The queer uses of colour

This text looks to undo assumptions of creative individuals existing apart from dynamic material relations. Following a material ecocriticism ethos, it describes many simultaneous instances of materials affecting the narrative or meaning-making potential within human art practice, specifically in recounted moments from an artist residency taking place within collective gardens where plants were made into paints. In developing Sara Ahmed’s refrain of ‘use’ coming before, during or after relations, the creative tendency to find potential in pre-existing materials, using them differently, is proposed as a life-sustaining mode, like that of Margulis’ Serial Endosymbiosis Theory.

Nature speaks to other senses—to known, misunderstood, and unknown senses: so speaks she with herself and to us in a thousand modes.” -Goethe1

A woman goes into her garden to choose a flower to paint in her studio using watercolour paints and paper. She will spend hours and hours building up the layers of delicate tonal and colour shifts, recreating on her page the three dimensional petals, stamens and stems before her. She finds among her paints, mineral and synthetic pigments that match the light waves hitting her retina after hitting the surfaces of the flower.

Painting by Jill de Villafranca. Photo by Dominic Lacasse.

At the end she is happy that she has made a lasting impression of the fleeting beauty that would exist mere days in her garden, and shows her friends and admirers her successful reproduction. Throughout the process of painting her garden flower, an inaudible voice, more like a pressure from inside her body has been coursing. Although it seems evident why she is a nature painter- for the joy and sensual pleasure in observing in a slow manner her natural subjects- she asks herself what is really calling her, and if she can somehow get closer to its source.

Most of us take for granted that we are the gardeners, observers, care-takers and artists of nature. In this essay I question these assumptions by describing creative communities- and their instances as material optics, co-evolution and symbiosis, aesthetic lure, queer users and compound individuals- found in practices of art made with/by plants. The reasons for dispelling the illusion of independent creative means will, I hope, become evident as different images of co-creation wind their ways throughout this text.

In 1810 Goethe published his Theory of Colours, in which he describes in great detail the effects of light and its interactions with mediums, objects and the human eye. As Heather I. Sullivan points out in her essay ‘The Ecology of Colors’, Goethe’s treatise on colour consisted entirely of empirical notes- of descriptions of simple light experiments involving prisms, sunlight and his eyes, and of the consequent observations relayed in common language.  His aim in the publication being to “enrich and amplify this language [of Nature] by means of the theory of colours and the variety of their phenomena,” it conveys the directly observable material properties and their subtle variations in contrast, hue, brightness, etc.2 Thus he gives precedence to nature’s language as she “speaks and manifests her presence, her power, her pervading life and the vastness of her relations.”3 Sullivan writes that Goethe’s insistence on the material properties of colour phenomena and situated interactions betrays his own rigid humanism in which the human subject determines his experience. Goethe’s material optics prefigures what Sullivan calls the ecological posthumanism found in Jane Bennett and Karen Barad’s writing, wherein “[s]ensory perception is a concrete form of our ‘transcorporeality’ and is an embodiment of how our bodily boundaries directly incorporate parts of our material surroundings.”4 This refocusing on light moving across bodies undoes the idea that experiences are located in individuals but instead found, as Barad finds them, within relations, which “precede individualized things encountering each other.”5 Sara Ahmed also foregrounds relations over users in her writings on ‘use’ when she says, “the for is before.”6 The eye which receives light waves grew out of the need to detect light in motion. With an attention to light transfer and the perception of colour in the human being, Sullivan after Goethe signals a collective process of dynamic informational exchange before even appealing to more commonly cited posthuman agencies in their biotic forms.

Student exercises on colour mixing and observation from a botanical illustration workshop given by the author.

The gardens are laid on top of inert gravel on an old train yard, about a foot or two of garden soil and compost, straw and recycled wood chips. The tree-shorn property occupying the site of once industrial grounds, when you walk out of the temporary shade structures, the light is pervasive and feels aggressive to photophobic eyes lacking dark pigments. Some eyes evolved under trees and speckled light. Goethe writes how the eye seeks counter-action to strong effects, and in this pioneer community of low-lying plants (nitrogen fixers, opportunistic weeds, and sown vegetables), hot yellow light bouncing off sunflowers, tansy and goldenrod, I’m wanting for greens, blues and violets overhead and all around. A bit of shade in which a broader range of species may share more long-term relationships.

Gardens of Coopérative Bioma on Campus MIL, Tiohtià:ke (Montréal).

Evolutionary theories of colour vision speculate that female primates are highly sensitive to subtle variations in green hues, allowing them to gauge and target ripeness of plant life, as the leaves pass through phases of energy production, as well as the presence of water. It is said that some pigments responsible for the plant colours we see, such as the green pigment chlorophyll, are merely incidental and produced as a structural consequence of harvesting red and blue light at opposite ends of the wavelength spectrum. Other biological pigments or biochromes have been more strategically fabricated or enhanced by plants seeking to attract and solicit particular interactions- bright red and yellow flowers for birds, blues and yellows for bees, white or dull colours for beetles, colourful fruit for mammals, etc. Such particular uses growing out of pre-given traits, such as a pigment that preexists within plant bodies for any given reason (red anthocyanins to protect the flower tissues from oxidative stress). Perhaps a case of the “for” coming after, these pigments may come to be used differently, in interaction (anthocyanins varying in phenotypic expression resulting in arrays of blues, purples, pinks, to guide vertebrate pollinators, a more direct and reliable form of pollination than by wind or water). Ahmed says, “when we make use of something because it exists, existence has temporal priority.”7 In other words, whether a need creates a user or refigures pre-existing ones, use is a relation that calls and sustains individuals into being.

Plant matter collected in collective gardens of On Sème, Campus MIL, Tiohtià:ke.

Deborah Bird Rose observes this interpellation of users in relation, not through discreet, mechanical requirements and transfers of information, but instead through aesthetics, through a sensual engagement with others, a mode of reciprocal capture and an embodied lure.8 Working specifically with the symbiotic relations or multispecies kinships of endangered flying foxes and the flowers they pollinate in Northern Australia, she invokes the term “angiosperm aesthetics” to acknowledge the communicative power of flowering plants. This more-than-human aesthetic power is also called bir’yun (shimmer) by the Yolngu people of North Australia. Shimmer describes the “brilliance of motion and encounter” and can be witnessed throughout the energy of dot-painting, rhythmic dancing, and lively exchanges between creatures- a transfer of energy.9  In the vibratory pulse of interaction, aesthetics like shimmer cross user/used dichotomies. Beginning in The Dreaming with the founding ancestor species, the first living cells probably being photoautotrophs (light feeders), those blue-green bacteria channeling and transforming sun energy on the surface of ancient ocean waves, an unbroken shimmer of relations today.

A magic potion made by a young studio participant, in residence on Campus MIL, Tiohtià:ke.

Today I’m looking for plant tissues with strong colour and that contain a lot of fluid. I’m a resident artist at the temporary community and collective gardens on the new Université de Montréal campus (Campus MIL). The gardens are allowed to exist before the construction gets going. A pioneer community to make community, so that it attracts a community that will possibly replace it. My residency project is called “le labo des couleurs éphémères” and the aim is to make paints out of the plants growing in the gardens, while also using them to document (perhaps ephemerally, given the nature of plant pigments) this temporary community. My friend and co-organizer of On Sème’s urban agriculture school, Sara Maranda-Gauvin, suggests my approach for finding colours could be intuitive and experimental. Like Goethe, a somewhat scientifically-naïve but empirically (sensually) sound study of the colours made by plants- some to lure, some to protect, some to absorb, some merely coincidental. I like using my eyes in this way. In fact my full body. I let the path invite me through all senses, using ancestral pathways of sense-making to find vital co-existents. Some tissues seem so promising as shimmering pigments- the bright opera pink of red orache (Atriplex hortensis),  the pale turquoise of heirloom leek shoots, deep rich violet of morning glory blooms which change throughout the course of the day, indicating optimal time for pollinators to visit. But I also seek the plants that grow in abundance, or that don’t seem to be of great use to anyone or anything- although uses, relationships or companions are not always self-evident. My relationship to the plants at this moment, a non-nourishing one, seems a secondary use, merely aesthetic.

Plant extract rich in anthocyanin pigments.

The for comes after. The for is using pre-existing plant pigments to make paintings with. Making paint comes after the established existence of these colours and their previous roles and reasons for being. New users/uses created from pre-existing kinships, usually in order to survive, but always to shimmer: a queer use.  In her book “What’s the Use” Sara Ahmed writes that queer use “can also be about how you attend to something. To queer use can be to linger on the material qualities of that which you are supposed to pass over; it is to recover a potential from materials that have been left behind…”10 Weeds, vacant lots, car parks, onion skins, compost pile, growing your own food, harvesting your own food, forager mentality, sensitivity to colour, old techniques of making your own paints: to use these things and give them a new use is also about keeping them alive, in sight. But through this queer use, new users are also being created.

Campus MIL, Tiohtià:ke.

Workshop participant in collective gardens, Campus MIL, Tiohtià:ke.

The workshop participants have wandered through the gardens and chosen their plant “subjects” to paint. They want to spend an evening with plants, and afterwards bring an image of that connection into their homes. I share with them my plant pigment paints made from the same plants they will observe and represent. Chokeberry, nasturtium, red onion, wild rocket petals, sumac, parsley leaves, marigold, red cabbage, escarole. As the unstable molecular configurations (pigments) merge on paper with one another, with oxygen, light, acidic and basic solutions, we watch them change hue in gradual shifts upon contact.

Following images from plant pigment workshop, Campus MIL, Tiohtià:ke.

Their sensitivity to environment, readiness to change, reveals what process philosopher Charles Hartshorne calls “spontaneous activity” in his description of the nature of compound individuals.11 Compound individuals comprising “varying degrees of compounding relationships embedded in the interactive processes of animal, vegetal and mineral forms” Serpil Opperman situates this activity within material ecocriticism’s understanding of narrative agency.12 Not only do plant pigments exhibit their material agency as possessing self-organization, decision-making and effecting dynamic relations, but their agency becomes narrative or meaningful within and through given relations. The compound individual emerging as a human, painting with and responding to, dynamic and ephemeral biological pigments, the creative experience or narrative agency arises not through separate individual agents, but through this particular use and enactment. These signifying processes at the same time constitute the compound individual (coming after queer use).

Painting by Jelena Stanković from the plant pigment workshop, Campus MIL, Tiohtià:ke.


Painting by Justin Karas from the plant pigment workshop, Campus MIL, Tiohtià:ke.


Painting by Nina Pariser from the plant pigment workshop, Campus MIL, Tiohtià:ke.

I learn again their colours, my colours. Vitamins my body needs look like these paints, not little white pills. I learn how plants function by painting their morphology and watching them: how they grow, reproduce and transform their environment. Bright orange beta carotene speaks to me now and my body asks for carrots and tomatoes. It’s a language of colours that crosses bodily boundaries in many ways. The way an acid will change the structure and properties of your cell’s molecules. The way you crave green drinks when you’re low in minerals. A gardener being told by their crops how to feed the soil, which type of compost, which worms are bad and which bugs are good, how to save and replant the seeds. This artist, this gardener, is created by their foods and their materials. Only through use and living together do we learn how to use and live together. Only through using each other will they remain. You walk around the garden looking for ways to participate more, to effect and be affected- a transfer of energy across bodies. Aware of the material dynamics creating your experience, of your body’s interrelatedness with old and new symbionts, and of the new openings and interactions that might be possible through queer uses, creative communities are ready to shimmer.


1 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethe’s Theory of Colours, trans. Charles Lock Eastlake (London: John Murray, 1840), xix.

2 Ibid., xx.

3 Ibid., xviii.

4 Heather I. Sullivan, “The Ecology of Colors”, in Material Ecocriticism, ed. Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), 84.

5 Ibid.

6 Sara Ahmed, What’s the Use (London: Duke University Press, 2019), 24.

7 Ibid.

8 Deborah Bird Rose, “Shimmer: When All You Love Is Being Trashed”, in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, ed. Anna L Tsing et al. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 51.

9 Ibid., 53.

10 Ibid., 208.

11 Charles Hartshorne, Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method, (London: The Open Court Press, 1970), 8.

12 Serpil Oppermann, “Nature’s Narrative Agencies as Compound Individuals,” accessed January, 2020, p. 2.


All images copyright and courtesy of Andrea Williamson

Get the Full Experience
Read the rest of this article, and view all articles in full from just £10 for 3 months.

Subscribe Today

, ,

No comments yet.

You must be a subscriber and logged in to leave a comment. Users of a Site License are unable to comment.

Log in Now | Subscribe Today