top of page
  • Writer's pictureAlessia Stokes

"Those lying eyes..."

Most will recognise Vermeer's, "Girl with a Pearl Earring", but is there actually a pearl earring there? Despite what your eyes tell you, there isn't. What is there, is a very cleverly placed small teardrop of white paint, not nearly big enough to make that large pearl earring. Why then, do we "see" an earring? The simple answer is that your brain is lying to you, but for a very important reason. It doesn't waste energy on information that it doesn't view as important, thereby making visual shortcuts. (There is a fantastic TEDEd video - "How optical illusions trick your brain", that explains how this works; the link is at the end of the blog). It is this "lying" that your brain does, that allows artists to manipulate a 2D image into what appears to be a 3D image, and sometimes even make you believe something is moving, when really it isn't.

"Optical illusion art, or Op Art for short, is an aesthetic style that intentionally exploits that oddity of human perception that gives the human eye the ability to deceive the human brain. By manipulating patterns, shapes, colors, materials and forms, Op Artists strive to create phenomena that fool the eye, confusing viewers into seeing more than what is actually there. And since belief can be as influential as fact, Op Art asks the question of what matters more: perception or truth." (Phillip Barcio -

While a painter like Vermeer was not being an 'op artist' in the 17th century, he was making use of light and shade to trick the eye into "seeing" what wasn't there. Before we get to the 1960s, when Op Art was at its height, there were a few things that paved the way for art that tricks the eyes. The French have a word that literally means, "deceives the eye" or "trompe l'oeil". It's purpose is to "trick the viewer into thinking that what they see is the real thing." (R.Cumming - Art, a visual history") A lovely example of this is the 1874 painting "Escaping Criticism", (how about that for a title! - Image 3) by Pere Borrell dell Caso. In this case, hyper-realism tricks the eye. The next step towards Op Art, was "Pointillism".

George Seurat, in the late 1800s, was the progenitor of Pointillism - or optical mixing, "painting separate dots of pure colour on the canvas which mix and vibrate in the eye and are intended to give the sensation of light itself." (R.Cumming) This technique allowed the image to "emerge" when viewed from a distance. Tragically, although becoming a master of this method, he died at 31 from meningitis. This new idea of how the eyes perceive, inspired other movements in art - Divisionism, a similar concept to Pointillism, where the eye "mixes" pure colours alongside each other, and 4D planes Cubism, (I must admit, the maths behind 4D gets lost on me) - which is the idea of "showing all of the possible viewpoints of a person or an object all at once." (

Like most concepts in life, an idea is like the branches of a tree, connected but moving slightly away from a central point. Thus, with diverging from ideas in the past, we finally get to Op Art - building on all these previous notions, that the eye can be fooled, and that the perception of something can be more powerful than what is actually there. In the 1940s, Hungarian artist Victor Vasarely began devoting himself to the concept of Op Art. In fact, you see one of his works every day on the road, the logo for Renault. "In 1972, Renault commissioned Vasarely to design a new logo, a project the artist undertook with his son Yvaral. The transformed logo kept the diamond shape, but with clean, dynamic, angular lines. This logo remained in use until 1992 and is still considered as a source of inspiration for the brand logo today." ( He looked intently at colour theory, perception and illusion. Initially, black and white worked best to apply these abstract principles. The results are quite remarkable - the perception of movement and dimension. However by the 1960s "his colour burst out with variety and brilliance unparalleled in his career." (H.H Arnason - A History of Modern Art)

Another artist to become synonymous with Op Art from the 1960s is Bridget Riley. Directly inspired by Vasarely, she works mostly in black and white and different values of grey and geometric abstraction. "Riley was so successful in creating optical illusions in her work that viewers sometimes reported experiencing feelings of sea sickness or motion sickness when looking at her paintings. This phenomenon fascinated Riley, who became convinced that the line between perception and reality is indeed quite fragile, and that a belief caused by an illusion could actually manifest real consequences in the physical world." (P. Barcio) When she does use colours, they are very carefully chosen in order for them to interplay with each other, such as is the case with her painting "Late Morning". It deals with the "effects of the warm and cold tones on white. This interaction creates an impression of pale yellow light radiating from the centre of the canvas" (Tate Gallery).

As was brought out in my blog "That's not art!", art is not just there to be something pretty to hang on our walls. It is also about evoking emotion, or challenging the way we perceive or think about the world around us. Op Art is a great vehicle for both the artist and the viewer to have their perception turned on it's head. Some have criticised the flagrant commercialism of Op Art. During the 60s, many of Vasarely's and Riley's works found their way onto mugs, t-shirts and the like. However, to these artists, that perhaps was part of the point of their work, "that there should be no barrier between people and art, and that whatever barriers seem to exist only exist in our perception." (P.Barcio)

Whether you love it, hate it or are just indifferent, something has still taken place - your lying eyes have proved that indeed much of life, is nothing but perception.

Find out more:


  • How optical illusions trick your brain -

  • Victor Vasarely's optical art -

  • Bridget Riley: The Art of Perception -


  • Bridget Riley interview with Vogue -

Picture Credits:

  1. Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1660-61 - Jan Vermeer

  2. Close up of Pearl Earring - Jan Vermeer

  3. Escaping Criticism, 1874 - Pere Borrell dell Caso

  4. A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte, 1884-6 - George Seurat

  5. Close up of Sunday Afternoon - George Seurat

  6. Zebra, 1950 - Victor Vasarely

  7. OND-DVA, ? - Victor Vasarely

  8. Renault logo, 1972 - Victor Vasarely

  9. Pause, 1961 - Bridget Riley

  10. Late Morning, 1967-8 - Bridget Riley

47 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page