The Matter of Colour

Leon Phillips – Vancouver CANADA

Leon Phillips - The Matter of Colour

Loopy no. 15 | oil on canvas over wood panel | 60 x 48″ | 2017


My work explores the materiality of colour. I set up colour-gesture situations that allow the physical nature of my tools and materials to express themselves to create paintings where colour is structural rather than decorative. In pursuing a material-based logic, I see myself as a facilitator in the studio working co-operatively with non-human agents to provoke embodied, perceptual experience.

My body, brushes, pigments, paints and surfaces are all material components of a colour delivery system. My brushes are not inert tools but a dynamic medium through which the pigment is transmitted. I work with new material technology, such as contemporary brushes, to produce paintings that are drawn colour and a choreographic record of my body’s movement.

Identifying the differences between organic and inorganic pigments has revealed to me material qualities of colour, such as pigment particle size, oil content, and opacity. Until this realization, I had only considered colour in terms of its visual aspects of hue, chroma and value; now, my colour ontology includes material qualities essential in achieving a contemporary light in my paintings.

My exploration into materiality has led me to question issues such as Western culture’s attitudes towards colour, the historical debate regarding drawing versus colour (disegno versus colore), new ideas about materialism, and binary oppositions. Working with the materiality of colour has prompted me to consider all of the non-human elements in my practice in a new and equitable way to produce images that challenge Cartesian dualisms and mechanistic models for being.


works in oil, on canvas, over wood panel


Leon Phillips is a Canadian artist who lives and works on the traditional Indigenous lands of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations now known as Vancouver, British Columbia. He is originally from Saskatchewan where he grew up on a farm. He holds a Bachelor of Arts (cum laude, University of Saskatchewan) and a Bachelor of Environmental Studies (School of Architecture, University of Waterloo).

Phillips’ work has had solo exhibitions in a number of public galleries, including the Two Rivers Gallery (Prince George), the Yukon Arts Centre (Whitehorse), and the Maple Leaf Gallery (Canadian Consulate General, Chicago). In 2013, his work and writing was featured in the international journal Cultural Politics. He is a member of the Art File Gallery at The Painting Center in New York.

Phillips has been awarded grants from the Vermont Studio Center, the British Columbia Arts Council, and the Canada Council for the Arts. He has attended a number of international residencies: the Vermont Studio Center (2018), the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (2019), and the Banff Centre for Arts And Creativity (2020).

In 2021, Phillips participated in the 17th International Painting Symposium “Mark Rothko 2021” at the Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Centre (Latvia) where he produced and presented work, was included in a group exhibition at the museum (with printed catalogue) and had five paintings accepted into the museum’s permanent collection. A video interview was produced by the Center in which Phillips discusses his interests in the materiality of colour and chromophobia. 


An Interview with Leon Phillips

What do you mean by the materiality of colour?

When I think about colour, I’m really thinking about pigment. It’s the whole material aspect of colour that gets left out of the equation because typically, colour is thought of in terms of hue, value or chroma.

When I’m making decisions about colour, I’m thinking about the material body of the pigment, its opacity and weight.

What something looks like as a colour label on a tube of paint is only the beginning. Once you squeeze it out, it’s about how it feels, the weight of it, how it breaks down, how it goes on. How are the pigment properties activated in different mediums such as watercolour? gouache? oil? Each medium changes the refractive index of the colour.

A lot of the pigments invented in the 20th century are quite powerful – like the phthalos and the napthols. One that’s really strong is PR 170, a napthol red. It’s the neon-like pinks I’m getting in my gouache paintings. It is very lightfast, which neons are not. I call it ‘the demon pigment’. I joke that you need an exorcist to get the pigment out of your brushes. It’s really powerful.

Pigment has visual and material agency. You have to respect your pigments.

What do you mean when you say your brushes are a dynamic medium?

After I stopped doing pour paintings, I started using a brush. I had to learn a lot and realized how important the brush is for my practice.

What I’m looking for is the uptake of paint and the distribution of colour to get an extended gesture. I’ll try a number of different brushes before I find the brush that I want and work with that specifically for a series. For example, with my oil paintings I needed a big, flat bristle brush to hold the paint.

What would happen is that I’d dip my brush in the paint, walk to the canvas, and go to make a gesture – but not enough paint was left on the brush. A lot of it had fallen on the floor. The brush wasn’t holding the paint.

Then I discovered Maestro brushes by Da Vinci. They soak up the colour and hold it so it can get to the canvas and be deployed on the surface.

Da Vinci developed a technology called Duroplus for their big brushes. A brush has three parts: the bristle, the metal ferule which clamps the bristles, and the wooden handle. Da Vinci came up with this new technology in the last four or five years: a double ferrule that strengthens the brush for longer life.

There’s something about Da Vinci brushes and the way they chisel the tips. They’re just beautiful.

What do you mean by an embodied experience?

When I’m making my work, I’m not making by only looking and thinking. I’m working it through my body and using the intelligence in my body.

The traditional way of viewing tools and materials is that the artist is the subject, the centre of things, and the canvas is a screen to project onto. If you start thinking about your tools having agency on par with yourself, then it becomes about allowing them to have voice and allowing them to be expressed.

It becomes less about you as the subject and more about this exchange going on between the subject and the object – there’s give and take. You’re talking to the objects, your tools and materials, and they’re talking back to you and they’re telling you what they need to be, what they need to say.

I see my materials as dynamic. They’re like beings in the world. They’re not human, but we interact. We have this exchange and my labour is part of that exchange. The brushes are an extension of my sensory system. They’re not just an inert tool. My body, brushes and paints are part of a colour delivery system.

I’m thinking about art as an embodied experience. We see with our whole body, not just with our eyes and mind.

View a video of Leon discussing his process here.

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