Artist Jack Coulter talks life with synesthesia and his upcoming event with LCO.
Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor
Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor
Over the last few years, artist Jack Coulter has garnered all sorts of attention for his acid-trip paintings inspired by the colours that flash across his vision when he listens to music. Jack has synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon that means he sees sounds as colour, a condition that is said to affect other artists such as David Hockney, Lorde and Frank Ocean, and he uses his art as a way to cope with his condition and to express it to others. His unique abstract expressionist style has seen him secure some amazing feats for someone so young, like producing album artwork for Mercury Prize nominated artists and collaborating with Deezer to create a musical painting of Glasto.
Now, on the run up to his 24th birthday, he is about to take part in one of his biggest projects yet – a live painting performance with the London Chamber Orchestra. On Thursday 12th April (this evening!), Jack will paint the entire performance live, from beginning to end, all the while being streamed onto a screen at the event and online across the world. The event has already caught the attention of artists like Mumford and Sons and Jack Garratt. We caught up with Jack to chat about the event, his experience with synesthesia, and why he wishes people would stop romanticising what can be a debilitating condition.
(RIGHT) Oasis – “D’You Know What I Mean?”
Oasis – “D’You Know What I Mean?”
You’ve said before that you first realised you experienced the world differently to others when you heard your heartbeat in a quiet room and noticed it resonated colour, is that right?
Yeah, I live in an old Victorian house in Belfast and I was just sitting in the living room one day and I could hear the thud that you can sometimes hear in your ear from your heart, and it just started pulsating in front of me. I actually thought I had to go to the hospital because there’s something extremely wrong! That’s when I just first started realising everything was to do with sound, because I can remember a few things from when I was really, really young but that just solidified everything, and then every time I would listen to music when I was growing up it was just mad. I realised when I started painting, it was just automatic. I just started painting all the colours I was seeing so it was so natural, it was really strange. It was really weird the way it just happened one day.
What part has synesthesia played in your life since then?
I mean, there’s positives and negatives. The main positives – apart from painting – are just every single day when I’m out and listening to music or anything, because there’s this thing called tetrachromacy and it’s laced with that as well. It’s like a weird drug. It’s not just synesthesia, because I hear colours when I’m directly listening to music but when I’m not, even the sound of silence, things actually change colour and that’s absolutely weird sometimes. If i’m looking at trees or leaves, they just change as I’m staring at them, violet to gold and then they just go back to green or red.
But the negative side is I have to go to neurologists now, because I’ve been in and out of doctors and they just can’t do anything for me. They were just prescribing me all this stuff and it just didn’t do anything. I just want to calm it down a bit because I can’t get through a day without feeling sick with migraines and everything. As I’m getting older now I can kind of look at what is worse for me. When I was younger and everything was new, it was just constant and now I can calm it down a bit, so I have to go see this mad neurologist to try and sort it out.
You’ve said before that having synesthesia is like somebody is playing around with the colours of your life in photoshop – like when you stare into the sun or at a light for too long and then when you look around you can see that shape everywhere. Have you found that channeling that into your art has helped other people understand what’s going on better?
Yeah, exactly. That’s what I’m trying to do because it’s so romantic now because everyone’s now coming out and saying they have it and you have these terrible artists and terrible musicians and they’re trying to give their work credibility, but this is a neurological condition, it’s totally different than being an artist. It plays more of a role in my life, not just my art, and that’s a thing people have found really interesting. So I’ve been trying to kill that off a bit, that people who have synesthesia are automatically amazing artists or musicians. Knowing your techniques and everything and mastering everything for me just went hand in hand with my synesthesia, it became my craft, but if I didn’t have the technique and everything first it just wouldn’t work.
(LEFT) Oasis – “Don’t Go Away”
Oasis – “Don’t Go Away”
Has it helped you to cope with your synesthesia and its side effects, like the migraines? I’ve also read you get sensory overload and have gone through a lot of bullying. Have you found it’s helped you cope with a lot of that?
Yes, absolutely. Definitely that’s it. Because I just didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t want to tell people because what if they just thought it was weird? I just thought I’d put it into something – I know art is quite a bizarre thing for young people, especially really young people, to look at and understand, but I thought if I could make this condition accessible as well through something I already enjoy doing then I think it could become a visual representation of what I’ve been seeing my whole life and not just something that people find popular nowadays. I was just trying to explain to people really. Now I just leave it up to my art to express it, because it’s talked so much about now and the London Orchestra thing is the epitome of what I stand for as an artist, because I’ve always had this thing about being authentic and real and even now linking up to an older generation and painting compositions that are over 100 years old is something that I’ve always wanted to do and it links up with my art and everything that I’ve been brought up around.
Can you tell me about the event with the London Chamber Orchestra and how it’s going to take form on the night?
There’s 1,000 person capacity in Cadogan Hall, it starts at 7:30, and I’ll be looking at the orchestra from the side bit. The music will be playing and I’ll be able to see them and I’ll just have this big space and the canvas in front of me and all the paint. I’m actually using vodka, they’re going to think I’m so mad, walking in with two bottles of vodka but it’s to disperse the paint because I always use it at home. If I paint without any form of liquid – not water or something with a high percentage of alcohol – the paint won’t disperse properly, it’ll just look like it’s lost all of its form and I need the fluidity of the paint to represent the composition, so I’ve even thought down to those intricacies.
In terms of the physicalities of the performance, at the basis of it, when they start I think it’s going to be exactly half an hour and there’s going to be so many ups and downs in what they’re playing.
It’s going to be streamed online too, right?
Yeah, it’s going to be streamed worldwide on Facebook, so everyone can watch it. The screen that’s behind the orchestra is huge, so if I mess up everyone will see it…
I’m sure they won’t even know you’ve messed up.
Yeah, exactly! When I’m painting, when I’m in that situation, whatever I do that’s what’s coming out of the music so I’ve looked past mistakes now and just call it what I’m supposed to be doing.
I’ll definitely be watching it. What part of it are you most excited for?
It’s all kind of stressful right now and the only thing that’s keeping me sane is getting to paint because that’s the thing I’m so looking forward to. I know it sounds cliché and everything but I can’t wait to, not show people what I do because it sounds cocky saying that, but it’s just no one’s seen me paint before and the process behind what I actually do, and I think it will just shatter people’s perceptions of what I’m doing. Because people create art on computers and all sorts nowadays, and there’s nothing wrong with that, yet I just don’t believe it. But the way real music is composed, it’s all natural and all natural instruments and that’s what I stand for in painting and I just can’t wait for people to see that I’m sort of bringing back an old art form in our generation. It’s sort of a weird thing, an abstract expressionist in the digital age.
What are the most exciting things that your art has brought about for you?
There’s been so many crazy things. So many big musicians collect my work now. I’ll be doing so many huge album covers this year, but the record label told me I’m not allowed to say who they are, which is really depressing. When I did the Glastonbury piece, I felt that just solidified that I’m a musical artist. I’m not a musician but I’m working more in the music industry than some musicians at the minute and it’s a really weird place to be, because I had to sign a thing with Rough Trade records for the album artwork while I was still in my first year at uni. That’s when it started and my work just went worldwide. Capitol Records on Fifth Avenue bought a big original painting, the biggest gallery in LA at the minute the Art of Elysium, beside KAWS and Oliver Jeffers and that guy from OBEY [Shepard Fairey] – do you remember the hats that everyone wore that said “Obey” on them? He’s actually an amazing artist.
There’s so many things, my brain just sort of turns off sometimes when people ask me, but so far the London Orchestra is the biggest thing. It’s just the culmination of everything I’ve worked towards.
What are your favourite songs or genres of music that get you going and excited to paint?
My music collection is so diverse because I was brought up around so much weird stuff as well, like Franz Liszt this really old composer and he actually had synesthesia. I didn’t know that when I was listening to him, I just kind of liked his work and then I later found out and thought it was really strange because I loved his compositions so much. There’s a weird Van Morrison album called Inarticulate Speech of the Heart and it has those sort of compositions that I really like. I then actually met Van Morrison outside this cool bookshop and I told him all about it and he wished me best of luck for the London Orchestra thing, it was crazy. Then sometimes if I’m in the studio, it really depends on my mood and the emotion I’m feeling. It could range from old composers to jazz like Miles Davis, Ray Charles or Nina Simone to Michael Jackson or anything in our generation too, like new music coming out in our generation. There’s some people I like in our generation, but mostly it’s past generations.
If there was one thing that you wanted people without synesthesia to understand about it, what would that be?
That it’s a romanticised thing now for people and they sort of put people with synesthesia who are successful on a pedestal. Although it’s a creative force – because a lot of creative people need the outlet if you’re an artist or a musician – I wish people would stop thinking of it as a romantic thing when they don’t really know the intricacies behind my life and process. I use it as a tool in my art to fulfil me, but in terms of my life it can be a real burden sometimes. The reason I have to go to a neurologist now is because I got really sick from taking so much paracetamol every day, I just couldn’t function day by day without feeling sick or being sick or having a huge migraine that would go on for weeks. People just need to think twice about it and actually read about the person who says they have synesthesia, because there’s a lot of people I’ve read about who are just talking absolute nonsense because I know the intricacies of it and they’re just saying such a romantic thing, and it’s not like that at all.
I mean, it is beautiful, I have amazing experiences. Like when I met my girlfriend two years ago, I felt so emotionally stimulated and she was resonating colour when she was walking, and her voice when she was talking to me. She had this gold-violet colour every time she spoke and that was pretty crazy…
LCO X Jack Coulter will take place on Thursday 12th April at 7:30pm at Cadogan Hall, find out more information here.