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By Phil Oates on

Liz West lights up our lives with ‘An Additive Mix’

We commissioned Liz West to create a brand new piece for our Light Fantastic exhibition. As she was preparing the immersive experience of light and infinity mirrors, we managed to grab a quick 5 minutes with Liz to chat about her practice.
Artist Liz West pictured in her Manchester studio © National Media Museum
Artist Liz West pictured in her Manchester studio © Science Museum Group

Q: 2015 is the UNESCO International Year of Light—what did you think when you heard that 12 months were going to be dedicated to this subject?

Liz: I remember hearing the announcement in 2014 and I did think that would be incredibly exciting for me and my art practice because there would hopefully be opportunities to present my work and ideas. With Light Art being somewhat of a niche, I thought the International Year of Light would offer up opportunities for artists like myself who work with this medium and give us a platform.

Q: How did you go about developing this new work?

Liz: The brief emphasised a ‘wow factor’ and the desire to leave a lasting impression with audiences. I initially thought, ‘how do I do that?’, but when I stepped back I realised the art I’ve been making for the past five years offers those things, so my starting point was ‘how do I make the best work I can possibly make?’ I started thinking about what materials I would use, the different light sources, but one of my biggest concerns was making something that was aesthetically stunning. I started thinking about arrangements, thinking about what was going to be displayed in the rest of the gallery, imagining myself as a viewer coming into the experience, thinking about what I’d want to see upon entering it. Would I want to be overwhelmed or excited or like I was being treated to a surprise I’d just stumbled upon? I liked playing on all those emotions.

I started taping up all my different colour filters to the windows in my studio and thought about the colours that really offered saturate strength. Some were quite pastel, or muted, but for this work it had to be an arrangement of strong colours that were more vivid within the spectrum. I think that’s one of the signatures within my practice and within my work. Lee Filters offer 300 colours to choose from, so that opened up the selection – to create white light there has to be a balanced mix of all colours. I have designed An Additve Mix to be an overwhelming, intense, immersive experience.

Liz West - An Additive Mixture, 2013 © Liz West
Liz West’s An Additive Mix, 2013 © Science Museum Group

Q: Can you explain what an ‘additive mixture’ is?

Liz: The artist and teacher Joseph Albers wrote a very comprehensive study on colour called Interaction of Colour in 1963. He describes that there are two types of colour mixtures—subjective colour mixtures and additive mixtures. Subjective mixtures are created when you mix all colours together in pigment (such as paint or dye) and additive mixtures are mixes of colour in light.  When you mix all colours together in pigment it creates a muddy brown, but when you mix all colour together in light it makes white light—which I find incredible. It is Joseph Albers’ book which inspired the concept for this work.

Q: You’ve explored the theme of additive mixtures in previous works. What marks this one out?

Liz: An Additive Mix is using scale in a way that has never been explored in this series before (it features a 10m x 5m ‘room’ and hundreds of lights). Previous works have been site-specific explorations and responses, whereas this one is building a complete set—almost like a theatre set—in which I can implement all of my aesthetic decisions or judgements. I’m building a room within a room, so that means I can say how big I want it, how many bulbs within it. I feel every decision in this piece has been carefully controlled and formulated. On the other hand, I love working in response to a specific site—I think it offers up challenges and I love a challenge. However this new work is bringing together components of successful previous works on a whole new scale and in a way that I think fits Light Fantastic incredibly well.

Artist Liz West working in her Manchester studio © National Media Museum
Artist Liz West working in her Manchester studio © Science Museum Group

Q: How much art is influenced by science—is it an unusual combination?

Liz: I don’t think anything is original any more. Deciding to be an artist in the 21st century is a really difficult thing to do because so much has gone before you, and certainly art and science have been put together for hundreds of years—Leonardo da Vinci, for example, famously made very scientific drawings that were considered art.

There are current artists combining the two disciplines, like Olafur Eliasson who made the Weather Project at Tate Modern. People like him are inspirations for me as they use science and art on a large scale. What I’m adding to the field is my own interest and voice in colour science and colour theory because I haven’t seen the specific elements that fascinate me being made into visual artworks before.


Liz West has spent the past five years creating artworks that combine light and colour to spectacular effect. Excited by her previous works, we have commissioned Liz to create a brand new piece for our Light Fantastic exhibition. Her creation, An Additive Mix, offers an intense, playful and immersive experience, combining hundreds of coloured lights and infinity mirrors.

Light Fantastic: Adventures in the Science of Light runs from 18 July – 1 November 2015 in Galleries One and Two at the Museum.

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