One of the most common complaints against modern art is “my child could have painted that!” My work on Bridget Riley’s stripe paintings demonstrates that this does not stand up to scrutiny. Let me explain, first looking at the composition and then at the execution of the painting.
First, composition. Could a child compose a sequence of stripes that emulates Bridget Riley’s work? Elsewhere I have analysed the sequence of colours and the choice of colours in Bridget Riley’s stripe paintings. Her colour choice and her ordering of the stripes require a depth of artistic understanding that would evade many adults. It would be an extraordinary child who could come to that understanding without help. Riley needed training and experimentation to get to that understanding. First, she had natural talent, then she had extensive artistic training as a young adult, and finally she spent months experimenting with stripes to produce compositions with which she was happy. This is not to say that a child could not be taught to make good colour choices and to choose an ordering of stripes that creates the kinds of effects that Riley aimed for, but it would be a teaching based on extensive adult experience. So, yes, your child could compose a random sequence of stripes but, no, your child could not emulate the clever compositional choices made by Riley.
So then, even if a child could not get the sequence of stripes right, surely it is child’s play to execute a painting like Bridget Riley’s? At first glance, this seems obvious: just give the child the sequence of colours, the paints, a brush and a canvas and let her get on with it. But my experience is that it is not child’s play: it is not easy to make one of these stripe paintings. The photos show my attempt, as an untrained adult, to make a stripe painting. Compared to Riley’s 200cm x 200cm paintings, this is a small thing, just 30cm x 30cm. Nevertheless, it presented considerable challenges. First, the colours are wrong. Despite my carefully choosing colours that match Riley’s Egyptian palette, the final result is incorrect. The gold is too red, the turquoise is too dark, the black is purplish. While these colour shifts may not be a problem in, say, a landscape, Riley’s compositions depend on precise relationships between the colours, which I have failed to reproduce. Secondly, the colour is not uniform within a single stripe. My respect for Riley’s assistants has gone up considerably after finding how hard it is to get a uniform colour. This is not just a problem in Riley-like painting; Mondrian, for example, is known for leaving brushstrokes in his abstract paintings. Mondrian’s brushstrokes, however, are a model of subtlety compared to the mess I made. I gave it my best shot, but I lack the years of training and experience of these professional artists. Finally, the edges between the stripes are imperfect: there are spots of white canvas showing through, there is bleeding between the colours, there are incursions from one stripe into the next. Even with the aid of masking tape, it is remarkably hard to get those edges perfect. Riley’s edges are imperfect also, but at a much finer level, invisible from normal viewing distances. Riley’s compositions comprise around a hundred coloured stripes. An enormous effort went into getting one hundred edges perfectly straight over a two meter distance. So, an untrained child could not paint a Riley stripe painting, and neither can an untrained adult.
Picasso is reported to have said “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” While abstract art may look like a child’s early attempts, there is much more to it. The composition is not random and the execution is not straightforward; both are the product of an adult artist’s training and experience.
Reference: “Mathematical characterisation of Bridget Riley’s stripe paintings”, N. A. Dodgson, Journal of Mathematics and the Arts 62-3:89-106, ISSN 1751-3472, 1751-3480, available from http://www.neildodgson.com/pubs/index.html?showonly=art
Artwork produced using Windsor & Newton artists’ quality stretched cotton canvas, Daler-Rowney Cryla artists’ heavy body acrylic colour, Golden regular gel medium, Daler-Rowney Cryla brush C35 size 8, Hippo 24 mm masking tape.