create optical effects

Bridget Riley, 'Fragment 5/8' 1965
Bridget Riley
Fragment 5/8 1965
Screenprint on perspex
© 2006 Bridget Riley. All rights reserved.

Introduction to op art

The effects created by op art ranged from the subtle, to the disturbing and disorienting.

Op painting used a framework of purely geometric forms as the basis for its effects and also drew on colour theory and the physiology and psychology of perception. Leading figures were Bridget Riley, Jesus Rafael Soto, and Victor Vasarely. Vasarely was one of the originators of op art. Soto’s work often involves mobile elements and points up the close connection between kinetic and op art.

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Further reading

The Twentieth Century: Light and Movement
Find out how abstract artists in the 1960s began to explore light and movement in order to create optical effects, in this online guide to a 2007 survey of twentieth century art from Tate’s collection displayed at Tate Liverpool.

Beyond the easel
To coincide with Tate’s 2012 display Gallery One, New Vision Centre, Signals, Indica, which included a selection of op art bought by Tate from galleries in the 1960s and 1970s, Tate Etc. interviewed op artist artist Carlos Cruz Diez.

In focus: Bridget Riley

Bridget Riley, 'Hesitate' 1964
Bridget Riley
Hesitate 1964
Oil on canvas
support: 1067 x 1124 mm
frame: 1155 x 1100 x 54 mm
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1985© 2006 Bridget Riley. All rights reserved.

Riley broke the old-fashioned rules about what you are supposed to do in an abstract painting: she punched holes in the picture space and, in doing so, made a painting which puts the viewer in the middle of the experience.
Fiona Rae, Bridget Riley’s Hesitate, Tate Etc. issue 28: Summer 2013

Bridget Riley, one of Britain’s most important abstract artists, came to prominence in the early 1960s. In her work she uses the complex visual sensations that colour and shape can create to explore fundamental ideas of perception.

Bridget Riley at Tate Britain
Discover the development of Bridget Riley’s painting in this in-depth online guide to Tate Britain’s 2003 major retrospective of the artist’s work.

Bridget Riley in Tate’s collection
See artworks by the artist in Tate’s collection.

Bridget Riley’s Hesitate 1964
Abstract artist Fiona Rae discusses why she is inspired by Bridget Riley’s 1964 work Hesitate in this Tate Etc. article.

Listen to Lawrence Sail reading his poetic response to Bridget Riley’s painting Metamorphosis 1964 (part of the same series of works as Hesitate).

Other perspectives

Where abstraction and comics collide
Forty years before op art emerged, abstract film maker Oscar Fischinger was using geometry, colour and light to create abstract films. Find out more about this forefather of op art in this Tate Etc. article.

Carlos Cruz-Diez Dazzle Ship 2014
Dazzle Ship by Carlos Cruz-Diez, 2014

Carlos Cruz-Diez’s dazzle ship is unveiled at Liverpool dock
In this Tate Etc. article, curator Stephanie Straine explores how abstract painting can play tricks on our perception, in the context of dazzle ships, a camouflage technique originally used in World War I with the aim of confusing the enemy.

Op art for kids

Bridget Riley, 'Fragment 2/10' 1965
Bridget Riley
Fragment 2/10 1965
© 2006 Bridget Riley. All rights reserved.

These blog posts are a fun and simple way to introduce op art to kids, whether in the classroom or at home.

What is op art?
…and why did op artists make works that made your eyes go funny? This blog post answers these questions and more.

Who is Bridget Riley?
This piece looks at looks at Riley’s famous works and the woman behind these strange optical illusions. 

Related glossary terms

Abstract art, minimalism, kinetic art, neo-geo