Let there be music. It could be any music. High brow, low brow. Music gives a key to what art is, to what art can do. For my desert island I’ll include the Sibelius Violin Concerto (D major, Opus 64). I’ll choose Pinchas Zukerman to play it. I’ll have to say it’s not the notes. It’s the spirit of the thing. As Zukerman says, “It has this incredible stuff happening everywhere.” Up and down, back and forth, the wonderful arbitrary quality of it all. Music, almost fully abstract, need not engage in realistically copying bird songs, wind, the sounds of traffic or falling coconuts. This one certainly doesn’t. This music takes a step away from reality and is a sound unto itself. It is its own thing. It seems to pluck its life right out of the air. The Sibelius concerto, like many others, exists for no other reason than to exhibit its own exuberance.
In painting, and in all the other visual arts, this understanding can make the difference between excitement and boredom, between perceived mastery and creeping mediocrity. A picture might be engineered to have areas that are brilliantly casual — or areas that dazzle with virtuosity and verve — or to drift effortlessly into simplicity where complexity might be expected. Like music, a painting may be brought to life with unexpected surprises. Eyes need encouragement to stop and be guided to engagement or thought. As is the case with music, there’s potential for eternal replay.
Music has wonder, exaltation, honour, pomp, joy, sadness, elegance, energy, ennui, disappointment, majesty, reflection, hate, love and more. Music is one of the greatest of the man-made things. Would that we could put the qualities of music into our paintings. For those of us who render well and try to get things right in our pictures, let’s not forget the lessons of music. Fill your foregrounds with counterpoint and grace notes. Paint arpeggios into your distances. Let there be rhythm, harmony and melody in your compositions. For those of us who work and play with shapes, colours and textures, let there be concertos and symphonies. Ask what choirs might be brought into service. Let there be music.
PS: “Music has been a fantastic guidance for me. I’ll be eternally thankful for this guidance.” (Pinchas Zukerman)
Esoterica: James McNeil Whistler (1834-1903) was a painter who saw a relationship between painting and music. He exploited unifying and simplifying harmonies to achieve moods. He magnified simplicity and softened complexity. Delicate and wispy passages were often placed within grander themes. “A picture is an arrangement of light, form and colour,” he said. His titles often included the words symphony, nocturne and harmony. The title of the painting known as Whistler’s Mother is Arrangement in Gray and Black.
Father and son team
by Mike Hammer, Toronto, ON, Canada
My father is the violinist Moshe Hammer who incidentally played with “Pinky” Zukerman asa small child for the Queen of Belgium at the age of 12! We collaborate in a performance called Beethoven Meets Pollock where he plays, often with other musicians, and I paint or draw. We’ve performed for fundraisers and in concert halls throughout Ontario, Canada. Recently, we began performing in schools. Music and art are intertwined.
Music like painting in public
by Ben Novak
Your input on music lies close to my own discoveries. Are many painters also musicians? I am. My musical media are various keyboards, which allow great variety in structure and complexity. Music is art in real time. As soon as the brain conceives of a variation (for those of us who play themes with our own versions of accompaniment) it is rendered, and artist and audience (viewer?) can react simultaneously. It is like painting in public, but much more compressed. Sometimes listening or playing music, I almost “see” how the emotion that is generated could be expressed graphically. The use of terms employed in music (rhythm, balance, harmony etc.) seem to underline it. Are these observations shared by others?
by Annie Bevan, Asheville, NC, USA
When asked to talk about my work, I’ve often found myself speaking in musical terms. When the work is “in the zone” (you know that realm) it feels more like musical composition or choreography than painting. There is something of the essence of creative expression that informs and transcends all its manifestations — and when you touch it — magic! During an interview, the cellist Itzhak Perlman was asked, “What is going through your mind as you Play?” — A look of wonderment came over his face as he said, “Colors!”
Loud music in studio
by Nana Banana
I often listen to music loudly as it distracts me from any outside noises and even people calling me from another room. I’m in my early 30s and still living in the same house where I have lived since I was seven. I just checked out a stack of music from a library and found that searching for music is just as enjoyable as listening while painting. It’s a matter of finding the music that works for the artist.
Hauls out her cello
by Elfrida Schragen
As I work in my studio, music has three major roles. Working on landscapes or still life, the chatter, interesting information and choices on public radio, plus CDs — particularly of Bach — have a wonderful way of occupying a certain part of my brain, and allowing the other senses to float through colour choices, line and design with spontaneity. While working on portraits, music that appeals to my subject relaxes the sitter and repeats the above function for me. And when a break, a “step back to allow for fresh eyes” is necessary, I haul out my cello and do an intense practice. My studio would not have the same allure without the musical counterpart.
Family of hummers
by Patty LeBon-Herb, Middlebury, VT, USA
My father, Luc LeBon, was an abstract expressionist painter who immigrated to the USA from Antwerp, Belgium, and jazz is what fueled his creative energy. As for me, I like silence as I get into a meditative state, though I love music and my 16-year-old son is becoming a musician. I work the best when my husband is in the same room with me. We work well in each other’s presence, where we don’t speak too much. It is his energy field or something that I must tap into. I love that he loves my art, which is the ultimate compliment to me, and it keeps me forever going. As a family we hum art, it is all around us and we create and influence each other. In a way we are creating our own little world in an old shoebox.
Painting to music in school
by Katie Wood McCloy, Davidson, NC, USA
I attended a girls’ school in Bryn Mawr, PA, USA. We had an art teacher by the name of Mrs. Terry. She was a wonderful inspiration in elementary and middle school classes. I will never forget painting to music (classical of course). It influences me to this day. I love rhythm, soft curves, and bright colors when listening to Musetta’s Waltz from La Boheme or Prokofiev brings out a frantic rush and complex abstraction. Music and art both spring from a grateful heart.
Music and calligraphy
by Carrie Imai, Canoga Park, CA, USA
I’ve always believed that music of all types, including the music of nature, is integral to creativity. I am a calligrapher and, in that capacity, paint with words. I always tell my students that we are artists who interpret words, expressing the emotion that the words evoke on paper. One of the exercises I use is to play various passages of music and have the students commit their feelings to paper with ink and paint using expressive marks and words. Calligraphy has in the past been thought of as communication craft but has, in more recent years, come into its own as expressive art.
Music as antidote for mediocrity
by Lori S. Lukasewich, Calgary, AB, Canada
Creeping mediocrity is my greatest fear as a painter. My music for a desert island is Music for Egon Schiele by a group called Rachel’s. I cannot get tired of it. It transports me to some exceptional place inside myself that, while somewhat melancholy, feels like a true home. No mediocrity whatsoever. In fact, I’m going to listen to it right now.
Music does the painting
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
I am occasionally invited to set up my easel on the side of a small stage, while my friend Bill Hutchinson and his band perform. There’s some wild energy to be tapped into, in the presence of an attentive audience and talented musicians. It’s fun to do a demonstration painting without having to talk, or explain. And because no one actually expects me to produce a decent painting under what would be, for most artists, daunting circumstances, the pressure is off. For reasons I can’t explain, I have done some of my favorite paintings on Bill’s stage. What they lack in detail and precision, they gain in energy and spirit. People seem to enjoy witnessing the process. And there are those wonderful moments, when it feels like the music is doing the painting, and I am just along for the ride.
Chanting for ecstasy
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
You have touched a place where I get lost and found and completely inspired. I experience music this way, and its qualities are embodied visually in my work. I key into the sounds of exquisite voices and instruments that carry a passionate and otherworldly sound and space. This sound creates openness, contours, expanse and can define a specific moment. From childhood I was in tune with the expressive, liberating quality of music. It is no surprise that I have found a yogic path that uses chanting as a means to awaken. Sanskrit chanting meets me in the place that my creative gestures meet me as I paint. Undulating with a feeling of form turned in on itself and back again, Sanskrit chanting and line work express a felt experience. There is a rich world of ecstasy that chanting and painting allow. There are many chanters who are noteworthy, who are doing great musical work such as Dave Stringer, Krishna Das and Rasa led by Kim Waters with classical instruments backing her. All are Americans who have been led to this practice of devotional chanting.
Abstractions and interpretations
by Bob Young, Guelph, ON, Canada
With the camera, the computer, cinema and television, representational painting has no need anymore to get it right. A snapshot records; a painter interprets and abstracts. In this letter, you say that the abstract, musical aspects of painting make the difference “between perceived mastery and creeping mediocrity.” That can’t be stated strongly enough.
To set out to “record” a motif is a recipe for mediocrity. Rather, to set up themes and counter-themes, to lead the eye like a crescendo leads the ear, to have “forte” passages and “pianissimo” passages, to use colour “incorrectly” to create a mood — these abstractions are what make for good representational paintings. Along these lines, I love the thinking of American artist Ted Goerschner. Ted really pushes abstract qualities in his book Oil Painting: The Workshop Experience, and I recommend it to any artist who wants to record less and interpret more.
by Alfred Muma
If one listens to music deeply and long enough, one can hear and see (feel) the colours created by the vibrations of the individual and groupings of sounds. One can see the colour of the instruments. This is called synesthesia. The definition of synesthesia is the production of a mental sense impression relating to one’s sense by stimulation of another sense of certain sounds with colours. Through this process one can with paint interpret music. It’s fun to do and is a great outlet to free oneself when one wants to be creative and have a change from the usual daily discipline of painting or creating how one usually does.
(RG note) Thanks, Alfred. A letter and responses about the curious phenomenon of synesthesia are here.
Face your demons
by Sarah Wall, Eire
When I was growing up my sister was classified as the artist and I was the academic. I stayed in that role and feared venturing into my sister’s territory until I finally took a whole year off work last year and faced a lot of my demons. It turned out they weren’t demons at all and the only reason they were shouting so loudly was because I had selective hearing! It’s a common defect I believe.
I teach forestry in a college here in the west of Ireland and every day I see magnificent sunrises, misty landscapes, unusual contrasting textures and love inspiring sunsets. I never thought about creativity and the necessity of it for the sustenance of the human soul until within the last two years or so. By then this particular human soul was crying out for it. After a year of engaging in all sorts of creative projects from making clothes and jewelry, to two different types of boats, I finally had the courage to turn to a canvas. That moment I broke into laughter and couldn’t stop. I was by myself. Life is good and it is particularly good every Tuesday and Friday, when I get your letters and when I indulge myself enough to be creative — whatever form that takes. Thank God for friends, landscapes and music.
Gershwin – Rhapsody In Blue
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2004.
That includes Doug Mays who wrote, “Chopin and watercolours are my duet.”
And also Casey Craig who wrote, “Reading the last clickback from other artists about how to deal with negativity was pure therapy.”
And also Phyllis S. Larson who wrote, “I like music that takes me to the woods, where I most long to be.”
And also Peter A. Mathews who wrote, “Listening to classical music through headphones while I work has become part of my everyday existence. I’ve also been looking for a way to connect with other art enthusiasts.”
And Ann Swan of UK who wrote, “Since subscribing to your letters I’ve started painting all the time and don’t have the time to read them anymore. Please unsubscribe me.”