Synesthesia is a condition that causes one to perceive stimulus with more than one sense at a time. A person with synesthesia might, for example, smell a specific smell when seeing a certain color or taste a sound. The most common form of the condition causes someone with synesthesia to see a specific color when viewing or hearing a specific letter, number, or word. And, interestingly, there is no consensus at all among those with the condition as to the colors that correspond to different letters, numbers, or words. It’s completely personal.
Seeing a specific color in response to hearing a specific sound made us wonder how sound would “look” to an art student. This exercise goes beyond painting what you see. Instead, it’s painting what you hear. This is a challenge to encourage your students to communicate the sounds they are hearing through color and strokes.
Start by giving each student several 8×10” canvas panels or other surfaces on which they can paint. Then play a variety of musical styles, from Mozart to Led Zeppelin, Prince to Taylor Swift, one at a time. Ask your students to interpret the colors they’re hearing, painting in abstract fashion and changing colors as they change in their minds.
Conduct a mini critique of the canvases after each type of music is completed. Have the class share their work with each other and note whether any of them “felt” and painted the different styles of music in similar ways. You might also have your students label the backs of their canvases with each musical style and see if the rest of the class can guess the style based on the painting. Chances are that their works will be completely unique, just as every artist “feels” every scene, every color, and every emotion in their own, unique way.
We’d love to see the results of your “painting what you hear” exercise. And, please share any suggestions you have for inspiring students to feel the world around them with all of their senses.