A little about my newest body of work that uses my synesthesia to create from specific songs.Read More
For those of you who were not alive in the 1980's, Crystal Pepsi was a failed gimmick where Pepsi Co. created a soda that tasted like Pepsi, but had no color. It is the best metaphor that I could find to talk about Reductive Physicalist theory, despite the fact that it shows my advanced age. I will come back to why this is the perfect metaphor in a bit, but first we need to learn about about Reductive Physicalist Theory.
This particular school grew out of an intense desire to stay in the realm of reality but still reject Subjective Relational theory. For the sake of brevity, I'm not going to bring up the whole "What is Reality" question, so lets just assume that there is a reality and that we and the color we are talking about are in it. In order to stay in reality the Reductive Physicalist turned to science to guide the way.
The Reductive Physicalist approaches color in terms of the surface qualities that are specific without relying upon experiences. So where the Subjective Relationalist would say "The apple looks green in this light" the Reductive Physicalist would say that "The surface spectral reflectance of the apple is green."
What they are attempting to measure is the amount of light the surface is reflecting. These reflections (surface spectral reflectances or SSRs for short) are presented in purely scientific terms, and makes distinctions that the naked eye cannot see. It is important to note that while SSRs can be a color, a color cannot be an SSR. Red, for example, is a spectrum of SSRs that we could say belong in a family together, but are NOT in anyway actually connected since their SSRs are not the same. In this theory two colors may look identical but they may not be the same if they have different SSRs. The Reductive Physicalist calls this phenomenon meta-meters. Let's take a look at an example of this phenomenon:
While the blue shades appear fairly constant in direct sunlight, under different lighting conditions there is a color shift taking place that shows us that the SSRs of each of these shades is in fact different. This phenomenon is how the Reductive Theorist attempts to deal with the problem of the "standard viewer" because it doesn't matter who the viewer is, we are talking about the science of light waves and nothing else. Even if someone is red/green color blind, it will not matter. Because it is not about what we perceive but about what science tells us is there.
There are some problems with this particular approach. Since this theory relies so heavily upon science, lets start with the scientific issue first. Measuring the SSRs only really works for objects that are opaque. Anything that is transparent or liquid (even the more opaque liquids such as milk) and light sources themselves are very difficult to measure. This is because they either have no surface to speak of OR the surface shifts. It is possible to have a cup of soda, for example, that has multiple SSRs depending on what part of the "surface" you choose to do your light reading. Which leaves us with a difficult problem: we can see that our soda has color, but if we have no unified SSR to identify, then we have no way of understanding the color. Which means it is impossible for us to duplicate, discuss or even name the color in any meaningful way.
Leaving aside the science of how we measure color in transparent verses opaque objects, many people reject this approach because it relies upon data that cannot be seen with the naked eye and is contrary to our experience. While a reductive color theorist would say it is a small price to pay for removing the "standard viewer" what they've really done is simply dress the problem up in a really fancy scientific hat. We still have an issue of standard viewing conditions, we're just now talking about them in terms standard measuring conditions. But again, we are forced to ask the question, who decides what and how do we measure the SSRs.
There is also the issue of color relationships; we have an intuition that orange is closer to red than purple. This is based off of both our practical experience seeing the colors together and also from learned knowledge. We also understand the difference between what are called "unique" hues and what are called "binary" hues (colors created through the mixing of two unique colors.) And from these two pieces of information we can extrapolate how to create orange through the mixing of two unique hues, namely yellow and red. But if the Reductive Physicalist is to be believed there is no way that we could KNOW that orange is closer to yellow than purple--let alone mix orange. How could we if we cannot see the SSRs?
Anyone who has done any sort of art or even snapped a quick photo with Instagram can attest to the fact that the color experience changes based upon physical phenomenon; the surrounding objects, the color of the light, how light or dark it is and the light (or device) that said art is viewed in. Are we to measure separate SSRs for an object in all these different permutations? And which is the true SSR? And how is this even remotely close to what our real life experience is like? It is so utterly foreign to our every day experience, it is very difficult to accept this approach. It seems utterly crippling to approach color in this way.
It is here that I return to my initial reference to Crystal Pepsi. People rejected it because they didn't think it felt like real soda. In fact, the majority of people complained that it tasted "wrong" much to the consternation of scientists who argued that on paper it was the same soda, minus the colorant--which was flavorless. But the experience of seeing is a powerful one and the truth is that when folks didn't see the expected color, the taste became different to them in a real way that defied the scientific. It is this same problem that we face in Reductive Physicalist theory for color. It is difficult to accept of a color theory that claims to be based upon physicality but rejects the physical experience that we ourselves are having.
What do you think? Would you be able to accept a scientific explanation of color that was contrary to your physical experience?
A look at Marvel's Daredevil as a working example of the problems of subjective relational color metaphysics.Read More
A brief introduction to the metaphysics of color.Read More
A few months ago I wrote about the company Tekker Ink and their ability to create custom inks based off of hex codes. After writing the post I decided to go ahead and ordered a couple of colors. I'm not going to do a review of the inks themselves; there are plenty of them out there. I wanted to take a minute and talk about my first choice which I named "Immortality" after the immortal peach.
When I shared the ink with people on Instagram and in the Fountain Pen Ink community I got a lot of questions about the color and why I named it "Immortality" so I thought it was a good opportunity for a little history behind the color.
The color peach and the fruit itself has a long symbolic history in Asian culture. The symbolism of the fruit and the peach color are as prevalent in Asia as the apple is in Western cultures. The fruit itself originated in China and our modern word for it comes from the latin persica which means "the fruit from Persia."
In China it was believed that the peach fruit would grant immortality and as such is featured in a great many works of art and legends. My favorite of these is the story of the Monkey King; he was an extra smart monkey, who rose up to be very strong and leader of all monkeys on earth. Eventually he got so strong that the Gods invited him into heaven. Monkey thought he was going to go hang out and be a God himself, so he was very displeased to find that they were making him a stable boy. Angry at what he saw as the God's unfairness he rebelled. He talked his way into the Jade palace and tricked the guards into leaving him alone to "nap" in the peach trees and promptly gorged himself on the peaches, believing that by doing so he would become strong and immortal and therefor, untouchable by either Gods or the hand of fate. While he did become immortal, he paid a high price; he was imprisoned in a mountain for 5,000 years and was only released to work as an indentured servant of sorts after that. So while Monkey did live forever, it was mostly unpleasant. And although he was stronger than the Gods he rebelled against, he still wound up imprisoned. Which just goes to show, strength isn't everything and a singular moment of hubris can lead to downfall. Not to mention forever isn't as appealing as we think it might be; especially when stuck inside a mountain.
The Japanese also have stories surrounding peaches, most notably the story of the boy who was born out of a peach and grew up to save his village from Ogres. There is also the story of a God who descended into hell to reclaim his dead wife and was pursued by demons when he left. He used peach fruits to drive off the demons. Because of this, peaches are not only associated with good health and longevity in Japan but are believed to ward off evil.
To create my color I worked from images of traditional asian peach varieties to try and match the color shift that happens between the pink and peach area of the fruit.
I decided upon a hex-code that was a little more desaturated because knowing what I do about how the mind processes color, I figured the slightly duller color would be easier on the eyes.
The color that I wound up with was very close to my starting color and I have to say I'm very happy with the way it writes and dries down. Its legible and with the right balance of peach and pink. Feel free to use the hex code to have your own ink made if you like the color! While it won't make you live forever, it will provide a pleasant writing experience. And as the Monkey King could attest, short and happy is better than long and miserable!
One of my great passions--other than color--is aesthetic theory. They actually walk hand in hand in many ways. Aesthetics is the philosophy of art and because so much of my color theory work has ventured into the realm of the philosophical I spend a great deal of time working with aesthetics as well.
Today I thought I'd talk about one of my favorite aesthetic ideas which is Mono-No Aware. Its a Japanese concept that loosely translates to "the pathos of things." It is the sadness that we feel at the transient nature of life. The Japanese normally use the cherry blossoms as an example of this--since they bloom very briefly and then fall to the ground and are gone--but it is more often than not used in reference to objects.
The acceptance that a beloved object will one day no longer be around, that it will inevitably cease to exists is part of what makes it precious and beautiful. Mono-non aware also accepts that the reverse of this can be true: objects may outlast their owners and as they loose their owners they take on a bittersweet feel. They have outlived their owner, but they are still beautiful and in the world and one day like their owners, they too will fade. In his paper Japanese Aesthetics, Graham Parkes states:
Insofar as we don't rejoice in life we fail to appreciate the pathos of the things with which we share our lives. For most of us, some of these things, impermanent as they are, will outlast us--and especially if they have been loved they will become a sad thing.
The idea that objects can hold personal meaning, is not a foreign one in Western culture. But these meanings are more often linked to experiences and do not come from the object itself. We may, for example, love our grandfather's watch because it was what we learned to tell time on. But we do not consider that the watch has an essence all of its own that is unique and therefor makes it special.
I've noticed as we have grown to be more of a disposable culture, we have simultaneously become more of a collector culture. There is a sense that the beautiful things should be saved and not used. I've seen this increasingly over the last few years with my students--they have good art supplies that sit unused while they reach for the inexpensive ones. The good supplies are "special" and as such should not be used. This approach is diametrically opposed to the idea of Mono-non aware; which begins with the idea that an object will one day cease and so it should live a full and useful life. I often ask my students what exactly they are saving their supplies for? Do they imagine that one far off rainy day they will suddenly decide the good brushes should be used? They never have a good answer for me.
A small collection of objects from my daily life that have mono-non aware for me:
I recently started re-using my Traveler's Notebook after a long period of languishing in a drawer. I wasn't saving it, it was just that I was unhappy with the refill choices, but having discovered Curnow Bookbinding refills that use Tomoe River paper (my preferred paper for writing and illustration) I decided to try using it again. I was surprised by how much pathos I felt for the book. All of its old scratches and wear marks are a testament to its use, but for me it goes beyond the patina of the book. I actually own several of these but for some reason this particular one feels the most unique, the most mine. Its nothing I can put my finger on, but I believe it is the book's mono-non aware.
Rather than putting objects behind glass or hiding them away in a drawer to protect them for all time, mono-non aware asks us to see the objects we use as having a life of their own and embrace that like all living things they are both finite and happier when they are well loved and used.
My challenge to you is to look at the objects in your life that you're "saving" and give yourself permission to dust them off and use them. Make them special by using and allow them to fulfill the purpose of their creation. Seek the unique beauty that comes from these objects that share our lives with us and accept that one day they will be used up and gone. After all, it is transience that grants life its beauty. As the great Japanese philosopher Yoshida Kenkō once wrote:
Do you ever wonder why purple is the color of royalty? Its a tradition that stems all the way back to 1570 BC when the ancient Phoneticians discovered that snails could be used to create a purple hued dye which became known as Tyrian purple. The color has also been called tyrian red, royal purple, imperial purple or imperial dye. The dye was so important to the empire that their very name, Phonetician, meant "land of the blood-red" a reference to one of the many shades of tyrian.
The dye itself was very difficult to manufacture due to the high quantity of rock snails needed to produce the dye--around 60,000 snails were required to manufacture one pound of dye. Different species of rock snails would yield different shades of purple dye ranging from red to purple. The most prized of these was what was known as a "deep blackish blood color" which modern color theorists have guessed was the deep purple hue that in modern times we've come to associate with the royal purple hue.
The difficulty in producing the dye made it very expensive and as such was at its inception, limited to use by the very wealthy. The 4th century historian Theopompus (c. 380 BC – c. 315 BC) once wrote that Tyrian purple would "fetch its weight in silver." Because of its preciousness it became subject to something known as sumptuary laws, which were laws that restricted luxury or extravagance. These laws were said to keep people from "over-spending" but in reality they were a way for the upper-class to keep certain items to themselves. A poor person, even one who had saved up the money to buy a garment dyed with Tyrian purple, would not be allowed to do so. As the color became more prized, it became more strongly controlled until in Byzantium it because the exclusive color of the monarchy.
The fascinating thing about this particular dye was that is was sun-reactive. Rather than fading, it would deepen and intensify in color the more it was exposed to sun. Because of this, items dyed tyrian purple are very well preserved and don't disintegrate from sun exposure the way other dyes do.
The use of the dye spread into the Roman empire as well and was considered a favorite color for ceremonial robes--which is where we first start seeing the deep reddish hue being used in religious rites. A practice which began in the pagan religions but eventually carried over to Christianity; cardinals originally wore tyrian Red and not what we think of cardinal Red.
The color fell out of favor in 1204 when Constantinople was sacked and the empire lost the ability to manufacture and distribute the color. The discovery of a tablet containing the recipe led to repeated attempts to recreate the dye but it wasn't until the mid=1900's that archeologists put together accounts of the "smell of rotting fish" that was recorded as the hallmark of the those that made the dye, with the recipe that had been discovered and realized that for the process to work the snails first needed to be allowed to rot to intensify the color.
Once the formulation for the dye was figured out, it started being used again by textile artists for the dying of fibers.
The color has seen something of a renaissance in the last few years--I believe in part to Game of Thrones, a book/tv series which has a primary character named Tyrian. I've found the name fitting since he is both of the monarchy and a dwarf, so the purple/snail reference is spot on.
Tyrian purple's hex code normally falls around #66023.
But as I said previously, it can fall within a large range of reds and purples and will intensify as it is exposed to sunlight.
People often are surprised when they see tyrian purple in real life, as its much redder than we've come to think of most purples. What about you? Is this the color you imagine it to be, or does your brain conjure something completely different?
When people find out that I have synesthesia the first question I get asked is: what is it like living with synesthesia? I try to answer the best I can but the truth is I have no idea how to truly convey what its like for me any better than a person without synesthesia would be able to relate their "normal" experience of the world. But I'm going to try my best to relate to you now a little more about what its like for me inside my sensory experiences.
The first type of synesthesia I remember actively having is the gender type, as I related in my story in last weeks post. My experience with things having gender is really not that foreign for anyone who has ever spoken a romance language since objects have gender in those languages. The big difference for me is that while everything has gender its not divided by category. In other words, some chairs are boys and some are girls.
I've never been able to pinpoint what it is about objects that makes me see one gender or the other and I've never experienced something that is gender-neutral. That's not to say that such a concept doesn't exist, its just not my experience of the world. I can tell you that the gender I see has nothing to do with stereotypes of masculine and feminine. In fact those are ideas I've struggled a great deal with--since some things that are "girly" read as masculine to me and some things that are "for boys" read as female to me. It also has absolutely nothing to do with sex or sexual orientation. In my mind gender is just another piece of information the brain processes to help me sort "this is not that" and because I've lived with it for so long its more like background noise than anything. Imagine walking through a parking lot full of automobiles: you wouldn't think "4 door, 2 door, sport, truck..." for everything you walked past, unless you needed to differentiate for some reason. The information is there, you just don't focus on it until its needed. That's what gender is like for me.
I probably should've started with this one, since as I mentioned in my previous post, this form of synesthesia seems to be the one common type that all syntesthetics share. I can honestly say that I cannot remember a time in my life when I didn't know what other people were feeling simply by entering the room. I can feel a mood like a tingling on my skin, neck or back and I find myself physically flinching when I know something doesn't feel good to another person or animal. Like most synesthetics I didn't even know this was odd until I was in college and participated in a study. When asked about it I was at first confused; it never occurred to me that I couldn't deal with violent images because of synesthesia or that other people can't feel how others feel just by looking at them. I'd never questioned why I found people so exhausting and needed a lot of alone time to recharge every day but once I figured out what was happening a great many things came into focus for me.
During the study I participated in they showed me a short film with violent images. I didn't even make it to 15 seconds before I had to shut my eyes and my muscles were twitching in sympathy with the areas being assaulted on the film. My brain was flooded with chemicals and lighting up like it was happening to me. I've always had issues with feeling physically sick when confronted with violence but I just thought I was sensitive. It also explained to me the reason I struggle with things that are "awkward humor" in films or TV because instead of being funny to me, I feel horribly uncomfortable and embarrassed because its like its happening to me.
I'm great with people because I always know where they're at emotionally, because I can feel it. But I struggle with it at the same time because there is this constant emotional yo-yo happening in my brain between the reactions I experience that are mine and those that are others. As I've aged I've become less emotionally expressive to compensate. The more I became aware that not all of my feelings were my own (or that I could be swayed by the emotions of others) the more distance I've learned to put between myself and my feelings--especially at work. While its helped me to survive with my sanity intact, people often tease me about being a vulcan, so detached and logical. I guess its fair assessment, since vulcans turned to logic as a way to control all the chaos that their strong emotions produced. But no matter how much I meditate and am self-aware it doesn't change the fact that I need a good deal of alone time so that I can take a break from the roller coaster of other people's emotions.
Sound & Color
From the first moment I began making art I had a very strong color sense and can remember knowing that colors sounded right together. It wasn't until I was a little older and would occasionally slip-up in describing colors that worked together (ie, "these colors sound nice together") that a teacher became concerned I was learning disabledand sent me to the school psychometrist. It was she who finally gave me a name for what had been happening to me my whole life. While it was helpful to put a label on how I was different, I still worked very hard to mask it through much of my childhood. I developed coping mechanisms; namely wearing headphones a lot. If I can control the sound, or if its predicable in a way that I can anticipate I can push the stimuli to the back of my mind. But its harder when I'm tired, or there's a lot of random noises around. I work in an open concept office and there are days when the sounds become so overwhelming--imagine a constant changing flashing, strobe light going off in front of your eyes--and I get a lot of headaches. On a well rested day I can make it so I don't even really see the colors. My brain shuttles it to the background. But if I'm stressed or tired, my ability to filter goes away. I listen to a lot of music that is minimalist in style because the tonal changes are subtle, which means I get a lot of the same color for longer stretches of time which is more restful and can help me combat the over stimulation. I also wear and surround myself with a lot of gray. The gray mutes the sound for me--so that its softer and not as demanding which helps to ease the stress created by loud colors/sounds.
It's not all bad however. There are times when it is unbelievably beautiful. The first time I stood in front of a Kandinsky painting, I cried. He was also synesthetic and the piece sounds like a beautifully sad chorus. Interestingly enough, as I was standing in the MoMA looking at this piece and weeping a guard came over, looked at me, looked at it and then said "Synesthetic huh?" I must of looked really started because he smiled and informed me "We get them in a lot, crying over this painting." And then he just shook his head and smiled. What fascinates me is that I've learned there's no 1-1 translation of colors and sounds. No two synesthetics will hear the same types of sounds with colors. But we all are in agreement with what sounds good and what sounds bad; but where I hear a chorus, others would hear brass or strings. Where I hear a-sharp others would hear f....so while the sounds are not universal the ability to please or displease appears to be. The scientists in the study found it quite baffling and have as far as I know, not come up with a plausible explanation. But regardless of what we hear, many of us stand before that painting in the MoMA and cry.
There are times that the world is such an amazing experience for me; in the fall when the world is quiet and the leaves change I hear Prokofiev sounds and in the winter when the snow falls its Mahler 4. I think as I've aged I've taken the sounds I hear and associated them further with music that mimics the pitches I hear when I look at color. I'm including the painting I saw at the MoMA and a link to music that is close to the sounds I hear when I listen to the painting. If you can, I would encourage you not to look at the video and instead listen to it and look at the painting...you should be able to open the painting up in a lightbox for a closer look while you listen.
Out of all of my forms of synesthesia this one is the simplest and probably the most fun. All letters and numbers have personalities to me. 1-10 are the strongest out of the numbers for me when it comes to personalities. 5 is the number of perfection for me--it is actually a him and it has the best of all of the qualities in it; fair-minded, fun loving, diligent and a bit of comic-book nerd. 4 is a girl, the mean jealous type who resents both 3 and 5 and desperately wants to be in the cool kids clique of 7-8-9. 10 is lonely and a little sad, sort of the outsider of the group. I won't bore you with all of them, this is just a sampling of what its like for me when I see numbers or letters, its like seeing a person for me. Again, like the color/sound, I don't remember when it started, it was just sort of there for as long as I can remember but my guess would be that it started when I began learning about letters and numbers.
This one is the most interesting to me--I had been told by the researchers in the study I was in that it was possible I would develop other types of synesthesia as I aged. They warned me that since my brain is predisposed to connecting information that was useful, it might do so again. Its not that I didn't believe them, its just I couldn't really imagine it.
Fast forward a few years and my best friend in graduate school is also a synesthetic. She has number form--which is where ideas and time take on physical location qualities. For her, theories would have specific spots they belonged in and these spots existed in three dimensional space, a fact I found fascinating. For a while I would find myself thinking, "if this theory had a space where would I put it?" to see if I could visualize how she saw ideas. It never really clicked with me, but I did realize that time however, was a natural fit to this idea. Days, weeks, months, years, these I could easily visualize in a continuum. I discovered that I could remember dates/events easier if I placed them in a visual continuum but it was all very conscious and in my imagination. The more I did it, the more habitual it became to imagine time like this.
Then one night about a year later I was fixing a snack and my husband asked me a question about my availability on a day and there was this rushing whoosh as the blocks of time stretched out before me in three dimensional space and color coded. I was so started I dropped the plate on the floor and jumped. Looking back on it now, I can see how I imagined time was slowly leading me to this point and I saw the subtle shifts in how I was coding time--like blocks that had more events becoming taller, days taking on color codes, etc. I just couldn't see what was happening to me until it was done. As the doctors had warned me, my brain flipped another switch on when it was helpful.
After my shocking experience with number form suddenly appearing, I've been more cognizant of myself and how I'm pushing my senses. Since I was moved into an open concept work space I spend more time with my headphones on than I previously did. Its given me some problems because as I'm prepping color theory work, I cannot hear the colors over the music in my ears. But the ambient noise is also disruptive if I take off the headphones to try and hear the colors. I realized a few months back that I'd started reaching out to the color to see if I could feel its vibrations on my skin. I must've done it 15 or so times before I realized consciously that I was attempting to forge a new connection. Its spotty; sometimes I feel the color sometimes I don't. But I do think that its coming and that at some point in the near future I'll have a secondary way to tell what colors work together based off of the feelings I get and not just the sounds. I'm finding myself reaching out without conscious thought to feel and to hear both. I'm curious to see how this evolves and how long it will take to fully form. But knowing its coming now, means it won't be so jarring when the switch is fully flipped.
I hope this helps all of you understand, at least a little, what my sensory experience is like. Please, feel free to ask any questions you have. As I said in part one, I'm really hoping to spread awareness of synesthesia so that others with it will know what is happening and be aware that there are others that live in a very similar world.
For more information please check out the American Synesthesia Association.
One of my first memories of making art is of drawing on the floor with my mother. I had one of those huge Crayola crayon boxes and as we were putting the colors away I got upset with her for putting them back wrong. You see, I'd segregated my colors by gender. I was at that stage that kids go through where the other gender has cooties. I must've been 4 or 5. My mother, horrified that I was picking up some sort of antifeminist message informed me that "Girls could wear any color they wanted." We argued as I rearranged them correctly for several minutes and I still can feel my extreme frustration at my inability to communicate to her that it wasn't that girls can't wear green, its that that green was a boy. I remember with crystalline clarity the moment of horror when I realized she didn't see it. I was different...
Even now, as I write about I still feel that small nugget of shame and worry when I recall the memory. Once I was aware I was different in that way, I learned very quickly to mask it. When I would say things and people would give me "that look" I would add it to list of things not to talk about. Note to self: don't tell people you think 7, 8 and 9 think they're cool. Note to self: don't tell people the letter k is mean. Note to self: don't tell people the color sounds like its screaming. Note to self: don't call the chair "him".
I didn't have a name for what was happening in my brain and for a long time my self-awareness didn't extend much beyond watching for the abnormal and finding ways to hide it. As I've aged and grown to understand more about it and to embrace what I am, I've found it increasingly important to talk about; not just because I use it my work as an artist, but because I think of that little girl, sitting on the floor terrified because suddenly she realized people did not experience the world the way she did and hope that in talking about it, I will spare someone that same fear.
To keep from overwhelming you, I'm going to talk mostly about the science of it today and then in the next post, discuss my own personal experiences with synesthesia.
So what exactly is synesthesia? Technically it is the intermixing of the senses. For a long time scientists believed that people who had it suffered from a birth defect or genetic mutation that caused our wires to be crossed. There is great evidence to support that synesthesia does run in families and is more prevalent among females, which at least anecdotally suggests that there is a genetic component. But they've not been able to identify or map what it is.
In the last few years however, a new theory has arisen; that we are all born synesthetic but as the brain matures it switches off these interconnections so that it can filter information better. Scientists have found that in the right conditions people can have cross-sensory connections active (such as in hallucinations or brain trauma) but then they go away. Since it is highly unlikely that the brain is forming and then un-forming the pathway so quickly, the idea of switches being thrown off and on is more probable. It is possible that not switching off those pathways provided a genetic advantage in some instances and as such was passed along.
The main difficulty in studying this phenomenon is that there is very little consistency in how it presents--there isn't just one form of synesthesia and even among shared groups it rarely manifests the same (for example the number 7 might be red to me but green to someone else). Experiences change over time; certain forms can go away or you can develop new forms. This makes for very tricky study. "The brain" as one researcher once told me "is a fascinatingly odd duck."
There are some external traits outside of the synesthesia experience that people seem to share. They have trouble distinguishing left from right, have a higher than normal instance of migraines, tend to be much more sensitive to touch, have incredible memories and tend to be very introverted. Not surprisingly a great number of people with synesthesia wind up in creative fields. Of course, there are a lot of people that fit these generalizations that don't have synesthesia...but most of these seem to be secondarily factors of having it. Migraines are caused by over-stimulation in the brain and all those senses lighting up at once is very stimulating. Because synesthesia is often triggered by touch, those with it tend to avoid being touched for fear of triggering something unpleasant. Memories are being encoded by multiple senses so they're stronger. And lastly, if you grew-up knowing you couldn't really tell people that the number four is a psychotic ass who would cut her own mother to move up to five, you would probably be an introvert too.
At present, scientists have categorized at least 77 different types of synesthesia. Yep, you read that right, 77.
For a long time scientists thought that "mirror touch" synesthesia was the rarest of all--but new brain mapping studies seem to be leaning the other way. It seems that almost all people with synesthesia have some form of mirror-touch. It functions in one of two ways--you actually physically feel the sensation, as if it was happening to you; which can be crippling and awful. Imagine seeing someone trip and fall and feeling it happen to you? This form is, thankfully the rarer form of mirror-touch. The other is you experience a chemical reaction in the brain like the sensation is happening to you; which is normally called empathy synesthesia. Basically the body is able to process micro expressions and translates them into a physical reaction which then can produce secondary sensory responses. Sometimes that means a person will jerk back when someone else is getting hit, for example--but it does not physically hurt. Mirror-touch/empathy synesthesia is very responsive to emotions even when they're very well masked. Because the brain is reading the micro-expressions and mirroring them, it feels like its happening to you. For me, when someone is upset, I feel it in my back up into my neck. I have literally looked into someone's smiling face and felt the "flight or fight" response kick-in while all the hairs on my neck stand up; and for no reason I can consciously identify. But inevitably, there is something going on with the individual that they are not sharing. Most people with synesthesia don't even think of mirror-touch as a form of synesthesia and as such tend not to report it unless asked directly about it. Because its more ephemeral, especially in the more common empathetic form, its not really something you would know is abnormal. One would just assume that everyone feels a temperature change when the mood in the room shifts. One neurologist I spoke to about it told me he believed that it was the "origin" form of synesthesia; the first connection from which all others are born. Wheather this is true or not, remains to be seen, but the fact that its the only experience we all seem to share leads me to believe there's something to his idea.
Some of the most common other forms of synesthesia are:
- Grapheme-Color Synesthesia: Where numbers and letters have colors.
- Sound-to-Color Synesthesia: where colors have sounds and sounds have colors.
Number-Form Synesthesia: numbers and time take on spatial qualities.
Personification: ordered sequences have personalities. (i.e. do not turn your back on Number 4.)
Lexical-Gustatory Synesthesia: Taste is triggered by by sounds, sights or even touches.
In my next post, I'll talk a little more about my own experiences with synesthesia and what its like to live in a world that has dimensions others don't often share or experience.
Anyone who knows me, knows I have a deep obsession with the color grey. It took me years to figure out that gray mutes my Synesthesia so that the sounds I hear are less intense. So I find colors on the less saturated end to the spectrum more relaxing. Its why the majority of my clothes are grey. It might seem odd for an artist to wear what many see as a drab color, but there are so many shades of grey--each unique in their own way that I find them fascinating and underrated.
So for my first in a series on the history of pigments, I thought it appropriate to start with one of the most revolutionary colors; Paynes Grey.
Paynes Grey is named after the color's inventor: William Payne. He was born in London in 1760 and was a watercolor artist. While the exact date of the invention of the color is not known, the best guesstimate we have is the early 1800's, since there is evidence of his using the color in paintings exhibited after then.
When discussing grey, most color theory students often assume that creating the color is a simple matter of mixing black and white. But in reality most grey shades are a combination of multiple hues. In the case of Paynes grey color was a mixture of lake, raw sienna and indigo (Artist's Pigments: c.1600-1835) and resulted in a dark blue-ish grey color.
What made this color so revolutionary is that there was no black being used. Up to this point when artists wanted to desaturate a color (reduce its intensity) they would often use black to create a tone or white to create a light tint. Payne's use of this blue-grey to get a softer more subtle spectrum was so revolutionary and became so popular that eventually a commercial paint was created using his formula. The first recorded instance of the name being used was in 1835 and by 1912 it had earned an official place in the Color Standards and Color Nomenclature book.
What's fascinating about this particular grey is that it looks quite blue on its own, but when placed with other colors the simultaneous contrast can force more towards the black or grey end of the spectrum. While the use of Paynes grey in watercolors eventually went out of vogue, it had lasting impact upon how artists viewed and approached their color mixing. Which in turn, led to a rebirth of exploration of monochromatic works. The most famous of these is Picasso's "Blue Period" paintings where he utilized many blue leaning greys used to create contrast and depth. Comparing the colors in Picasso's painting below to Payne's above we can see a great many similarities even though they are stylistically very different.
Modern formulas normally use a combination of Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna to achieve the same hue; but there is a great amount of variation in both the starting hues and the proportions so its always best to test your color when jumping between brands and/or mediums as not all Paynes grey will look the same.
From a hex code perspective Paynes Grey normally falls right around #536878 but can be in reality any of the wide range of greys shown here:
My challenge to you now is to look for the Paynes Grey in your world. Its there, all around you in all manner of things that you've probably never even noticed. I hope that you will feel a small amount of marvel that so much of our colorful world owes a debt to this one man, who did something so simple and complex as invent a shade of grey.
Recently, I was a having a conversation with a fountain pen user about a new ink company called Tekker. They are a custom ink company that creates fountain pen inks based off of hex codes. The individual in question is not an artist and was trying to duplicate the color of the original Crayola orange crayon. It struck me how difficult a challenge this must present to someone outside of the art world. So I thought for my first post I'd dive into the challenges of moving between digital and analogue color.
So first off: what is a hex code? Hex codes are a digital encoding system that tells the computer the color information. It was designed to translate between the different color languages used namely: RGB,HSL,HSV and CMYK.. I'm not going to go into the different types of color systems in this post because that's a whole other rabbit hole. For our purposes today, let's just say we have these four languages and hex codes serve as something of a translator. Hex codes create a simple css code that enables the color to show up on your screen.
Because hex codes are digital, they use a theory of color known as additive color theory. What this means is that color is added to your screen using light. That's why when you work in photoshop, for example, and do color fill multiple times the image gets brighter. That's because each time you do a fill more light is being poured in. Technology has improved a great deal in recent years and most programs do a good job of attempting to auto-correct the light being added in, but nothing is perfect.
Analogue pigments use a process known as subtractive color theory, which is basically the opposite of additive. The more color you add in, the darker it becomes.
So you're probably asking yourself what does this have to do with getting a custom ink color mixed? The answer is everything!
Let's take a look at a test case. Since I'm not going to wait to have a color mixed and sent to me, I'm going to work with a color I already have for our purposes here. But I'll go through the steps that you would use. Most people are going to be looking for a color to match an object in the physical world--such as a fountain pen. So the first step is to take a photograph of the object. I will be working with a photo of an ink swatch from Vanness Pens.
There are a lot of apps out there that you can use to find your hex codes or programs such as photoshop will also do it for you. For our purposes I will be using an app called Color Viewfinder, since my guess is most of you will be doing it on a phone app of some sort. You can find apps simply by searching for "hex finder" in your app store.
So here is my starting photo:
Once I have my photo, I load it into my app and it spits out an image that looks like this:
Now you'll notice that there are several colors that have popped up here. You might be thinking to yourself "well, that's because of the paper showing through the swab." So lets look at something completely different--a piece of fabric--and see what we get.
Now that we can see that any photo will yield multiple results, lets get back to my ink. My next step is to pick which hex code I think is the closest. To get a better idea I'm going to head on over to a website called Color Hex Codes. This is a site that enables you to enter your codes and see what they look like and get more info about them. I picked the middle purple to start with.
If I was doing this to truly order an ink color, I'd check all three colors and match them against my object...but for the sake of brevity, let's stick with this color choice.
The fact that I have to make a choice based off of a comparison brings me to the brunt of the problem. We've gone from physical object (subtractive color theory) to digital photo on my phone (additive) to uploaded photo on my computer screen which does not share the same calibration as my phone and are now comparing this example to a physical object (subtractive).
The best analogy I can use here is that of language; it would be like translating English to Mandarin Chinese, and then Mandarin to Yu (still Chinese but a different dialect) and then re-translating it to English. There would surely be something lost in translation there!
So now I've decided on a formula, that uses additive theory, and I send off my hex code and await my ink. The manufactures are going to be faced with the exact same quandary as we just were, they have to translate the digital to the analogue. A lot of things can influence the translation process, including qualities of the ink and the color sense of the person mixing. While most places calibrate to try to make allowances for the differences between additive and subtractive color theory at the end of the day we're still left with human observation to create the programs to calibrate the translation. And as you have probably experienced, no two people see exactly the same.
But for the sake of my experiment, I'm going to now pretend I've gotten my ink back and are ready to take it for a test run.
So my starting hex code options were: #85738D, #65506F, #4E3E55--none of which showed up in my photo of the ink in real life. The closest I got is the darkest color on here. Let's take a look at my starting and finishing hex codes together:
In all honesty, neither really seems right to my eye comparing them to the handwriting example I have. And therein lies the whole problem of translating analogue to digital in color.
Knowing all this, would I order a custom color? The answer is of course! But I would do so knowing that while it won't be an exact replica and as such I wouldn't be disappointed or frustrated with the manufacturer when my ink looked slightly different on the page than my object. After all, surprises are part of what keeps life colorful, if you'll pardon my pun.