Hanneke ter Horst on Plants & Pigments

This conversation with Hanneke describes beautifully the pull that certain materials can have on people

What materials can be found in your studio?

In my studio different materials are spread out on the floor and the table and I have cupboards filled with things that I use or that I might need one day. Now I mainly work with different kinds of leather, transparent and opaque white plastic tablecloth, cotton fabrics, wool and plant materials for dyeing and making pigments, earth pigments, but also wood, beeswax and sewing patterns. For the dyeing process I work with ingredients like metallic salts (mordant) and ph-modifiers. Since childhood I have an interest for materials and colours. I am attracted to textiles made of natural fibres and preferably hand woven, but I also use wool from the sheep and I also like the patterns on simple wooden plates. Besides textiles I have an attraction to old glass and ceramics. The imperfection and irregularities in the colours and on the surface are very attractive for me and I can’t resist collecting them. Materials are not just here; they derive their reality from the beings that live with them. They show traces of what happened to them and how they have been made.

Where do the materials for your pigments come from and how is this an important part of the concept?

For making dye or pigments for my work I only use plants. I also use earth pigments, but these I can’t make myself. The beauty of plant dye and pigments is that the colours are deeper and livelier than the synthetic pigments. Synthetic pigments are designed to be always even and exactly the same. With plant colours the outcome is not fixed. Making plant extract is a reaction process of the plant's colour with the environment. The acidity, oxidation with air and the degree of UV light, but also the amount of water or sunlight that the plant has had, all influence the colour. When you paint with plant extract it may seem very light at first, but if you wait a while you will see the colour intensify and change, even the days later. One plant gives a wide colour palette, but many colours are not colourfast. Just as in nature nothing is fixed, most plant colours will completely change or soften, gray and fade over time. Making colours with plants is a journey of discovery with every time a different outcome. I consider this unpredictability of plant colours a beautiful gift.

Before the invention of synthetic colours there was a big industry in Holland and Europe of madder, reseda luteola and woad (red, yellow and blue) for dyeing colours. This industry has disappeared long ago. In order to make your more or less colourfast pigments you can grow these plants yourself. I try to grow them in my own garden, but the harvest is not sufficient for the amount needed for making plant dye and pigments. The plants that I use for colour extracts and pigments come from nearby as well as far away. I use tropical wood, but also blackberry leaves that grow near my house. It is depending on the availability and the effectiveness. Plastic cannot be dyed with all plants. I work with everything that I can find in my direct surroundings, be it a shop, the internet, my garden or somewhere else.

When did you learn to make pigments?

I learned to make pigments not so long ago. I started doing this after the art academy. Within the predominantly conceptual and discursive context of the art academy I wasn’t encouraged to explore more on materials and colours. After graduation I continued my experimentations and research on dyeing and learnt how to make pigments. I got interested in how to use the colour extracts in different ways. Plant dye is a solution of colour and pigments have body, they are particles. This triggered me and now I am still in the process of getting to know the material and finding different ways to work with it.

Please can you tell me more about the process of making your sculptures?

I need chaos to start working, so materials are scattered in my studio. In that way I can immerse myself in a world of possibilities. There are no real rules to it. At the start of the process I have no fixed idea of what the outcome will be. Making work originates in movement; I use my hands and the rest of my body to work with the materials. I escape from my head and it puts me in a state of mind unhindered by knowledge. I touch the material, I look at it, I cut it in a shape, I paint it, I move it around and I cook and sew it. These movements make me aware of the sensations of my body and my surroundings. I consider it as looking at the world with my whole body. It is about being moved and reacting to it. Through my actions I can connect with my environment and resonate with the properties of the material. By entering a relationship with the material I can give meaning to it.

Why tablecloths?

It was a kind of coincidence that I found it. I was in a Turkish shop, not far from where I live, that sells kitchenware and furniture. They were also selling several versions of thin and thick plastic tablecloth. My eye fell on it. At first I mainly used the thin version, but it didn’t work really well because it doesn’t have enough body. I like that I can get in a transparent and opaque version. To use both is important for me. The material has interesting characteristics; it is hard and soft, sharp and round. It is like a screen, it protects, it is clean, efficient and a second skin for the table. The surface is slick, smooth, shiny and always even. In a way it is very attractive, but at the same time it is impenetrable and unattainable.