Bridget Riley: From Life, National Portrait Gallery, London

3.00

Faces of a young op artist

Bridget Riley is known for those intense paintings of colour and pattern that zip, swim and sing before your eyes. Flashing stripes, circles, triangles and ellipses that fool the eye into thinking that there are moving shapes on the canvas. Sometimes the strobing effect is so intense, you might have to look away. Often lumbered with the awkward mantle "op artist", this painter, now in her seventies, is one who has devoted her artistic life to understanding what might be termed "the eye's mind"; how form, colour and vision move us and excite us, and how the eye travels in an image. Such popular appeal did Riley's paintings have in the 1960s that copies of them made their way (much to the artist's chagrin) on to mini-dresses and curtains. While Riley's paintings of this kind are well known, just opened in a room in the National Portrait Gallery are some of her little-known sketches. The display comprises a few of Riley's portraits, drawn from life, made while she was a student at Goldsmiths college in the 1950s. On smudgy paper, worked and worried, sketchy faces of the artist's friends and family appear out of the page, often accompanied by a little cartoon or a preliminary sketch.

Riley has previously spoken about the way in which life drawing was at the root of her practice. In the same way that looking at a Titian or a Seurat taught her about the underlying structure of colour and the way that colour moves the eye, understanding the human figure taught her to see the forms underlying the image. She spent a lot of time in the drawing room in the British Museum, studying Rembrandt, Raphael and Ingres.

But what makes these portraits Riley's? The first thing is the sense of the bodies in space and their repose. Even though we only see glimmers of faces, Riley's rendering of these faces gives us a strong sense of where the rest of their body is, and how it lies. Louise Asleep is such a gentle image, shading on a woman's face and neck that, with light strokes, combines the restful softness of sleep in face and body. It's an entire composition yet we only see a glimpse.

The second thing you might recognise is a focus on the eyes and where her subjects are looking. Young Girl depicts a young, stubborn face, square jaw jutting and eyes looking, headstrong, into the distance. Older Woman Looking Down, however, is a sketch from the mid-1950s of a woman with a sharp face and sharp haircut. Both have begun to sag and her expression is soft. The depiction of ageing is somehow unbearably sad, because it is so mild, and the woman's downcast glance is elegant and resigned.

While these sketches offer an unexpected route into Riley's later work, it's hard to get her great paintings out of your mind. For those just getting to know Riley's work, I'd recommended looking at those paintings, the results of years of experiment and understanding, which surprise me nearly every time I see them. Her portrait drawings seen here are only the beginning.



To 5 December ( www.npg.org.uk )

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'