Research point: Optical effects

Research point – Optical effects have been used by many artists to create movement and depict the effects of light. The Impressionists / Post-impressionists and Neo-impressionists – in particular the Pointillists Seurat and Signac –  made full use of the new understanding of the nature of human perception. Find out what you can about these artists’ aims and study their pictures to see how they achieved effects such as optical mixing. Look also at the work of Bridget Riley or the Op artists make notes in your learning log.

Colour theory in practice


Renoir, The Skiff (La Yole), 1875

In Renoir’s The Skiff  an orange boat is placed against cobalt blue water. These are opposite (complementary) colours on Chevreul’s colour wheel and as a result they appear deeper and more vibrant than they would if used in combination with different colours.

What a lovely picture, the vibrant contrast draws the viewer to the boat and the ladies. I guess they have to row the boat themselves as the gentleman are all too busy with their paintbrushes and scientific colour theories!


Monet Detail from Monet, Bathers at La Grenouillère, 1869

The impressionists explored how the human mind processes what it sees.  When we look at  scene we do not instantly see every detail in focus, we see a mass of colour and light as in Monet’s Bathers at La Grenouillère. This impressionistic view is so very different to what the lens of a camera sees.

This is I believe what my tutor is talking about when she says screw up your eyes and look at areas of light and shade and blocks of colour – in a way it is about seeing less but enabling what you see to have more impact. I can’t imagine that there is a detailed underdrawing for the Bathers – I should think Monet went straight in, quickly taking in the scene before the light changed and drew with his brush. Note to self: do more drawing with the brush and stop being so fussy about detail!

Post impressionists

A generation of artists responded to impressionism including Paul Gauguin (1848–1903),  Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), and the eldest of the group, Paul Cézanne (1839–1906). These artists, often working independently, are today called Post-impressionists although  they did not view themselves as part of a collective movement at the time.


Sacred Spring: Sweet Dreams (Nave nave moe), 1894

Gaugin it seems to me was an absolute master of colour and his work vividly demonstrates the impact of complementary colours. Sometimes hes uses them very boldly and sometimes in a more subtle way and this picture is somewhere in between. However, despite his talent for colour, I’m not sure that I can entirely forgive him for virtually abandoning his wife and four children to seek creative freedom on a Polynesian Island (Tahiti). I therefore feel  compelled to very prudishly point out that while his scenes and colours are captivating, his figure work is sometimes quite poor. This and his mesmerising use of colour are the impressions I took away with me after visiting an exhibition of Gauguin’s work at Tate Modern in 2011.


Irises, Vincent Van Gogh, 1890

Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, 1888

Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, Vincent Van Gogh 1888









Now I can appreciate the fact that some of Van Gogh’s most striking paintings are using a limited palette of complementary colours such as those pictured above. I find the impact of this very appealing. The cafe picture in particular is about using colour to express feeling and emotion rather than as a literal interpretation – the lively orange glow of the lit windows contrasts with the deep, shadowy nighttime blue. The great thing about these research projects is that I’m beginning to understand more about why some iconic works of art are held in high regard and how they have contributed to the development of art.

Post impressionists/Neo-impressionists

I explored  the work of Neo-impressionists Seurat and Signac in an earlier research exercise on Chevreul’s colour theory  and so I have reread that and reminded myself of how Seurat painted with individual dots of colour (pointillism) and Signac with small tiles of colour which the viewer’s eye mixes together when standing back a suitable distance from the canvas.

Bridget Riley (born 1931) and Op Art


1965 Catalogue cover for MoMA’s defining OpArt exhibition featuring the work of Riley and Vasarely

I feel a bit sea sick after spending some time looking at the work of Bridget Riley – but I expect this kind of disturbance to one’s sense of equilibrium is the intent behind the work. It is interesting that  the illusion of movement happens even when looking at the work on screen. Maybe it is the additional intensity of a back-lit screen that is making me feel more than a bit peculiar. It would be interesting to see her work for real and experience the difference. I must remember to take a look next time I go to Tate Modern.

Riley began painting figure subjects in a semi-impressionist manner, then changed to pointillism around 1958, mainly producing landscapes. In 1960  she started to develop her signature Op Art pieces. which produce a disorienting effect on the eye. Her earlier work took the form of ‘landscapes’ and was in black and white. She started to introduce colour around 1967. Her stripe paintings use lines of colour to produce a shimmering effect. I’m finding this difficult to see online but it is clearly colour theory at work and the result of complementary colours used side by side.

Riley’s expanded Egyptian colour palette (which moved beyond the three colours she had restricted herself to) is to my eye are is quite similar (although more intense) to the colours used by Matisse …no doubt because they were led by an understanding of how complementary colours work. I am only just beginning to appreciate the full implication of Chevreul’s work to develop the colour wheel – truly a milestone in art history.

Here are some links (for copyright reasons) to a chronological selection of Riley’s paintings:

1964: Hesitate Riley described this black and white painting featuring a curve created from dots as like a landscape. It is interesting to contrast this with Pause (private collection) which she described as a figure.

1972-3  Cantus Firmus – a stripe painting – notice how the greys vary in intensity of tone depending on their position. Riley’s colour work was all  about how the viewer would perceived more variations in tone and colour than were actually used on the canvas.

1981 Achæan Riley’s bolder, more colourful Egyptian palette used in a stripe painting.

1993: Nataraja … to quote the “Tate website …an exemplary diagonal stripe painting. The surface is divided vertically and diagonally, creating a multiplicity of discrete areas of colour. The complexity of the colour relationships is formidable. Many of the colours exist in as many as twenty different shades. The position of each of these elements has been carefully judged in terms of correspondence, contrast and proportion.” So much more to this than might initially meet the eye!

There’s an interesting web feature here – – which takes a look at Riley’s career progression throughout the ups and downs of her life. Well worth reading as it illustrates the influence of pointillist Seurat in her early landscapes and is informative on the development of her style and colour palette. Also good on the different emotional responses Riley was aiming to achieve, e.g. the Curve paintings (using wavy lines)  are relatively quiet and peaceful even though vision is still disrupted.

Other Op Artists

I enjoyed reading about several other artists on uk including:

Victor Vasarely 1906-1997 (Hungarian-French) described as the “Father of Op Art”

Richard Anuszkiewicz, American born 1930
I’m interested in making something romantic out of a very, very mechanistic geometry. Geometry and color represent to me an idealized, classical place that’s very clear and very pure.”
He was influenced by Josef Albers artist and Bauhaus educator who I briefly wrote about in my research into Chevreul.
So much to learn and so little time to do it in!


National Gallery:*/viewPage/3

Hermitage Museum: /

Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Tate Modern:

Colour vision and art:


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