I have synaesthesia and I’ve always wondered whether it means I have an advantage in my artistic pursuits. It is believed that between 1-4% of people have some form of synaesthesia.
The word synaesthesia is composed of two Greek words which mean ‘together’ and ‘senses’. I didn’t know I had it until about twelve years ago when I asked my husband whether numbers and letters have colours to him. I was surprised by his bemused expression and response of ‘erm, no.’
I don’t have a particularly unusual brand of synaesthesia. I don’t see words and letters floating in the sky, I don’t taste bacon when I think of the number 3, and I don’t see bands of colour around me when I hear One Direction. But I do perceive all numbers and letters in colour. I associate days of the week, months, animals, people, names, places with a colour. Colour is very important to me.
Recently at college we experimented with painting to music. Firstly we were told to paint / draw anything that came into our heads while listening to music. This exercise I found incredibly easy. Jazz music is orange and yellow swirls and indie rock is blue and red waves. Next, we experimented with life drawing to music. I found this exercise confusing and distracting. The music caused an overload of my senses. My mind was too busy with colour. I’m not sure the extent to which I have music synaesthesia but I do associate different sounds and songs with shape and colour.
I recently discovered another branch of synaesthesia which is when you are able to sense a sound from the silent movement of an object. It is very subtle but if I see a circle moving around a computer screen – it has a sound in my head. Again, I thought that was normal.
Artists who may or may not have had synaesthesia
Carol Steen is an artist, writer and curator who lives and works in New York. She is well known for her artworks which make use of her experiences of syneasthesia: ‘Orange is my default color for pain’. She experiences colors while viewing letters and numbers (grapheme-colour synaesthesia), music (timbre-colour synaesthesia) and (touch-colour synaesthesia) in response to acupuncture and pain.
Wassily Kandinsky is believed to have been a synaesthetic. In his case, colours and painted marks supposedly triggered particular sounds or musical notes and the other way around too.There is debate, however, whether Kandinsky was a natural synaesthete, or merely experimenting with the confusion of senses in combination with the colour theories of Goethe, Schopenhauer and Rudolf Steiner.
David Hockney is said to have music synaesthesia. He says that this does not hugely influence his painting or photography. However, it helps him in the construction of stage sets for ballets and operas, where he bases the background colours and lighting upon his own perceived colours while listening to the music of the production.
Kilford ‘the music painter’. Kilford has music synaesthesia and paints both to live music and music in his studio.
Wikipedia on the connection between art and synaesthesia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synesthesia_in_art [last accessed 26 April 2013]
Carol Steen’s profile on MIT University Website, http://web.mit.edu/synesthesia/www/carol.html [last accessed 26 April 2013]
Ward, O., ‘The man who heard his paintbox hiss’ in The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/3653012/The-man-who-heard-his-paintbox-hiss.html [last accessed 26 April 2013]
Kilford’s website, themusicpainter.com [last accessed 26 April 2013]