Encyclopedia of Color Science and Technology

2016 Edition
| Editors: Ming Ronnier Luo

Optical Art

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-8071-7_241



Optical art (or op art) was an art movement that emerged in the mid-twentieth century as an extension of the pop and conceptual art movements. It exploits the mechanics of human visual perception to create imagery in the viewer’s mind. Op artists used line, shape, flat planes of color, and a two-dimensional format to create works that appear three dimensional and occasionally convey a sense of movement.


Optical or op art emerged as an extension of the pop art and conceptual art movements, both of which represented the transition from modernism to postmodernism, during the middle of the twentieth century. From a theoretical perspective, modernism rejected the accepted and established art forms but eventually became formulaic, prescriptive, and predictable, while in response, postmodernism became characterized by a more pluralistic, eclectic, diverse, and somewhat more unpredictable approach to art.

Op art “exploits the workings of perception to create a virtual reality in the viewer’s mind” ([1], p. 178). Op artists aimed to create optical illusions using line, flat planes of color, and a two-dimensional format to create works that appear three dimensional and occasionally convey a sense of movement. Characterized by an emphasis on geometry, simple forms, and a strategic color  palette (often black and white), op art also represented “geometric precision, emblematic not only of the Space Age but… (also the) technological revolution” of the 1960s ([2], p. 73). Color and light–dark contrast are dominant visual elements in op art and used strategically to create three-dimensional visual illusions from two-dimensional formats. In addition, the strategic use of color was also used to create a sense of movement across the canvas, and in this way, op art paintings represent outcomes that are more than the sum of their parts in terms of paint on canvas.

Although she does not like the title “op art,” Bridget Riley’s works are closely associated with this movement as well as “the spirit of the mid-sixties”; and Victor Vasarely’s works are also closely aligned with the op art movement ([2], p. 72).

Victor Vasarely (1906–1997)

Op art works by Hungarian-French artist Victor Vasarely feature the illusion of three dimensionality, and this is achieved by the strategic placement of geometric shapes, color, and contrast upon the canvas. Vasarely first started to experiment with optical patterns in the 1930s and his works were included in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition: The Responsive Eye. This exhibition, which also included works by Bridget Riley, featured works that which were considered “less as objects to be examined than as generators of responses in the eye and mind of the viewer” ([3], p. 1). The works included in this exhibition featured works that used optical illusions, simultaneous contrast, and afterimages to produce “new kinds of subjective experiences” ([3], p. 1). As a prolific painter, key works by Vasarely include Vega Nor (1969), Vega III (1957), and Marc Positive (1968) (Fig. 1).
Optical Art, Fig. 1

Works by Victor Vasarely

Bridget Riley (Born 1931)

Works by English painter Bridget Riley feature the illusion of three dimensionality, and this is achieved by the careful placement of variations in shape as well as color or light–dark contrast. In addition, Riley’s works often feature a sense of movement, and this is achieved by the strategic placement of color around the canvas, causing the viewer’s eye to be drawn from dominant colors and contrasts around the canvas. Figure 2 features Riley’s Movement in Squares (1961), Hesitate (1964, Tate), and Nataraja (2000, Tate).
Optical Art, Fig. 2

Works by Bridget Riley

The art movements of op art as well as minimalism and pop art had a strong influence on popular culture as well as many areas of applied design in the late 1950s and 1960s [4, 5, 6, 7, 8]. Design output by Mary Quant, André Courreges, Pierre Cardin, and Terence Conran and firms such as Marimekko are imbued with design characteristics drawn from op art and pop art. In addition, op art influenced graphic design at the time as evidenced by the International Wool Secretariat logo by Francesco Saroglia (1965).

Informative videos about op art include:



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    MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, New York): MoMA press release – the responsive eye. http://www.moma.org/pdfs/docs/press_archives/3439/releases/MOMA_1965_0015_14.pdf?2010 (1965). Accessed 10 Mar 2010
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    Garner, P.: Sixties Design. Taschen, Koln (1996)Google Scholar
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    Glancey, J.: Modern: A Portfolio of Contemporary Interior Design Styles. Mitchell Beazley, London (2000)Google Scholar
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    Sparke, P.: A Century of Design: Design Pioneers of the 20th Century. Mitchell Beazley, London (1998)Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Architecture, Design and PlanningUniversity of SydneySydneyAustralia