Can we smell colour?

An examination of olfactory artists working with scent and colour in the context of contemporary art.

Saskia Wilson-Brown, Director & Founder of The Institute for Art and Olfaction

Can we smell colour?

If you have any interest in scent, you will most likely already know about synaesthesia. For those few of you who do not, synaesthesia is a phenomenon in which a primary sensory input triggers a secondary sense. This is best described as a sort of sensory crossover. According to an article published in the American Psychological Association's Monitor, the most common synaesthetic experience is 'coloured hearing'. One might hear a middle C on the piano, for instance, and see the colour yellow. Some synaesthetes feel music as a sensation on their skin, and some equate taste to shape. Less commonly still, some synaesthetes smell in colour.


Perfumer and artist Bruno Fazzolari is one of these rare people. When he experiences smell, he senses visual cues that can include shape and colour. As he explains: "For me, scent 'has colour' […] Complex scents like rose oil or jasmine absolute, have several colours and those colours change and shift [….]"



In 2010, the unique nature of his experience led him to explore his synaesthesia through his art and perfumery practice, focusing his attention on the pigment used to create India Ink. The resulting eponymous perfume, Lampblack, is bitter, resinous, inky and ultimately unplaceable — an olfactory companion to how he experienced the colour itself.

In a 2017 exhibition, Fazzolari expanded his cross-sensory work with 14 paintings that visually interpreted specific aromatic components. 'Patchouli EO (BFP 237)', for instance, presents seven red and pink circles on a rust-coloured background. The overall effect is cool redness and of intense contrast. In 'Nutmeg (BFP 236)', a chocolate brown and dark green field are broken by a vibrant red and orange circle containing two bold, dark brown octagonal shapes.

For Fazzolari, these visual-olfactory connections are inevitable and intuitive. However, for those who don't experience Fazzolari's particular sensorial reality, the associations may feel abstract. Indeed, as non-synaesthetes, it would be impossible for us to make the same connections that he does. Therein lies a challenge: Is it possible to consistently, indubitably, categorically equate colour to something so intangible, so hard to verbalise, as smell?



Let's start with what's easy. Smell an orange, and the mind recalls the source object, with a name that handily evokes the colour. Smell a dried bit of seaweed, and perhaps the colours of the deep depths of the ocean come to mind (bluey-green) or the colour of the seaweed itself (greeny-black). These associations are easy to verbalise because they rely on recognition and reasonable deduction.

If, however, we smell something more abstracted, the mind casts about for source material, and our colour associations evolve into a sort of poesy. Is Iso E Super dusty-brown-white, like a desiccated piece of wood forming a splinter under your skin? Quicksilver-golden-brown-grey like the shimmer of beetle wings on a hot summer night? What happens when we cannot equate the source aromatic to a real-world object? We cannot help but lapse into imprecision: pretty words with nary an iota of communicative, empirical data. Beetle's wings, in other words, do not allow me to understand what Iso E Super actually smells like.

Like Bruno Fazzolari, perfumer and artist Dawn Spencer Hurwitz experiences cross-sensorial impressions of smell, sometimes seeing "colours, opacity, texture, 2D graphic designs or 3D sculptural shapes". Hurwitz began working with colour in 2010 when she debuted Chroma, a series of scents for Denver Art Museum's Colour as Field exhibition. For this project, she used her synaesthetic memory as a source of data, scanning her perfumer's organ for materials that felt like a colour on an intuitive level. Hurwitz, in other words, used a reasoned system of deduction that relied on hyper-personal perception and emotion rather than a common truth. We can all agree that oranges smell like the colour orange. But how do we agree on a colour that expresses what Hurwitz calls 'the energy of orange'.



The biggest challenge for Hurwitz was the colour blue, or rather a series of blues (cyan, ultramarine, etc.). Logic would have dictated a scent that reflected things that are blue in nature, but this didn't work: "Just doing an Aquatic [perfume] isn't really true to what appears as blue for me." For her, in fact, blues were more abstract and were best reflected with materials that were also abstract. Parts of lilac, for instance, and some waxy aspects of hydrangea, a molecule called Labienoxime, and linden blossoms, amongst others.

Artist Maki Ueda explores similar issues in her practice, which blends olfactory art and what has come to be known as 'Social Practice'. Indeed, her work is most often expressed through public actions and workshops that make people — and smell — the crucial component of the work. In the many permutations of her Olfactory Games project, for instance, she has expanded upon the traditional Japanese games that in part make up the practice of Kōdō — roughly translating to the 'way of fragrance'. In 2021, Ueda explored the relationships between colour and scent in a cross-modal workshop that made use of the elements (wood, fire, earth, metal and water), the seasons, the cardinal points, and colour associations found in Chinese colour theory.


Maki Ueda Viral Perfume, Installation 2019


True colours, in the Chinese theory, are true because they are pure — in other words, unmixed: Red, Blue, Yellow, Black, and White. When it came to associating smells with these colours, Ueda used traditional interpretations to inform an otherwise intuitive process. Associated with spring and the East, blue, for Ueda, smells like borneol, a piney, camphoraceous terpene derivative. Yellow associated with the earth and the centre — smells like soft, sweet, resinous benzoin. White (autumn, west) smells like creamy, fuzzy sandalwood, while black (winter, north) smells like leathery, animalic onychia. Like Fazzolari, she associated red (summer, south) with patchouli. Purple, a colour that expresses nobility in Japan but was omitted from Chinese colour theory altogether, she equated to "the most precious and respected scent in Japan: agarwood".



So, can we smell colour? Some of us certainly can, whether through synaesthesia, intuition, or cultural association. However, what we do not appear to come too easily is a greater consensus. The multiplicity of interpretations on evidence in these artists' work parallels the multiplicity of interpretations of the human experience of smelling itself.

Scent is experienced in a fuzzy, unquantifiable space, pulling us inwards and isolating us in our own emotions and memories. Perhaps nothing will adequately help us place our impressions within a larger consensus. Perhaps our efforts at conveying smell through colour will only ever remain the expression of our own small truths. Perhaps, also, this is the very beauty of the solitary, the personal, the ineffably human act of experiencing smell.


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Colour Study By Liza Barbakadze: Instagram / Website