On the Colour Couch with artist, Liz West

little book of colour on the colour couch with artist liz west

Back in 2016, I went to the Natural History Museum to see their ‘Colour and Vision’ exhibition which explored the evolution and diversity of colour in the animal world. And this is where I first came across Liz West’s colourful work as she was commissioned to create an immersive light installation to accompany the exhibition.

Having followed her work and meeting her briefly at Clerkenwell Design Week in 2019, she’s been on my ‘wish list’ to interview ever since. Chatting to Liz, we realised we had a mutual admiration for each other’s work and how we never take for granted that we get to do what we love every day.

 I hope you enjoy reading Liz’s colourful journey as much as I enjoyed chatting to her. For my regular On the Colour Couch readers, you’ll notice there are a couple of extra questions too.

What is your earliest colour memory?

I have loads because I am constantly taking in everything that’s around me. I’m hypersensitive, and I also have something called hyperphantasia, which means I have a really hyper imagination. I can see things very clearly in my mind’s eye. I can walk through invented spaces, smells, feel the feelings, everything.

My earliest colour memory would have been when I was maybe 2 or 3 years old. It’s probably food related when I think about it. Because even though I love colour, I would only eat beige things. Anything that was another colour would frighten me. I was too scared to eat it. You eat with your eyes. I’ve still never eaten a banana or broccoli.

Other more visual colour memories would be being taken to Southwold in Suffolk, England, every year as a child and walking up and down the promenade and seeing all the different coloured beach huts.

I was hyper aware of my world, and I digested it and I took it in and I remembered it.

What does colour mean to you?

Colour is my entire world. Not only is it my career, but it’s a kind of lifestyle. I guess when I was 7 or 8 years old, my way of playing would be to organise things in colour order.

I would buy nail varnish in all the colours just so I could have the bottles arranged in the colour spectral order, and it would be arranged along my windowsill in my bedroom. I didn’t want to have any pieces missing of that jigsaw, whether that was nail vanish, sweets or pens or card.

Anything would be organized rigidly in my colour order. And that hasn’t changed over my nearly 40 years of life.

Interestingly, I live in a house painted white with these pops of colour, which is inevitably artwork, whether it’s my own or other people’s. But it means that when I go shopping, I get headaches because it’s just such a noisy place for me. The outside world is a very noisy place visually.

Do you have a favourite colour or a colour that you find yourself constantly drawn to? And why?

I would always say I love all the colours, especially when all the colours are together.

I’m trying to move away from always making spectral things, but I am drawn to it so much. And that obviously comes from my childhood as well and what I was attracted to then.

My ideas don’t necessarily need to be in the spectral order, generally all the colours are mixed up in my mind and then put back together in a systematic order.

I have had phases of my life whereby I’ve been attracted to one particular colour, this has been emphasised through my work, I made an installation for my degree show which was just yellow. I’ve done a lot of research into different colours and how we perceive them, what they say and what they might do to different people. Yellow is such a welcoming, warm and happy colour even though it can also be used as a warning sign.

However, I love wearing orange, and I find my husband wearing a lot of orange too. I feel that maybe living in the northern hemisphere, especially in the North of England, orange is a contrast to our grey skies.

What do you think your life would be like without colour?

How do I answer that? It would be joyless, boring and dull.

I’d like to work closely with someone who has colour blindness or synaesthesia or is blind. What is their experience of the world like? How do they imagine colour?

I remember as a child looking at filmic footage in black and white and thinking, oh God, is that what the world was like?

For anyone afraid of colour what would your number 1 piece of advice be? 

Step into it.

I’ve had this David Bowie quote on my mind “Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”

I have had to force myself into that zone or willingly put myself in that zone where you are still safe.

People need to do that more with colour.

There are so many people that are afraid of using colour, and people talk about being afraid to use colour in their home. I totally understand that feeling because I don’t want to paint feature walls bright colours. No thanks.

I find people are still very scared of stepping into art galleries. If only they could have more experience of colour. Maybe this is why colour in the public realm is so important because it’s free and it places people in the centre of what colour is about.

Our urban world is made from concrete, glass, and steel, and it’s boring, and it’s grey. There’s no wonder people are afraid of colour, whether that’s using it in how they dress, in their homes, or the experiences of it. I think people should try and push themselves out of their comfort zone. 

Which leads perfectly onto an extra question I had for you, why do you think your installations are so popular around the world? What do you think people are getting or needing from colour?

People need colour. They might be afraid of it, but we need it because it’s joyful. And I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m being invited to make so many pieces of work is because our world is depleted of colour.

The feedback I’ve had from people encountering my pieces is that the work elicits wellness, calmness, meditative feelings, that it’s joyful; especially when used in the way I use it, which is taking colour then mixing, combining, threading and weaving it. I’m using colour within parameters of structure, whether that be in pattern or in very linear ways.

How did you get into doing installations? All the artwork that you’ve done or anything creative, why these large-scale installations?

I was very lucky to be taken to museums and galleries as a child with Mum and Dad both being artists. I knew what I liked pretty early on, and I liked work that was immersive that you could enter into and were immersed visually. I enjoyed that feeling. Perhaps that was to do with the sensory overstimulation in my personality.

I felt very calm and happy within those types of artworks. When I became an artist myself, I wanted people to experience my work in that same way.

When I began in my final year at Art School, I started making immersive environments, and I knew that I had finally got there – this is what I wanted to do.

Which colourful person do you most admire and would love me to interview for the On the Colour Couch series?

It would be absolutely amazing if you could interview British Painter, Bridget Riley. She’s gone through a monochrome phase, and she has worked with colour. She is intuitive and experienced with colour.

Isn’t it fascinating to see looking back, that Liz’s career path had already begun when she was putting her nail polish bottles, her pencils, whatever she had into colour order. Looking back at your own childhood, is there something that you instinctively did creatively that hinted at your future passions or career?

If you would like to discover more about Liz West, head over to her Instagram @lizweststudio.

Wishing you a colourful day,

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