‘Symphony in Paint’ is exhibiting from Saturday, July 25th to Friday, August 7th.
Hannah Wilson’s mighty, colourful canvases will make you want to sit in the middle of the Glorious Gallery and “spend some time inside the painting.” Hannah is a musician as well as a painter, and connects the two in an unexpected way. Below, I speak to her about abstract art, the idea of ‘rising’, and the sound of colour.
When did you realise you wanted to be an artist?
When I was at St. Peter’s school I had a really, really good art teacher called Ms Prichard – she was my form tutor and she was amazing and just so inspiring. I’ve always been quite expressive, and I realised you don’t have to be photographic with your drawings in order to create something. When I realised that, I just kept going with it – around my GCSEs was when I really got into it. I’d always liked drawing and painting when I was younger, but it wasn’t something I knew what I wanted to do. It was made much more definite for me when I found the connection between my painting and my cello-playing.
How has your style evolved over the years?
I used to do a lot of landscapes. When I was younger, me and my family would go on holiday to Polzeath in Cornwall, and I was fascinated by the sea and the movement of water. I really started to enjoy painting that. I used to be much more representational and I’ve come a lot further away from it since being at uni, as I’ve realised there’s so many more avenues. You don’t always have to paint what you see – you can paint what’s inside and what you feel. Now I like to do an internal landscape instead of a physical representation. I like painting the unseen.
Do you draw a lot from your personal experiences for that?
Yes – some from memories. It might just be a colour I see and think, “Ooh, I like that,” or a piece of music I listen to. I have synaesthesia so for me, sound has a colour, meaning a lot of the time I paint from a sound, or I paint and then the paint has its own sound. I was probably around eleven when I realised I connected colour to sound – I’d say to my mum, “This is this colour!” and she’d say “Is it?” I was young and thought it was normal, then realised it was quite strange and not everyone had it. Other people have it in other ways, like the day of the week being a colour, but mine’s definitely sound to colour.
How does that play out in your mind?
I don’t see colour physically, although some people do have musical hallucinations. I see and feel it inside, and see it at the backs of my eyes, if that makes sense. I get a sense of the colour – it’s usually moving, going in and out of different colours. It can become blurred or marbled. Occasionally, it’ll be one vivid colour.
Would you be able to say, for example, what notes your paintings are?
I did start trying to think of fixed notes or chords, but now I’m more into letting the paint sound, rather than painting particular sounds. I’m in the early stages of that at the moment.
What does the orangey-yellow painting by the window sound like?
It’s so hard to describe sound when it comes from colour, like trying to imagine a colour that doesn’t exist. The orangey-yellow one has a twinkly kind of sound, quite high-pitched but with a drone underneath. It has depth but with a rising sound, so you feel like the sound starts low and goes upwards. The paint and sound are completely merged – it’s hard to separate them sometimes, which is why describing it gets tricky.
How else does synaesthesia influence your life?
If the colour of a piece of clothing makes a sound I don’t like, I won’t want to buy it. I have that a little with taste as well – if something is dark yellow, it tastes tinny.
For your exhibit, did you pick paintings that complement each other in sound?
Yes – they’ve all got a feeling of sound that’s going up in pitch, and part of that is because I turned a lot of the paintings upside-down. I wanted the drips to go upwards, to get that feeling of rising. Sound is a vibration, so I imagined the sound underneath the paint making it bounce up. Also, the paintings have a passage that runs into another canvas. Like the blue one with the yellow going along it – next to it is a smaller blue canvas with a similar passage. I thought of one canvas as a continuous sound, and then an echo – the smaller one being the echo.
Is it the first time you’ve approached your work in this way?
A little – during my final degree show in Falmouth, I thought about how the series worked together, because it was really important to me that they worked in a continuous space, and gave the feeling of going into a new environment. I wanted it to be like walking into a new place, and you get that when you have paintings that complement each other. You can be immersed in them. It’s easier to do that with abstract art than with landscapes because with landscapes, you have lots of different places, and you’re going into them individually. Have you ever been to Monet’s Orangerie? He’s got panoramic paintings of his water-lilies, and you walk in and feel like you’re there because your peripheral vision is taken up. Ideally I’d want my paintings to go all the way around the room, so you have no breaks at all in colour, and you can go inside the painting – just spend some time in there!
You work on such a large scale to get that effect – what’s your creative process like?
Some of the canvases I make myself because some of them are very big – the ones I did for my degree were six and a half by seven foot! They’re too big for this exhibition, so I worked on joiners, getting big paintings in three canvases. I do my paintings in layers – I can do one layer in one month and then wait two months to do the next. With the drips going upwards, I wait for it to dry and then add more drips. I use a lot of linseed oil and varnish. I have a thing about wanting all my paintings to be shiny at the moment, I don’t know why!
And do you always work in your studio?
Sometimes I work outside if it’s sunny, but oil paints take so long to dry, and it’s difficult to take a really big canvas out and not get paint over everything. I’m so messy when I paint, and I think you need that – it’s a freedom.
Do you have a favourite of your own paintings?
The blue and the yellow on the two canvases – that’s probably my favourite right now. They look so different in different environments, but for here, I’d say that one. I had a day where I felt really orange and yellow, and the sound was getting higher and higher, and that started the process of the blue painting. I did the yellow and then the blue – I wanted that going up, and then experimented with the passage going through it. It’s a melody going through one sound. The yellow one is more of an accompaniment, just one continuous sound rather than a melody over the top, but when you put the passage through it, the tune comes out.
Does being in The Madcap Ponderlings affect your paintings?
Yes. I would say the immersion of playing in a band or orchestra definitely influences my art. It influences the way I display my work, too – I want to create the feeling of sitting in the middle of an orchestra and being completely immersed by sound.
Are The Madcap Ponderlings a specific colour to you?
For me, it’s a really bright red and yellow with black outlines. It’s a flat colour, less textured. I’m not sure why.
Who are your artistic influences?
Monet, definitely, and Fiona Rae. Elgar, Vivaldi. I really 1950s expressionism, where abstraction was getting more attention, so Jackson Pollock and Gerhard Richter. Concept wise, people like Grayson Perry – I love the way he works and the way he talks about his work. Kandinsky, of course. Theo Jansen, who has really big features powered by the wind. I saw them on Exmouth beach a couple years ago, and that continuous movement really influenced my work. Nina Simone I listen to a lot, and Bob Marley. When I’m painting, I love 40s and 50s music, gypsy jazz, that sort of thing.
Do you always listen to music when you’re painting?
Sometimes I paint in total silence when I really want to hear the sound of the paint. Other times it’s lovely having the influence of other music.
What themes are you currently exploring?
The idea of rising, and paintings having a sense of weightlessness. The word ‘up’ keeps ringing in my mind, which is interesting because the exhibit before me was called ‘Up in the Air’! I work more with just a few colours now. I used to be really chaotic with colour, and I think uni is what made me look at colour in a special way, for example thinking one colour is really amazing and stands on its own. You don’t have to do a huge amount to achieve something, or layer as much as I was. My work is simplified in some ways, and I wouldn’t have been confident enough to include the orangey-yellow one a few years ago.
And everyone loves that one!
Where did the inspiration for your ‘up’ concept come from?
Metaphorically, the idea of going up instead of down, moving forwards instead of falling away. It feels spiritual, moving up and moving down, and this idea of the symphony and the feeling of being surrounded. It came from music and thinking about my direction in life, and the end of an era – the end of uni, the end of education at the moment, moving away and being freer.
What advice would you give to aspiring artists and musicians?
Keep experimenting. It’s important to love what you do, and if you do, then your work will get better. Enjoy it and have fun with it! You have to have that energy and enjoyment in your work in order to improve.
Hannah will be continuing to create more work on the idea of symphonies and ‘rising’. Keep an eye out for her future exhibits, and follow her online on her website or Facebook. Alternatively, you can find her playing her cello with The Madcap Ponderlings.