Interviews with Artists

Liz West

Interview by David McLeavy

Published February 2016


Liz West utilises light and colour to produce breathtaking artwork of varying scales. With both large scale public commissions and smaller gallery exhibitions to her name, West manages to mix the intimate with the monumental and the subtle with the eye catching.


Your work predominantly focuses on light as it’s subject matter and I am interested to know why this is and if it was something your work has always centered around?

Most of my earliest memories as a child were of discovering the world in a sensory capacity. I was attracted to objects, land and city scapes, spaces and fashion that were made of vibrant colours, the brightest tones and hues and of strong saturation.

Your Colour Perception, site-specific Installation (T8 fluorescent bulbs, cellulose gels), 2015

I remember being mightily impressed by one of my mum's collegues electric blue nail enamel at the age of 8 (I had never seen that colour on nails before), I recall enjoying driving down roads canopied with rich green summer leaves creating dappled sunlight on the asphalt, I loved the early morning glimmers of the rising sun reflecting onto the brown North Sea whilst having a pre-breakfast swim on my British holidays, I was hooked on pop music because of the use of shimmering sequins and vivid stage clothes of my favourite pop stars, I often admired the stained glass in front door especially when the sun aligned and created coloured reflections on the white washed hallway. All these memories, first loves and attractions all had one thing in common; the use of colour and light together. Light is an entirety that my whole life has centered around, not just my work. I notice even the slightest light changes during the daytime, which affect my emotions and psychology drastically. Given that light quality is central to my understanding of the world and well-being, when I chose to become an artist there was little doubt that the use of light and colour would eventually creep into the process, presentation and concept.

I believe that understanding of colour can only be realised through the presence of light. I use light as a tool, controlling the amount, shape, form, size, colour, strength and quality of it to fill architectural spaces or fabricated structures which immerse the viewer in a rich, saturated environment. My colour palette is the neon luminous hues created using industrial manufacture. For me, the two mediums of colour and light are inextricably connected. I am not attracted to surface colour like I am to luminous colour, hence not being a traditional painter. Subjective mixtures of colours are core to my understanding of colour and have helped shape the backbone of my practice, but it is my ongoing investigations into additive mixtures that inspire my work.

Through No.3, installation (Steel, polycarbonate, optically clear vinyl), 2015

For many artists, especially when they are beginning to form themselves and their interests, focusing on one particular interest can feel restrictive in some way, with the potential to leading to a stale and predictable outcome. However you have managed to take the subject matter of colour and light and reinvent you work on a regular basis. How do you continue to do this and where/are you ever worried that your work may run into a dead end?

It took me a long time to pin down exactly what I was interested in within the realm of colour and the material of light. Now I am sure and excited about my subject I can research through my practice and by living it. My work and ideas feed into my lifestyle on a daily basis; this allows me to never become bored and always be finding out about my own perception and sensibilities as well as tuning into other people's.

Both light and colour are wide in their outreach and ability to transform, perceive, deceive, illuminate and optically challenge myself and my viewers. There are so many possibilities to create using light as a medium, I never feel restricted, maybe because I don't see myself as a light artist! I see myself as a visual artist - a label which suggests a bigger toolbox and wider palette of materials. I have never been afraid of testing all kinds of materials, I enjoy discovering their potential and possibility, this just happens to include variants of bulbs and lighting methods and technologies. Maintaining an open mindset is possibly why I have managed to reinvent my work regularly, purely because I think less about the bulb and more about space in which we inhabit.

The variants of how you can use light are vast and overreaching meaning that I should never halt or come to a dead end with my ideas. New spaces bring new ideas, this is one reason why I enjoy working site specifically.

I like what you say about being more interested in the site rather than the bulb, which brings me on to my next question. More recently you have been working on a larger scale for many public commissions and large scale exhibitions. Was this something you had always though about when making smaller works earlier on in your career or has it been something which has come about naturally?

In the past my ideas have always outstretched my budget, resources, skills and available space. I found this hugely frustrating, as I knew that if I ever did get the chance to realise any or all of my ideas, they could be overwhelming, sensory, immersive and emotive as encounters, which is what I wanted.

Vanishing Boundaries, installation (T9 circular fluorescent bulbs, mirror, extension cables), 2013

When I was making smaller works, I was using what I had available and being resourceful as well as trying to depict my ideas and interests through the means and spaces I was offered or found. I hoped that I would have the opportunity to prove my ability in order to fulfill my more ambitious concepts. Up to just a year ago, most of the shows I was taking part in were group exhibitions that required smaller works to fit in and around other artists work.

When I contacted Castlefield Gallery about using the whole of one of the 10,000 sq ft floors of their New Art Space Federation House building in January 2015, I knew I was taking a risk, would probably exhaust myself and was possibly throwing myself open to a lot of criticism - the work I had in mind was either going to fail miserably or be an instant success. I had tested what I wanted to achieve on a smaller scale on a lower floor where Mark Devereux Projects was based and knew what I had planned was a monumental undertaking, especially as I was installing it by myself in just 3 days.

Your Colour Perception, site-specific Installation (T8 fluorescent bulbs, cellulose gels), 2015

At the time I was making smaller works, I was only being offered opportunities that fit with that scale. As soon as I made larger works (at my own cost and vulnerability - Your Colour Perception), I began to be offered opportunities to work on that same level, scale and will larger budgets elsewhere. I could have talked forever to people about things I wanted to make, but without hard proof, they seemed reluctant to take a risk and commission or show that idea - what if it didn't work, for example.

I still make smaller works, but they are maquettes for commissions and (technical) drawings or concept-based works-on-paper that often relate to installations I go on to make. I would also like to develop smaller works that still have the power of my larger works.

An Additive Mix, light installation (T8 fluorescent bulbs, cellulose gels, polycarbonate sleeves, mirror, wood, metal frame), 2015

What would you say is the work that you are most proud of producing? Also what other artists that interest you and inform your work?

There isn't any one particular work that I am most proud of producing. I am proud of what I have been able to achieve and make especially within the past 12 months. I would find it easier to answer a question about which works I am not proud of (the ones that don't make it to my website portfolio but which I have spoken about on my a-n blog https://www.a-n.co.uk/blogs/between-the-eye-and-the-object). I have certain works that I am more fond and proud of than others - mostly because they have either inspired another work/s or because I have developed them into works that have enabled me exciting opportunities. Working mainly site-specifically means that, for me, I am proud of the work when it is in situ, when it connects and responds to the architecture, space and atmosphere of a place, but not so much when it is taken out of context.

The work of artists who use the mediums of colour and light in combination have interested, resonated and influenced me the most, these works have had a direct effect on the scale, ambition and form of my work. Robert Irwin, Dan Flavin, James Turrell, Carlos Cruz-Diez, David Batchelor, Ann Veronica Janssens, Anthony McCall and Olafur Eliasson; these are just a few of the artists who particularly inspire me. Of all the artists, for me J. M. W. Turner remains the father of light art.

It may be a question that you are regularly asked, but how do you feel working outside of London has had an influence on your work?

I do not feel working outside London has an influence on my work at all. From a very young age, I have visited London and seen and been inspired by some amazing exhibitions that I have been privileged to see there. At the moment I am spending a lot of time there as I am working on a major commission for a museum in South Kensington (can't say which one yet - will be announced soon) and have received one of ten Bursary Awards from the Royal British Society of Sculptors so attend meetings there regularly.

An Additive Mix, light installation (T8 fluorescent bulbs, cellulose gels, polycarbonate sleeves, mirror, wood, metal frame), 2015

I enjoy working outside of London, being able to dip in and out of it as I please works for me. I have lived and worked in Sheffield, Glasgow and Manchester and have been very lucky to gain support for my work within these cities without the need to be in London, yet I have exhibited there many times. I know for sure that I could not afford to make my living as a full-time practicing artist if I lived in London as I simply would not be able to afford it without the necessity for a part-time job to support my work.

Shifting Luminosity, installation (LEDs and plastic pipes), 2014


Liz West lives and works in Manchester. Recent public works and exhibitions include Through No.3, Spinningfields, Manchester, An Additive Mix, National Media Museum, Bradford, Zenith Blue + Primary Red, ARCADECARDIFF, Cardiff and The Light Room - Your Colour Perception, The Willis Museum, Basingstoke

If you like this why not read our interview with Aidan Myers


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