Aphantasia: Making Art with a Blind Mind's Eye


"Picture this."


Until recently I thought this was just an expression people used and nothing more. I've always been a little frustrated with terms like "the mind's eye." What does that even mean? It's used so often in therapy sessions, meditating, art lessons. "Imagine your happy place. Visualize yourself there." "Clear your mind and then imagine a sphere." "Picture your dearest loved one." It wasn't until recently that I discovered most people really are "picturing" images in their mind – literally seeing with their mind! It's likely this is no revelation to most of you reading this. But I have never been able to do this. I have aphantasia. Mind blindness. An inability to generate images in my mind. What do I see? Blackness. The backs of my eyelids. When I close my eyes and try to visualize in pictures, there's no visual imagery.


But you're an artist. How do you make art with no mental picture to guide you? Don't you need to imagine things to be able to draw them? I actually have quite the vivid imagination. It just doesn't work like 95% of other people's imagination. Instead of pictures, I think in words. And feelings. Vibes, even. I can draw a beach because I know what a beach looks like. I know there's sand and seafood, shells and crabs. I know the water is a darker blue than the sky and that the sky can be a range of colors from pink and purple to grey and green. I know because I've seen it. But knowing about a thing and being able to visualize it when it's not in front of me isn't the same thing. I can't call up a memory in the way others can. I close my eyes and I hear the words associated with the beach. I can remember the grittiness of the sand and the way the beach smells. I can hear the seagulls and the roar of the waves. But I cannot see it in my mind's eye. I can only feel the energy of the beach, if that makes sense. My mind works more in a literary fashion than a movie fashion - heavily wordy, very much narrated. If you were able to see what I'd see it would be like looking at the pages of a book. I tell myself what a thing looks like. But conjuring an image is not something I can do.


Having a blind mind's eye is something I've always had. I just didn't realize there was a name for it or that so few people think this way until I stumbled upon an article about Glen Keane, legendary animator for Disney Studios and the creator of Ariel from The Little Mermaid and Beast from Beauty and the Beast. Keane talks about how he couldn't picture the characters before he drew them. Designing the Beast was a process of using references and cobbling together a frankensteined version of creatures and features. He started out by copying a buffalo's head that hung in his studio. Then he added features from other animals - a gorilla's brow, a lion's mane, a cow's slightly drooping ears. Working with references he could see with his actual eyes and an explosion of scribbles that he could judge externally, much like a sculptor - adding and subtracting what worked and what didn't until he could see a shape forming - he created a creature that didn't exist in his mind. It wasn't until he added the last feature – the Beast's human eyes – that he had his eureka moment. For Keane, it was "like recognizing someone you know."





I had my own eureka moment reading that article. I've always drawn from reference. After reading everything I could on artists with aphantasia I realized I had grown increasingly self-conscious with the fact that, after many years of practice, I still needed to draw from reference. The self-doubt surrounding my process would grow each time someone asked me to share a drawing video or a tutorial. Every time I sit down to work, I'm not totally sure what's going to come out. It often feels like being a beginner all the time. Where do I begin? What will the character look like? I have no idea until I draw it. It is often messy and chaotic. This excerpt from Psyche Newsletter describes how I feel when I sit down to work:


The point of departure for the aphantasic artists’ work is not a visual image, but a ‘feeling’, ‘emotion, desire, energy’, ‘thoughts and ideas’ or a sense of a spatial arrangement. Some then make use of existing materials, through collages or reworkings of famous paintings; others rely on drawing from life, or refer to archives of images and photos; a third group, intriguingly to me, describes using the developing work on the page or canvas as a kind of externalised imagination, allowing them to ‘push and engage with the appearing image’, sometimes with a ‘thrilling sense of stepping out into the unknown’.

That's it exactly! Each time I approach a blank canvas I am stepping out into the unknown. I often have the essence of a character – again, I'll call it a vibe – but it's a push and pull to draw that character out because I can't "see" them until they're on paper. Glen Keane described it this way:


"I think of drawing like a seismograph of my soul."

It's also why I bristle at the notion of developing a "style." Because each time I sit down to create I'm not certain where my hand will lead. Without knowing it, I've developed several coping mechanisms and hacks for getting where I need to go on paper over the years. But there's this sense of discovery that, for the most part, bypasses my conscious decision making. Because of this, I've always been very hesitant to share tutorials or detailed process videos because it feels a bit like being asked to give directions to some place I've never been. As an aside, having no visual memory makes me absolutely impossible at geographic directions and navigating without a gps. I get lost all the time! I am quite literally feeling my way around in the dark with my art until I bump into something. I follow a feeling. Words. Those pesky vibes.


I'm sharing this now because I've felt the pull to return to blogging and I know I will inevitably get requests to share my process. I thought it was important to start here, by sharing my blind mind's eye, to really drive home the point that there is no one way or right way to work. While I'll eventually share more about how I've worked as an artist and writer with aphantasia, I want to be upfront that I am making a lot up as I go. Maybe that'll be frustrating to some and freeing to others. But I'm going to try to be brave and open up my space to everyone hanging out here who wants to peek into the overgrown brambleberry patch that is my brain.


If you'd like to read more about aphantasia here are some resources I've found helpful:


https://aphantasia.com


https://aphantasia.com/creative-workarounds-for-aphantasics/


https://aphantasia.com/writing-with-aphantasia/