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How Mary Blair brought synesthesia to the big screen

The distinctive visual style of Disney artist Mary Blair has its roots in an early-20th-century artistic movement that sought to blend sound and color.

Mary Blair created the concept designs for 'Alice in Wonderland' and a number of other Disney animated features. Her visual style was influenced by an early 20th century artistic movement known as synchromism, which sought analogies between color and music.

Walt Disney Pictures / Album / Newscom

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Disney artist and illustrator Mary Blair, who was born 100 years ago on Friday, was best known for her visual style, particularly her innovative use of color. But her style wasn't limited to one sense; her colors also sang.

Blair, who won a scholarship to the prestigious Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, studied under the painter Morgan Russell, who, along with Stanton Macdonald-Wright, founded the synchromism movement, which produced some of the first pieces of abstract art in the United States.

Russell and Macdonald-Wright believed that every note on the musical scale had an analogous color, and a painter could arrange colors harmoniously on the canvas in the same way that a composer could arrange notes in a symphony. Russell's "Cosmic Synchromy," painted in 1913 and 1914, is a prime example of how he applied this theory. [Editor's note: An earlier version mispelled the name of Russell's painting.]

The idea that there exists some correspondence between colors and sound is not new. Isaac Newton thought that colors and sounds had corresponding frequencies, as did Goethe. Indeed, some people have no choice but to form an association between colors and sound.

Synesthesia – the ability to "hear" colors, "taste" sounds, and so on – is a neural condition, like right- or left-handedness. It doesn't call out for a cure. Indeed, most synesthetes really like the way their minds work.

Probably the most common form of synesthesia is known as grapheme → color synesthesia. (The arrow is not a typo – it indicates which sense gets confused by a person's other senses.) To those with this condition, letters, numbers, and some words and proper nouns are inextricably tied to colors. The letter A is always red, D is always green, seven is always yellow, Monday is always blue, and so on. One of literature's most famous synesthetes, the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, expressed this sensation best in his 1871 sonnet, "Vowels."

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