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Early Bridget Riley works to go on show

Fifteen life-drawings reveal origins of op art founder's later abstract work

Bridget Riley is known as the founder of the op art movement, the queen of austere stripes and rigorously abstract experiments in form and structure.

So it is something of a surprise to find that as a young artist, she was dedicated to drawing from life – and it is 15 of these beautiful works, some of which look almost as if they could have been made in Renaissance Italy, that go on display for the first time at the National Portrait Gallery next month.

It was in 1961 that she abandoned figuration for her abstract works, initially in black and white only, moving on to using colour in the late 1960s. But, according to Paul Moorhouse, 20th-century curator at the National Portrait Gallery, the figurative works contain the seeds of her later abstract work. "People think of her in terms of op-art – squares and circles and curves – and they think it doesn't have a connection with the outside world. But in a wider sense, all her work has its roots in observation, in the world, in people.

"Abstraction for her was not a break; it was the culmination of the disciplines she learned at the outset, of hundreds of hours working on the human form."

He said "an obsession with structure" is detectable in the pencil portraits as much as the later abstract works, and that in her figurative work one can see "a progressive distillation and paring down" so that she starts to use "tone and line as things in themselves, and begins to focus on pure expression and structure rather than just using the pencil to describe".

Riley has said of the life-drawings: "I learnt to look for the structure, for the action or movement of the pose, the distribution of weight, the proportion of the body, the light-to-dark tonal scale. But the most important thing was to retain the first impressions of the whole.

"To this day this particular knowledge forms the basis of everything I do in the studio." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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