G is for Galbanum

This post first appeared at Brian Pera's Evelyn Avenue blog.

Galbanum is a beautiful word that refers to a beautiful fragrance material. It’s a G-word that plays an important role in my life. The odor is typically described as green. Green is another important G-word. Green is unusual because it describes both odor and color.

The painting above is a study for a fragrance. Odors produce a color vibration in my mind, so odors and colors are strongly associated for me. If you’re someone who “sees” scent, it’s strange to say that odor and color are separate categories of experience when both are vibrational events along a continuum of experience. At some point we call one seeing and the other smelling, just like at some point, we stop saying green and start saying blue. My work is about exploring this space between color, visual form, odor and olfactive form and about the ways that these relationships extend the space of Painting and the space of Perfume.

This painting was for a scent that includes osmanthus absolute, an extract of the osmanthus flower that smells like rich apricot jam and honey. It’s gorgeous stuff, but it’s an extract of the flower and not the flower itself so while it’s jammy, it’s also a bit dense and lacks space—it’s two-dimensional. A perfume would need to open up the space of the extract in some way. The painting explores color facets of osmanthus and considers some contrasts to open up that space. Alone, the pink in this painting lacks sparkle, and the green rectangle is too vivid. Combined, they transform one another. You can experience this by doing what painters do: block the green rectangle in your line of sight with your thumb, looking at the image with and without it to consider the effect.

When I walk into the studio, I start by listening to the vibrations of color and scent and then testing points of connection. I look to the colors in my mind, but I’m also inspired by fashion and textiles. The rusty red in this painting is an earth pigment. Its masstone (how it looks when applied thickly) is drab and brown, but its undertone (how it looks in thin washes) is luminous and orange. The undertone has the soft glow that I see when I smell osmanthus. But that glow is only one facet of the odor, which to me also has moody, mauve-pink shadings. Earth reds like the one in this painting were sometimes paired in 19th-century French textile designs with mauve-pinks and yellow-greens. This inspired me to explore some greens, but the green I ultimately chose is very bright and “post-modern.” The green pointed me towards using galbanum and other green notes in my perfume formula.

Actually, I lied. Galbanum isn’t so beautiful, at least not at first. Smelled straight, the essential oil is harsh and unpleasant, like acrid, chopped spinach. When I first smelled the stuff I could only imagine using it in a citrus scent where I needed a sharp, astringent, green note. But galbanum has a secret identity that reveals itself in floral accords. Smell carefully and behind the spinach you’ll notice something unexpected: lushness, richness, plush velvet, moss, wax, powder. 

Perfumers love materials that straddle different odor families. Iris is famously both woody and floral, osmanthus is floral and fruity, ionones are fruity and woody—to name just a few. Like chameleons, these materials change with their context. Galbanum is also a chameleon. Skillfully dosed, the harsh aspects behave a little like an aldehyde to “shear out” heavy floral notes. But perfume accords are all about relationship, so while the galbanum modifies the florals, the florals also modify the galbanum, softening it and foregrounding the powdery waxiness. The result is a velvety shimmer that is opulent, sophisticated and green. I’ve used galbanum in this way in my scent Au Delà. The effect still baffles and delights me every time I spray the stuff.

When you begin to study art, you quickly learn that color words are too broad to describe the variety of colors in the world. Green doesn’t point to a single color, but to an array of thousands of visual experiences that we call green, some so different that it’s astonishing we could give them the same name. You might love one yellow-green (say, chartreuse) but hate another (...avocado).  But here too, it’s all about relationship: when the avocado gets paired with deep maroon, it’s suddenly a thing of beauty and you want it around all the time. What happened to the avocado you hated? You know it hasn’t changed and yet your experience of it is profoundly different. The avocado that you now love can’t be separated from the maroon; it’s only when the two are together that your pleasure-center gets activated. From that perspective, it’s strange to say that the two colors are separate. There’s a kind of magic at work here.

There’s an approach to abstract painting that considers painting as something discrete and separate from the world.  But there’s another (and I think, richer) way to approach art. Paintings and perfumes don’t exist in an idealized vacuum, they exist in the world, in real rooms and in real places. They are in relationship with other paintings and with other perfumes, with institutions, with people, with stories about their making and their makers.  It’s nearly impossible to view a Van Gogh without thinking about his life and struggles, or to separate Coco Chanel’s liberating designs from the revolutionary olfactive shape of No. 5. This particular painting is in relationship with a perfume and the perfume is in relationship with the painting. Each stands on its own, but the space where they meet is wide open.

Bruno Fazzolari