Creating Art without a Mind’s Eye

When I was 7 I wanted to grow up to be an artist. I quickly decided that wasn’t possible because I couldn’t draw. I sure could draw the rat on the cover of Ralph S. Mouse (this one), and I drew Ralph over and over, but to think of something and just draw it, that wasn’t something my mind could do. So my 7 year old self saw Art as a profession that would never be reachable.

In a college painting class we were painting a live model. She had a bit of extra skin under her chin, and my professor came over and ‘fixed’ where I had painted it, noting that in professional portraiture we should make the client look as polished as possible. I don’t know that I agree with that mentality, but even if I did, I wouldn’t have ever been able to fathom what the model would have looked like devoid of that bit of skin. I could paint what was before me quite skillfully, but to consider a differentiation from what was before me wasn’t possible.

Sometimes I burn images of forest creatures into wood. I begin with a light trace of the animal from a printed photo, noting where the shadows should be. They come out well, but I often feel like I’m cheating in the process.

Blue bird woodburning process

I have Aphantasia, a blind mind’s eye. I cannot visualize within my mind, or at least not well. For me personally, what I see in my head is like a dark movie screen viewed from over a mile away. And what’s there is there, I cannot willingly change it.

The simple test goes like this — picture an apple. Can you see it? Now, hold it in your hand, change it’s color to blue, picture it on the beach. How clear is the apple on a scale of 1 to 10?

My apple is maybe a 1 or 2, and I can’t change it or hold it.

I discussed this test and phenomenon with my fiance. He revealed he can picture items within the real world space. I didn’t know that was possible. I didn’t know anyone imagined things any differently than I do. I imagine being able to visualize like that is a movie version of an acid trip. I know that’s off base, but it’s such a crazy concept to someone who’s never been able to see the world like that.

Knowing that I’m part of the presumably 2% of the world with this has helped me understand my creative process and what some of my professors were trying to get across in my art classes, but all in all it doesn’t really change anything. Like I always have, I simply have to work around it. I’ve been told it’s a disability by those I’ve brought it up to as they look at me with pitying glances. I’ve also spoken to others with Aphantasia who feel that their worlds have been shattered. And look, I get it, but there’s nothing we can do about it, and we’ve all had it without knowing, so something’s been working in our lives and creative practices regardless.

A toy photo made with an HO Scale (2cm tall) mermaid and purposefully broken aquarium ship

In part, Aphantasia may have helped me settle on miniature diorama photography i.e. toy photography as my creative outlet. I do favor this medium for numerous other reasons as well and while sure I could draw or paint from reference, I want to create scenes that don’t necessarily exist in the real world, and through miniature figures, props and scenery I’m able to do just that.

A honeycomb necklace made with resin

That doesn’t mean I don’t ever practice other mediums. I woodburn from reference, occasionally paint or draw simplistic designs from my head, and make resin crafts that allow me a more physical way of designing a space.

A collegiate still life oil painting from reference

All in all, to my 7 year old self and to those of you out there that need it, you can be an artist, you are an artist. Your creative drive can overcome your brain’s way of processing.

If you’d like to learn more about Aphantasia, visit this article in which you can also get in contact with the research team.

5 thoughts on “Creating Art without a Mind’s Eye

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  1. I don’t think I have this specifically, but I too can’t draw something out of my head, I need to have something to look at. When I was in 4th grade I entered a contest and won with a still life I had done at home of my mom’s canister set with some fruit. The win got me into a special art class, where I got to leave my class and meet in the cafeteria to do art. They gave me a canvas and acrylics and told me to do something. I couldn’t. They then accused me of cheating by not really doing the piece I had entered. I was ten years old and I’ve never forgotten that. To this day I believe I can’t paint. Just recently I bought some acrylics and watched a bunch of YouTube videos and I’m going to prove them wrong, but I’m still going to work off a reference piece.

    1. I love that you’re going to prove them wrong! That’s awful that they accused you of cheating. Educators need to be aware that all of our brains work differently.

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