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.

This Delightfully Ugly Christmas Sweater Features a Light-Up Bob Ross Head

Spencer's
Spencer's

The only thing better than bringing the benevolent ghost of Bob Ross to your Christmas party—which, by all means, you should definitely do if you somehow know him—is sporting a sweater emblazoned with his bushy-haired head.

The blue cotton sweater from Spencer’s is trimmed in red and patterned with snowflakes and some appropriately happy little evergreen trees. But most of the sweater's front is taken up by a delightfully large replica of Bob Ross’s face, complete with his characteristically kind eyes and fuzzy facial hair.

bob ross ugly christmas sweater
Spencer's

Those details are enough to make the garment your one-way ticket to a first-place ribbon in the Christmas sweater competition, but there’s one last unforgettable feature that will surely warm the heart of every Grinch, Scrooge, and Hans Gruber in a six-mile radius: Bob Ross is draped with a strand of charming Christmas lights that actually light up.

bob ross ugly christmas sweater
Spencer's

The crew neck sweater is unisex, so you should order a size down if you’re looking for a more fitted look. It’ll definitely feel like a warm hug regardless of what size you order, and you can easily layer it over a thick thermal shirt if you’re venturing around the block for a carol or two. And whether you’re braving cold weather or just eating Christmas cookies on your own couch, the sweater pairs perfectly with these Bob Ross slipper socks.

Get your very own happy little sweater for $42 from Spencer’s.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

Meet Isabelle de Borchgrave, the Belgian Artist Who Recreates Historical Fashion Using Paper

From "Papiers à la Mode," Isabelle de Borchgrave's first series of paper sculptures.
From "Papiers à la Mode," Isabelle de Borchgrave's first series of paper sculptures.
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

When you walk into the exhibition space at SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film right now, you’re met with a breathtaking homage to the history of fashion. Mannequins are dressed in everything from the court gowns of Queen Elizabeth I to the crinoline tutus of the Ballets Russes, and the overall impression is one of almost otherworldly beauty.

From across the room, you can see silk pooling at the feet of some figures, while light glances off the beaded bodices of others. But if you get within about a foot of the mannequins, you might notice that it isn’t silk at all—and those aren’t beads, either.

Actually, it’s paper.

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

The all-paper ensembles in the “Fashioning Art From Paper” exhibition were created by Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave, who decided at age 14 that she would very much like to leave traditional school behind and study drawing instead. Her parents agreed, and de Borchgrave spent the next three years sketching nude models at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Brussels. Though she tells Mental Floss that the repetition no doubt taught her how to draw, the rest of her arts education was left mostly up to her.

So she visited museums, letting the art inform and inspire her own work, and she soon developed an interest in fashion that she’s been cultivating ever since. To de Borchgrave, her lack of formal training in fashion is a creative asset.

“I never studied fashion—that means I stay really free,” she tells Mental Floss. She began making vibrant hand-painted dresses and other outfits, which she’d either sell or wear herself.

Then, in 1994, a fateful visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art sparked an idea that would alter the course of her career. After seeing a retrospective for French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, de Borchgrave—who, at that point, had been drawing on paper and painting on fabrics for years—began to wonder how she’d recreate certain designs using only paper and paint.

“I was so touched by the beauty, by the elegance, by the fabrics, and I wanted to have everything for me,” she says. It seemed like the perfect way to remain in the realm of fashion, while liberating herself from the demands of consumers. And, in theory, her paper reconstructions of garments really are just for her.

“When I finish a dress, I put it in a room. I don’t show it to anybody,” she says. “But I feel better, because I have done something I can be proud of.”

Over the last few decades, however, word has gotten out about the extraordinary paper gowns, and they’ve now been displayed in museums all over the world. At the SCAD FASH exhibition, the ensembles are divided into categories that each reflect a different era and inspiration, spanning about 500 years of fashion history.

Several ensembles from de Borchgrave's first sculpture series, “Papiers à la Mode,” are included in the exhibition. To create "à la Mode,” she collaborated with theatre costume designer Rita Brown to determine how best to manipulate paper, paint, and glue to mimic fabrics and patterns from the late 16th century all the way up through the 1920s. Though the more delicate fabrics might require specialty paper—for some lace trimmings and veils, for example, she orders a thin, gauzy paper from England—she primarily works with an inexpensive paper usually used for wrapping chocolate in Belgium.

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

Recreating ruffled collars, gold embroidery, and intricate designs with paper and paint seems difficult enough even if you could inspect the original garments with a magnifying glass and your own two hands—but de Borchgrave doesn’t often have that luxury. While some of her sculptures in "Papiers à la Mode" are modeled after actual clothing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute and other costume collections around the world, many are based on paintings alone.

Queen Elizabeth I’s court dress, for example, framed with lace and decorated with various flowers and animals, was inspired by Nicholas Hilliard’s portrait of the queen from 1599.

elizabeth i portrait with isabelle de borchgrave's paper replica
Ellen Gutoskey (left), Workshop of Nicholas Hilliard (right), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

And after seeing François Boucher’s 1756 painting of Madame de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV and something of a French fashion icon herself, de Borchgrave constructed her own version of the resplendent ribbon- and rose-adorned gown.

portrait of madame de pompadour with isabelle de borchgrave's paper replica
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film (left), François Boucher (right), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As illustrated above, de Borchgrave’s garments aren’t always exact reproductions of the originals, and they’re not meant to be; instead, she aims to capture the spirit of each style, giving herself the freedom to alter patterns or add embellishments wherever she sees fit.

Having said that, it’s nearly impossible to wander the exhibition without being awestruck by how closely she’s managed to replicate some of the outfits. This is especially true of the “Splendor of the Medici” series, which celebrates the lavish finery worn throughout the Renaissance by Florence’s (and later Tuscany’s) most famous ruling family.

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

Sometime between 1593 and 1595, Marie de’ Medici, daughter of Francesco I de’ Medici, posed for a portrait by Pietro Facchetti while wearing a gown with rich gold pattern down the front and a magnificent lace collar. If you didn’t know any better while looking at de Borchgrave’s rendering, you might think that very dress—right down to the “pearl” embellishments—had survived these last four centuries.

portrait of marie de medici next to isabelle de borchgrave's paper replica
Ellen Gutoskey (left), Pietro Facchetti (right), Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

And then there’s “Les Ballets Russes,” a whimsical, vibrant series that reimagines the unconventional costumes worn by the Ballets Russes, a ballet company established in 1909 that featured some of the most famous dancers and choreographers of all time, including Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, and George Balanchine. Much like how de Borchgrave’s garments aren’t created by a career fashion designer, the costumes and sets of the Ballets Russes weren’t designed by actual costume and set designers. Instead, founder Serge Diaghilev commissioned artists like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso to come up with them.

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

Working off photos and the artists’ sketches, de Borchgrave gives the bold, eclectic performance attire another life in the limelight. And here, in particular, you can see the manifestation of all her early days spent drawing human models. Though these mannequins are made only of wire, de Borchgrave has set the costumes on them in such a way that the figures actually seem like they’re dancing.

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
Based on a costume by Léon Bakst for Vaslav Nijinsky in La Péri, 1912
Ellen Gutoskey

Even if you can’t picture yourself headed to your office wrapped in yards of tulle and taffeta, there are likely elements from de Borchgrave’s work that you do see in stores these days, from bright floral patterns to large, front-facing bows. After all, as de Borchgrave says herself, styles simply never stop coming back.

The SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film, located on Savannah College of Art and Design’s Atlanta campus, is exhibiting “Fashioning Art From Paper” from now through January 12, 2020, and you can purchase tickets for $10 each here.

isabelle de borchgrave fashioning art from paper
SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

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