Bridget Riley was born in 1931 in London. Her childhood was spent in Cornwall and Lincolnshire. She studied at Goldsmiths College from 1949 to 1952, and at the Royal College of Art from 1952 to 1955.
She began painting figure subjects in a semi-impressionist manner, then changed to pointillism around 1958, mainly producing landscapes. In 1960 she evolved a style in which she explored the dynamic potentialities of optical phenomena. These so-called ‘Op-art’ pieces, produce a disorienting physical effect on the eye.
Riley’s mature style, developed during the 1960s, was influenced by a number of sources. It was during this time that Riley began to paint the black and white works for which she is best known. They present a great variety of geometric forms that produce sensations of movement or colour. In the early 1960s, her works were said to induce sensation in viewers as varied as seasick and sky diving. From 1961 to 1964 she worked with the contrast of black and white, occasionally introducing tonal scales of grey. Her paintings have, since 1961, been executed by assistants from her own endlessly edited studies.
Riley began investigating colour in 1967, the year in which she produced her first stripe painting.
Following a major retrospective in the early 1970s, Riley began travelling extensively. After a trip to Egypt in the early 1980s, where she was inspired by colourful hieroglyphic decoration, Riley began to explore colour and contrast. In some works, lines of colour are used to created a shimmering effect, while in others the canvas is filled with tessellating patterns. Typical of these later colourful works is Shadow Play.
In many works since this period, Riley has employed others to paint the pieces, while she concentrates on the actual design of her work. Some are titled after particular dates, others after specific locations (for instance, Les Bassacs, the village in the south of France where Riley has a studio).
Following a visit to Egypt in 1980–81 Riley created colours in what she called her ‘Egyptian palette’ and produced works such as the Ka and Ra series, which capture the spirit of the country, ancient and modern, and reflect the colours of the Egyptian landscape. Invoking the sensorial memory of her travels, the paintings produced between 1980 and 1985 exhibit Riley’s free reconstruction of the restricted chromatic palette discovered abroad. In 1983 for the first time in fifteen years, Riley returned to Venice to once again study the paintings that form the basis of European colourism. Towards the end of the 1980s Riley’s work underwent a dramatic change with the reintroduction of the diagonal in the form of a sequence of parallelograms used to disrupt and animate the vertical stripes that had characterized her previous paintings.In Delos (1983), for example, blue, turquoise, and emerald hues alternate with rich yellows, reds and white.
Riley has exhibited widely since her first solo show in 1962. Among numerous exhibitions, she was included in the 1968 Venice Biennial where she won the International Prize for painting.