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‘Inspired by Music’

Artists & Illustrators, May ’01

Artists and Illustrators cover


Many of us listen to music as we paint and can be deeply moved or inspired by what we hear, yet how many artists actually use it as inspiration for their work? My guess is surprisingly few. Perhaps this is because music appeals to our aural rather than visual sense and artists can be less well equipped to exploit it. I can vouch for this because, despite my best efforts, I’ve become a poorish musician but a reasonably accomplished painter.
      There are ways however, in which music might inspire painters. Firstly there is musical performance, which can be visually inspiring. Think for instance of Pavarotti singing arias in some wonderful baroque opera house. Then of course there is the appearance of musical instruments, which have fascinated artists over the centuries. The lute for instance was a favourite of renaissance painters and when shown in foreshortened perspective was considered a measure of draughtsmanship.
      Another approach is painting places with musical associations. Obvious examples are Elgar’s music with the Malvern Hills or Sixties pop music with swinging London. My particular favourite is traditional Irish music and when I hear it I can immediately see in my mind’s eye the shabby streets of small towns in the Irish midlands, or the looming shapes of the Arran Isles out to sea.
      The descriptive and poetic nature of song lyrics also offers a rich source of inspiration. I find traditional songs fascinating and their simple tunes beautiful. Some have familiar subjects such as romantic encounters at fairs, the voice of unrequited love or the super-natural powers of birds and animals. Such lyrics are often highly descriptive in a visual way, a surviving testimony to the popular imagination.
      Perhaps the greatest challenge here is to produce paintings that actually reflect the sound of the music itself. Kandinsky painted musical scores in the 1920’s. Apparently he could see particular colours when he heard certain instruments or voices. Perhaps a danger with this approach is that the interpretation of sounds becomes so subjective as to make the finished work unintelligible to others.
      I have to admit to choosing subjects for painting in a rather haphazard way, but whenever the opportunity arises I relish anything with a musical association. I painted the Welsh singer and harpist Sian James in November 1994, after seeing her on TV performing at the National Eisteddfod. Some time later I was introduced to Sian and she kindly agreed to sit for me. I was keen to produce a painting that reflected the quiet sound of the harp, intended as it is to fill small spaces, so here she is practising in a corner of her kitchen. The work was produced from photographs that were taken quite close up and although this has created a distorted view I’d like to think that it has also helped to give the picture a rather intimate feeling.

Painting - Sian James, Harpist

I painted Paula Gardiner in March 1998. She is arguably Wales’ leading up and coming jazz musician and composer. Paula is brilliantly gifted and a virtuoso performer on bass, piano, flute and guitar. I decided to portray her with the bass, as she looked so good playing it, and have tried to reflect the actual sound of the music being played by using a restricted palette of four colours plus white. The two browns were used for the deep sonorous sound of the bass, whilst the blues were chosen for the feel of the jazz itself. In the music there is an obvious use of repeated patterns and the idea of improvisation. So I tried to suggest this with colours and patterns made from repeated use of certain motifs. Hopefully the eye takes time to travel around the picture, giving a sense of the time-based nature of performance. I’ve also tried to show the sheer energy of Paula’s playing, as her facial expression changes dramatically with the physical exertion needed to play jazz on the double bass.

Painting - Paula Gardiner, Jazz Bassist


An ancient Welsh tradition, which is thought to date from the time of the Celts and their worship of horse gods, is the Mari Llwyd. It was once a common midwinter custom in Wales, which had all but died out, except for a particular ‘Mari’ at Llangynwyd in Glamorgan, which was kept alive by one Cynwyd Evans. Traditionally the Mari was taken around the farms, large houses and inns to collect money and food and drink for Mari and her attendants. There is much horseplay and revelry of course and a song is sung which consists of riddles which are improvised to ever greater levels of absurdity, until eventually someone gives up – the idea of course to keep the song going for as long as possible.

Painting - Mari Lloyd