No Synaesthesia Required

Synaethesia is what happens when your senses get cross-wired (as in hearing a colour) and is usually associated with neurological disorders or hallucinogenic drugs. What I propose to examine here is an applied, metaphorical synaesthesia, and you’ll be pleased to know that neither neurological impairment nor mind-altering substances are required. A simple curiosity and a willingness to experiment will suffice.

In a lifetime of trying to improve my skills in various creative pursuits—decorative painting, photographic composition, guitar, and writing—I’m struck by the convergences, the aspects all the arts seem to have in common. I believe this insight is a valuable one for anyone engaged in an artistic pursuit.

Although ‘Art’ doesn’t lend itself to easy definition, we can discern the discrete building blocks of any art piece enough to name them: texture, tone, movement, light, shadow, contrast, empty space, nuance, bravura, balance, harmony, and so on. These same words can be applied to a number of disciplines, and—once understood in one context—can be equally understood in another. So a pianist who understands, say, texture and movement in music is already equipped to discern those same qualities in a painting or a prose work; and if our pianist (or even someone who understands these terms in the context of music) wants to learn one of these other art forms, he or she will likely find this understanding gives them an edge. Knowing what the component parts are in one medium will make it easier to identify them (or their absence) in another.

I think, then, that learning builds upon itself. By thinking in terms of these universal qualities, these building blocks, when considering our own created work or that of others, we can more easily spot the strengths and weaknesses of a work, and perhaps with more detachment than might otherwise be the case. If I understand the meaning and importance of empty space in a photograph, I can better recognize its presence or absence in a piece of music; similarly, a poet who understands dynamic can notice its absence in a painting.

It seems to me that many of these concepts work in antonym pairings. A short list follows, and though they may not all transpose equally well to every art form, I think there’s enough applicability here for most of us to find the notion worth exploring.

Static / Dynamic

Light / Dark

Balance / Imbalance

Symmetry / Asymmetry

Smooth / Textured

Balance / Tension // Dynamic balance

Contrast / Equal tones

Focus / Fuzziness

Bravura / Timidity

Spirit / Technique (non-exclusive opposites; used in sense of driving the work)

Empty Space (aka ‘blank space’)




It’s very possible I’m reinventing the wheel here… In which case, well, that’s not unusual for an autodidact, as touched on in my post, “Are We There Yet?’. I do know that academics in the visual arts can get very defensive when scholars from ‘text-based disciplines’ stray into their territory, but since I’m neither an academic nor a critic and have no pretension to either, I offer this up as a dilettante ever eager to embrace anything which will help deepen my understanding of what I’m doing.  Try it for yourself: grab the words from this list and use each as a lens, a filter, when next assessing a piece of music, art, writing, even an essay or article, yours or someone else’s. I think you’ll find them very useful.



Filed under Writing

2 responses to “No Synaesthesia Required

  1. Joanna Fay

    Dario, thought-provoking post….I’ve always seen all art forms as congruous, just expressing through different ‘frequencies’, if you like, ie; sound waves, light frequencies etc.

    I have experienced synaesthesia occasionally, generally leading into migraines; seeing colours (mostly over the string sections of orchestras) and hearing tones (notably standing in front of the paintings of Rothko).
    Such experiences have made me think a good deal about sensory perception, and also about the potential vastness of what we don’t see/hear/feel outside our narrow window of hertz, light frequencies and so on. It has affected my whole cognition of ‘reality/ies’ based on sense perception.

    As a visual artist turned writer, I’ve had to learn ‘writing craft’ in terms of characterization, plot, linear narrative mode and structure, but I see my style as very much informed by the visual and tactile senses honed by two decades of tapestry weaving. Because of that entrainment (and no doubt innate leanings of sensibility that went there in the first place), I find my word choice and phrasing tends to have a certain sensory ‘texture’ and ‘tone’ and type of interwoven detail that is reminiscent of weaving.

    I’ve talked to other artists (in different media) turned writers about this, and each relates their writing to the particularities of their former craft.

    • Jo, thanks for those thoughts. I can certainly see that very strongly textured feel in your writing. And Rothko–yes, I can’t think of a painter whose work is better suited to producing sounds: I can readily hear the deep subterranean clangour of one his works. Also a huge yes on the spectra we miss out on… though I do suspect that, as with hearing, some people’s visual sense is capable of reaching further into the ends of the spectrum than others…

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