I have to build up a bank of visual information first – about colours, forms, proportions, directions, etc. This is the essential basis to my work

This room focuses on Riley’s working methods and illuminates the process by which her paintings are made, from first ideas to final execution. It contains a selection of preparatory studies relating to paintings made at different stages in her career, from the early 1960s to recent works. 

Detailed preparation is an essential part of Riley’s art. Although the exact nature of this preparation varies according to the particular requirements of individual works, certain phases are common to the development of all her paintings. Riley begins with what she describes as ‘hunch’ about the shape (or unit) that will form the basis of a painting. She may also have some initial feeling about the way this unit can be developed. The purpose of all subsequent preparation is to investigate the energy, or visual potential, latent in particular shapes and configurations, with a view to both liberating and harnessing that energy.

Pacing a unit’ as she has described it, refers to the subsequent trial and error process, in the form of exacting studies, during which a particular shape or colour sequence is subjected to exploration and manipulation. During this phase, different approaches will be tried out and rejected and a rich bank of visual information amassed. As Riley has frequently pointed out, she has never studied optics. Also, though her calculations are precise, they are arrived at intuitively rather than by sophisticated mathematics, being confined to ‘equalising, halving, quartering and simple progressions.

Such deliberations determine the scale and proportion of the individual shapes and colours within the total image. This leads to the painting and cutting of pieces of paper to be used in collages prior to full-scale painted cartoons, which in turn precedes the execution of each canvas, a final stage entrusted to assistants. This division of labour is significant. The immaculate, though anonymous, surfaces of the paintings eliminates artistic handling, emphasising instead their content which Riley alone has pre-determined. ‘It seems to me’, she has observed, ‘that it is in making the decisions – rejecting and accepting, altering and revising – that an artist’s deeper, real personality comes through.’