Arts & Culture People

Libby Ayres: Painting with synaesthesia

We’re always blown away by the natural talent and original flair of artists, how they’re able to put on canvas an image formed in their mind. Libby Ayres, a freelance artist currently based in Manchester, takes it one step further. Libby has synaesthesia, a phenomenon which enables her to experience sounds as colours; using wax as her medium, she takes songs and manifests them into the physical.

Generally something which enhances her enjoyment of music, Libby’s synaesthesia makes it very easy for her to notice changes in people’s tone of voice, experiencing it with everything from traffic to the tapping of keyboard keys.

For anyone with synaesthesia, it affects each person differently, making Libby’s work entirely unique to her. Here she discusses her painting process, how she formed her signature style, and why synaesthesia makes painting a gift as well as a talent.

Graphics: Hannah McCreath

For those who aren’t familiar with synaesthesia, are you able to describe what you see when you hear sound?

My elevator pitch is that synaesthesia is a neurological phenomenon where a stimulus to one sense causes a reaction in another. For me, this means when I hear sounds, I see colours.

Although I describe myself as being able to “see” what music sounds like, it’s a bit of a deceptive term and I only use it for simplicity. It’s more accurate to say I know or experience colour when I hear sound. The colours aren’t floaters in my vision and they don’t impede my ability to see. It’s much the same way you know when you’re experiencing deja vu; you know exactly what’s going on and how it fits together, but it’s not tangible.

There are many kinds of synaesthesia, and the strain of it I have is called chromesthesia. Some people get it the other way around, that when they see colours they hear sounds, and some people experience links between colours and numbers, or letters and colours. At art fairs, and online, people often come up and tell me about the synaesthesia they experience. It surprised me at first because I didn’t realise it was so common, but I love sharing stories. I like the way people who experience number/letter to colour synaesthesia talk about it; “Wednesday is red”, “M is green”. It simply… is. For me, sound is colour.

I don’t see myself as an artist, perhaps because I can’t draw or paint things realistically in a traditional manner. But also I see what I do as something closer to a language than a painting, because it feels more like a translation than an interpretation. I am taking what I experience and putting it on canvas, aiming for it to be as accurate as possible.

Did your synaesthesia inspire you to start painting or do you paint as a way to express your synaesthesia?

I think this question is a bit chicken and egg, as the two come hand in hand. The first painting I did was because I had cheap and easily accessible materials, and I wanted to try and put down what I was experiencing, to see if I could make the intangible tangible. At first it was very demoralising because what I painted looked nothing like I expected it to. I’d got the ratios of colours all wrong and I didn’t know how to transpose this impalpable image to a physical canvas.

I struggle to hold all the details of what a song “looks” like in my head. If you play me a song and ask me to tell you the colours on the spot, I could probably only pick out a few. What I like about painting is being able to get those main colours, generally the background, down, so I can turn my focus to the more intricate parts.

What does your painting process look like?

If it’s a song I’ve not heard before, which is often the case with commissions, I listen to it for hours beforehand. The same way you can’t look directly at the sun, I find it incredibly hard to sit down, listen to a song and pick out the colours on a first listen. Not only is the pressure immense, there are also so many small parts you miss on your first or even fifth listen. So I tend to put it on a speaker whilst I’m cooking or working, then listen on headphones, sometimes for hours until I feel I know it inside out.

When I paint, I like to sit down and paint in one go. Because of this, I don’t like to start until I’m confident I’m ready. On bigger pieces, I’ll do a miniature beforehand. So the paint doesn’t drip or run when it shouldn’t, I have to place the canvas flat on the floor and work around it.

I use purchased frames, I don’t build my own, but unwrapping and stretching the canvas is effectively the warm up before I start painting. Finishing is a lot harder than starting; I struggle to know when to stop, when adding more detail is just adding clutter.

When I paint, I have to listen to the song on repeat. If I know it very well I can put it on a speaker, but generally I need to have my headphones on to hear properly over the heatgun. I can’t paint from memory. In fact, very often, shortly after finishing the painting and taking my headphones off, I’ll see it and think, “Hmm, shouldn’t that have been a brighter red?” and I’ll have to listen to the song and remind myself of why I chose that colour.

Using wax sets you apart from many artists. Why is wax more suited to you and your style? 

Except for drawings that got stuck on the fridge when I was a child, I was never into art before I started painting music. I’d only done one painting before I started this project, and that was barely a painting at all. I sellotaped a row of pastel coloured wax crayons to the top of a 9×12″ canvas, propped it upright, and blasted them with the heat gun until all the colours melted and ran down the canvas.

It was doing that painting that made me realise I wanted to paint with wax. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I wanted to start painting as quickly and cheaply as possible, and that piece made me realise wax crayons and a heat gun were a perfectly viable medium.

I’ve tried painting with watercolours and oils and never had the same amount of success. I’m yet to connect with another medium like I do with wax. I quite like that now I have six or so years experience working with it, so I know how it behaves and how to manipulate it in a way I would have to relearn if I changed tack.

Perhaps it’s a bit individualistic of me, but I pride myself on the fact that I’ve had to teach myself it all. There’s no guidebook to melting Crayola until it looks like a song – or if there is, I haven’t read it. For the first few years I didn’t use any ‘professional’ artists’ tools like palette knives to manipulate the hot wax, I used old debit cards and membership cards. Sometimes I still use them but… they also melt, so they can’t get too hot. I only upgrade to traditional artists’ tools when I feel that what I’m using isn’t the best tool for the job, so to speak. The heat gun I use is Bosch.

There is a type of painting called encaustic painting or hot wax painting, where you melt beeswax and add pigment to it, but I don’t know if that definition is broad enough to include what I do.

I see what I do as something closer to a language than a painting, because it feels more like a translation than an interpretation.

Libby Ayres

Every so often someone tells me I “should” be using acrylic paints instead, but I don’t like what I make being seen as inferior because I use cheaper materials. I think the quote unquote world of art is past art being made using the most expensive materials, and it’s now more about the piece itself. I think Tracey Emin’s My Bed reflects that, and it was first exhibited over 20 years ago.

Experimenting with acrylic is certainly on my list, but it’s not at the top. I’m more interested in what I can create with mediums like collage or spray paint.

Which song has been the most difficult to paint and why?

When I just started painting, I found every song hard! It took me a few years to be really satisfied that what was on the canvas accurately reflected what I experienced.

Logistically, two stand out. I found Vital Signs by Frank Turner a pain – literally. It was quite a big canvas and it needed a variety of coloured dashes along the diagonal. One of the disadvantages of painting with hot wax is that to make sure the paint doesn’t run when you don’t want it to, you need the canvas to be flat. That meant I spent about four hours squatting over the canvas to get it right. I still hurt the next day, but it was worth it.

The other piece that springs to mind was a triptych of There’s No Such Thing As A Jaggy Snake. It was the first triptych I’d painted, and it remains the only one, and deciding both the logistics and how to divide the painting over three canvases was tricky.

Whenever I get a commission to do a song that I’m very fond of, I find it especially hard. A good example is Lua by Bright Eyes, which is from my favourite album, ever, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. I delayed and delayed doing this until I couldn’t anymore. I put too much pressure on myself to get it right the first time. Sometimes songs I love are the easiest to paint, sometimes they’re agonisingly hard.

As a freelance artist, how would you like to develop your art and business?

The problem I face at the minute is that it’s not very accessible. At fairs or online, there’s a lot of preamble to explain what synaesthesia is before people really “understand” the paintings. As you’ve mentioned, painting with wax is unusual and I want to better understand the art of the possible in using it as a medium. I’m trying to get into painting landscapes. Growing up I visited a lot of small galleries in Wales and Scotland where the walls were filled with local artists’ work, almost always landscapes of the nearby coastline or moors. I think that’s a world I want to move into.

Equally, there’s so much I could do with synaesthesia beyond painting songs. I could move into the world of painting people’s voices – or laughter! – or how cities or the countryside appear to me.

Another problem is that the vast majority of people are interested in a specific song for a commission. I can only think of one occasion where I’ve painted the same song twice. That means there’s no substantial market in prints, which have a higher margin. I feel there’s a culture of shying away from discussing money in the world of independent artists, but it’s a tricky topic that deserves light shining on it. We make something and deserve to be remunerated for it, but there’s often a discrepancy between the worth of a piece in the eye of the buyer and seller. Some people tell me I’m charging far too much, some people say I should be charging much more.

At the start of the year I worked with a band, Blood Like Honey, to create the cover for their single Rooftop Beach. The projects I like best are when I get to work with someone on something and this was one of those.

There are many avenues I would like to explore with both synaesthesia and wax. If nothing else, all this time cooped up indoors is giving me an opportunity to investigate some of them!


Interview: Jessica Howell

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