12 Famous Artists With Synesthesia

Brian Rasic/Getty Images for MTV
Brian Rasic/Getty Images for MTV

Synesthesia

is a condition in which the brain links a person's senses together in a rare manner, prompting unusual sensory responses to stimuli. People with synesthesia, for example, might see a certain color in response to a certain letter of the alphabet. Those who experience synesthesia “hear colors, feel sounds, and taste shapes” in a remarkably consistent fashion. For example, someone who sees "1" as burnt orange will always see "1" as burnt orange—unlike, say, someone who hallucinates colors while on LSD.

Scientists still disagree as to what causes synesthesia. Some claim it is a series of learned responses, but most point to a neurological foundation. Some studies reveal unusual connections in synesthetes' adjacent brain regions, similar to those in babies; in fact, it is believed that all babies have synesthesia until they are about four months old, when the synaptic pruning process normally severs those neural connections.The condition, which occurs in about 4 percent of the population, is more common in women than in men, and appears to be genetic. Though it can manifest in many ways, the most common are grapheme-color, in which numbers or letters produce colors, and chromesthesia (sound-color), in which sounds produce colors or shapes. Unsurprisingly, synesthetes are eight times more likely to work in a creative capacity—and quite a few talented artists through history have had it.

1. VLADIMIR NABOKOV

Occupation:

Author

Type of synesthesia: Grapheme-color


Vladimir Nabokov (right) and his son Dmitri (center) dine out with an unidentified woman after Dmitri's debut as an opera singer at the Communale Theatre, Reggio Emilia, northern Italy, on May 2, 1961. Image Credit: Keystone/Getty Images

 
A writer of novels, poems, and short stories, Nabokov was not the only one in his family to experience synesthesia—his mother and son, Dmitri, also had chromesthesia. Nabokov’s descriptions of his condition are as captivating and well-written as any of his works, and in his memoir Speak, Memory, he describes his condition: “As far back as I remember … I have been subject to mild hallucinations. Some are aural, others are optical, and by none have I profited much … In the brown group, there are the rich rubbery tone of soft g, paler j, and the drab shoelace of h … among the red, b has the tone called burnt sienna by painters, m is a fold of pink flannel, and today I have at last perfectly matched v with ‘Rose Quartz’ in Maerz and Paul’s Dictionary of Color.”

Nabokov even mentions the moment he and his mother learned of their shared synesthesia, writing, “We discovered that some of her letters had the same tint as mine, and that, besides, she was optically affected by music notes.”

2. TORI AMOS

Occupation:

Musician

Type of synesthesia: Unspecified


Tori Amos performs during soundcheck at Radio City Music Hall on August 13, 2009 in New York City. Image Credit: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

 
Amos experiences an unusual type of synesthesia in which sounds produce different images of lights. When commenting on her synesthesia in her book Piece by Piece, Amos said, “The song appears as light filament once I’ve cracked it … I’ve never seen a duplicated song structure. I’ve never seen the same light creature in my life. Obviously similar chord progressions follow similar light patterns, but try to imagine the best kaleidoscope ever.”

3. GEOFFREY RUSH

Occupation:

Actor

Type of synesthesia: Grapheme-color, spatio-temporal synesthesia


Geoffrey Rush arrives at the 4th AACTA Awards Ceremony at The Star on January 29, 2015 in Sydney, Australia. Image Credit: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

 
In an interview, Rush said his synesthesia goes back to his toddler days: “When I was in school, in the very early days, we would learn the days of the week. And for some reason the days of the week just instantly had strong color associations. Monday for me is kind of a pale blue …. Tuesday is acid green, Wednesday is a deep purple-y darkish color. Friday’s got maroon and Saturday is white and Sunday is a sort of pale yellow.

Rush experiences several types of synesthesia, another of which, spatio-temporal, he describes by explaining, “I can say to my wife, ‘That play opened on Tuesday, May the 8th back in 1982.’ I can remember it had a position in my mind where 1982 is and where May is within that. It’s a kind of series of hills and dales so if someone says King Charlemagne lived in 800 A.D., there is a very definite place where I see that.”

4. DUKE ELLINGTON

Occupation:

Musician

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia


Duke Ellington, circa 1948. Image Credit: Keystone/Getty Images

 

In Sweet Man: The Real Duke Ellington, author Don George recounts Ellington’s statements on how his synesthesia affected his music: “I hear a note by one of the fellows in the band and it’s one color. I hear the same note played by someone else and it’s a different color. When I hear sustained musical tones, I see just about the same colors that you do, but I see them in textures. If Harry Carney is playing, D is dark blue burlap. If Johnny Hodges is playing, G becomes light blue satin.”

5. BILLY JOEL

Occupation:

Musician

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia, grapheme-color


Billy Joel performs in concert at Madison Square Garden on May 27, 2016 in New York City. Image credit: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

 
Joel is fond of his synesthetic experiences, in which songs create worlds of color. As he told Psychology Today writer Maureen Seaberg, “When I think of different types of melodies which are slower or softer, I think in terms of blues or greens … When I have a particularly vivid color, it’s usually a strong melodic, strong rhythmic pattern that emerges at the same time. When I think of (those) certain songs, I think of vivid reds, oranges, or golds.”

On his grapheme-color synesthesia, Joel commented, “Certain lyrics in some songs I’ve written, I have to follow a vowel color." He associates strong vowel endings—such as -a, -e, or -i—with "a very blue or very vivid green … I think reds I associate more with consonants, a t or a p or an s; something which is a harder sound.”

6. DEV HYNES

Occupation:

Singer, composer

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia


Recording artist Dev Hynes, a.k.a. Blood Orange, performs onstage during FYF Fest 2016 at Los Angeles Sports Arena on August 28, 2016. Image Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for FYF

 
Though synesthesia can be overwhelming and unpleasant for some, Hynes, a.k.a. Blood Orange, also seems to appreciate his condition. As he told NPR, “When I was younger, I wanted to just, like, throw the whole paint can onto the canvas and just see what would happen … Whereas now, I’m kind of enjoying it and exploring the interesting scientific part of it as much as I can, and trying to celebrate it and invite other people to enjoy it.”

7. ARTHUR RIMBAUD

Occupation:

Poet

Type of synesthesia: Grapheme-color


Portraits of Arthur Rimbaud (left) and his fellow French poet Charles Baudelaire on buildings in Chanteloup-les-Vignes, a Paris suburb, in June 2015. Image Credit: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

 
It’s not definitively known whether Rimbaud had synesthesia, but his poem Vowels strongly suggests as much, assigning color values to different vowels:

A Black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels,
I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins:
A, black velvety jacket of brilliant flies
Which buzz around cruel smells,

Gulfs of shadow; E, whiteness of vapours and of tents,
Lances of proud glaciers, white kings, shivers of cow-parsley;
I, purples, spat blood, smile of beautiful lips
In anger or in the raptures of penitence;

U, waves, divine shudderings of viridian seas,
The peace of pastures dotted with animals, the peace of the furrows
Which alchemy prints on broad studious foreheads;

O, sublime Trumpet full of strange piercing sounds,
Silences crossed by Worlds and by Angels:
O the Omega, the violet ray of Her Eyes!

8. PATRICK STUMP

Occupation:

Musician

Type of synesthesia: Grapheme-color, chromesia


Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy performs onstage at Madison Square Garden on March 4, 2016 in New York City. Image Credit: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

 
Fall Out Boy's Stump addressed his synesthesia directly in a blog post in 2011. He stated that “most letters and numbers feel like a color. Music also can have colors associated with them (but this is a lot less pronounced than my grapheme-color associations). I’ve talked to a lot of musicians though and the more I talk to [them] the more I’m finding out that this is fairly common.” Stump is right about that—musicians with synesthesia are quite common.

9. PHARRELL WILLIAMS

Occupation:

Musician

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia


Pharrell Williams on stage during the MTV EMA's 2015 at the Mediolanum Forum on October 25, 2015 in Milan, Italy. Image Credit: Brian Rasic/Getty Images for MTV

 
Perhaps one of today’s most well-known synesthetes, Williams is a firm believer that synesthesia isn’t a disorder but an asset—he implores an NPR interviewer to “dispel the connotation behind the phrase ‘medical condition.’” He explained, “If I tell everyone right now to picture a red truck, you’re gonna see one. But is there one in real life right there in front of you? No. That’s the power of the mind. People with synesthesia, we don’t really notice until someone brings it up and then someone else says, ‘Well, no, I don’t see colors when I hear music,’ and that’s when you realize something’s different.”

Williams relies on his chromesthesia when making music, saying, “It’s the only way that I can identify what something sounds like. I know when something is in key because it either matches the same color or it doesn’t. Or it feels different and it doesn’t feel right.”

10. FRANZ LISZT

Occupation: Pianist, composer

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia


Hungarian composer Franz Liszt at age 30. Original artwork reproduced from a daguerreotype. Image Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 
It must have been interesting to be a musician in one of Liszt’s orchestras. He would reportedly use his synesthesia to help with his orchestrations, telling the musicians, “O please, gentlemen, a little bluer, if you please! This tone type requires it!” Or, “That is a deep violet, please, depend on it! Not so rose!” Apparently, the orchestra initially thought Liszt was just being funny, but over time they realized he really was seeing colors in the sounds.

11. CHARLI XCX

Occupation: Singer

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia


Charli XCX performs during the Red Bull Studios Future Underground at Collins Music Hall on September 10, 2015 in London, England. Image Credit: Samir Hussein/Getty Images

 
Like many musicians, Charli embraces her synesthesia and uses it to make her music: “I see music in [colors]. I love music that’s black, pink, purple or red—but I hate music that’s green, yellow or brown.” From her perspective, Charli says, the Cure’s music is “all midnight blue or black, but with twinkly pink stars and baby pink clouds floating around it.”

12. VINCENT VAN GOGH

Occupation: Artist

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia


Screens displaying part of a painting by Vincent van Gogh at the 'Van Gogh Alive' multimedia exhibition in Warsaw on November 13, 2015. Image Credit: AFP Photo/Wojtek Radwanski

 
Poor van Gogh. He seems to have been one of those synesthetes who was more impaired than empowered by his condition. One paper highlighted the negative effect of his chromesthesia, noting that when van Gogh took piano lessons in 1885, his teacher realized he was associating the different notes with specific colors. Unfortunately for van Gogh, the teacher took this as a sign of insanity and forced him to leave.

Bob Ross's Son Is Holding Painting Classes at a Tennessee Library

Bob Ross.
Bob Ross.
Bob Ross Inc.

For anyone who has ever logged on to the internet, Bob Ross needs no introduction. The painter, who passed away in 1995, spent the years 1983 through 1994 hosting the PBS series The Joy of Painting, where his soothing manner and bubbling-spring landscapes comforted viewers.

On several episodes, Bob’s son, Steve Ross, could be seen painting his own nature scenes as guest host or assisting his father in answering reader questions.

According to WVLT, Steve Ross is now set to offer painting classes at the Blount County Public Library in Maryville, Tennessee. He will be joined by Dana Jester, an artist who also appeared on The Joy of Painting. The workshops will be held March 4 through March 8 and will cost $125 per attendee, who will also be expected to bring their own supplies. The classes will last the entire day.

If locals are curious and don’t want to commit to the fee, Steve and Dana will be hosting a free demonstration on March 5 at 6:30 p.m.

After his guest spots on his father’s program, Steve appeared to retreat from public life, though clips of his appearances were apparently popular on Tumblr for their inadvertently risqué banter. (“It can be dirty, it doesn’t have to be clean,” and so forth.)

Bob Ross also taught classes even while The Joy of Painting was airing. He purportedly received no income from that show, earning a living via merchandising and appearances.

[h/t WVLT]

New Website Shows You What Synesthesia Looks Like

This is how Bernadette Sheridan, who has grapheme-color synesthesia, sees the name Aiden.
This is how Bernadette Sheridan, who has grapheme-color synesthesia, sees the name Aiden.
Bernadette Sheridan, Etsy

If you happen to find yourself seeing music, smelling color, or unusually combining two other senses, you may have synesthesia, a possibly genetic condition that affects about 4 percent of the population.

Since synesthetes perceive the world in such a unique way, it’s perhaps unsurprising that many of them pursue work in a creative field. Billy Joel, Vincent van Gogh, and Pharrell Williams are just a few examples of well-known artistic synesthetes.

For the rest of us, the whole concept can be a little hard to wrap our minds around. To help us out—and to help herself make sense of her own senses—artist Bernadette Sheridan created a website called Synesthesia.Me that illustrates grapheme-color synesthesia, which causes her to see letters as colors. If you type in a word or phrase, the site will produce a row of color blocks that correspond to those letters.

synesthesia.me color-blocks for 'mental floss'
We think our color blocks match our personality perfectly.
Bernadette Sheridan, Synesthesia.Me

As Sheridan explains in a post on Medium’s health and wellness vertical, Elemental, each person’s grapheme-color synesthesia manifests itself differently, so the letter-color combinations on Synesthesia.Me are specific to how Sheridan sees words. That said, there are some common combinations across many synesthetes—the letter A, for instance, is often seen as red.

Not only is the site a fascinating foray into the mind of a grapheme-color synesthete, it could also help you bring a bright, personalized pop of color into your home: Sheridan runs an Etsy shop where she sells prints of the color blocks. She’ll email you a high-resolution, printable portrait of any name or word for just $12, or you can order an already-framed version for $96. Looking for a special engagement or anniversary gift? Sheridan also makes them with two names.

bernadette sheridan etsy synesthesia portrait
Dawn and Pete make a colorful couple.
Bernadette Sheridan, Etsy

[h/t Medium]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER