How a Visual Artist With Aphantasia Drew What She Couldn’t “See”

I achieved something I had never done before as a visual artist with aphantasia. How I “imagined” light in a dark cave with no mind’s eye.
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Visual artist with aphantasia
Artwork By Peta

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Over the last few years, I have been creating bold, colourful, hard-edge paintings inspired by aerial photos sourced online. During that time, I was also trying to figure out how to take my work to the next level, but this only resulted in people thinking I was painting abstract works. As a visual artist with aphantasia, there is nothing abstract about my work. It is very literal in every sense of the word.

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Figure 1. My interpretation of an aerial photo in Melbourne, Victoria.
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Aerial view of Storage Wetland Park, Melbourne, Australia

Learning I Had Aphantasia

While I have been creative from a young age, I always felt misunderstood or different from others. Over the last few decades, I have been on a journey of discovery and understanding, partly motivated by the realisation that others could see pictures in their mind’s eye, and I could not. 

To discover that there was a name for this—aphantasia—and that there was nothing I could do to fix it caused frustration and anger. It was difficult for me to grasp why someone would be given the ability to draw and create without this “taken-for-granted” ability. It has taken me years, including six months of therapy, to come to terms with this situation, and I now accept that I function differently. 

I have also learned that having aphantasia can be approached positively. By exploring my art practice, I have learned how I respond to information and the critical element my analytical skills play in how I create.

How I “Imagined” Light in a Dark Cave With No Mind’s Eye

One example of a breakthrough, unwelcomed initially, happened in late 2022. I had enrolled in a “Drawing by Observation” unit at university. I am always careful with what units I choose, avoiding those with the assumption of the ability to visualise. So, given the unit’s name included the word “observation,” I assumed it was a safe choice.

Frustratingly, a few weeks in, students were given a two-paragraph narrative describing the interior of a cave and asked to draw what they visualised. Naturally, my first reaction was to freak out, which did nothing for my anxiety.

The following is the narrative provided by Gina Cinanni, Academic Coordinator for Curtin University:

“Without warning, a kilometre away and high above the lake surface, through a row of holes in what must be the roof of the cave… narrow beams of light rake down a curtain of castellated white limestone, reflecting in the mirror of water. You realise, too, that there is an opaque, white, waist-high miasma rolling slowly over the water towards you from the far end of the space. Eventually, you also become aware of one more thing in the scene; just nearby, the dimly seen silhouette of something completely unexpected in this place.” 

At first, I didn’t know what to do, but by analysing the narrative in greater depth, I began to see I could create a technical cave drawing. I started by making several sketches based on my technical drawing and drafting experience, including side and top views (Figures 2 and 3).

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Figure 2. Sketch of the side view of the cave.
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Figure 3. Sketch of the top view of the cave.

Unfortunately, the illustrations only gave me 75% of the information about the cave elements’ dimensions and location. Although only 25% of the data was missing, I still had many unanswered questions about what the cave looked like, as seen in Figure 4.

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Figure 4. The list of questions and what I still needed to determine

To determine the location of the remaining elements, I rolled dice, literally, one of the tools I often utilise to make my creative decisions (Figures 5 and 6).

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Figure 5. Sketch and the dice roll results determined the position of the roof holes.
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Figure 5. Sketch and the dice roll results determined the position of the roof holes.

With all this data and sketches, I started drawing a digital image to refine my ideas, then proceeded to draw in charcoal (Figures 7 & 8).

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Figure 7. The initial digital sketch.
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Figure 8. More detailed digital sketch.

With the digital sketches giving me a visual for the narrative, I made adjustments and began drawing the cave scenario in charcoal (Figure 9).

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Figure 9. My initial charcoal sketch, adjusting the depth and horizon line.

With the cave’s skeleton structure determined, I could refine the drawing using photographic references for caves found online. Based on the analysis and the reference photos, I ended up with a drawing that closely represented the narrative we were assigned (Figure 10).

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Figure 10. My charcoal sketch, excluding the silhouette of something unexpected.

The silhouette of “something unexpected” from the assigned narrative took me quite some time to decide on, and in the end, I asked lots of friends about what they thought might be unexpected. Not enthused about the ideas I received, I went with the opposite of what the cave provided. There was no light, people, vehicles, or electricity, so I chose to add a streetlamp, as seen in Figure 11.

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Figure 10. My charcoal sketch, including the silhouette of the old-style street lamp.

Despite all the frustration and challenges I faced with the cave project, I was awarded a High Distinction. 

This project helped me realise I can use my ability to draw and analyse to dissect a narrative and create something that doesn’t exist while still reflecting my artistic ability. So, while I still have further exploration, I achieved something I had never done before as a visual artist with aphantasia; I drew something I couldn’t “see”. 

Since this project, I have had more creative breakthroughs. If you want to follow my journey, I can be found on Instagram,  Facebook, and LinkedIn or by searching my name, Peta Tranquille, in Google. My work is available at petatranquille.com/shop.

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great work, struggling with frustration myself as game artist, since i discovered that others could literly see stuff in there head. Reading this gave me some ideas and motivation thank you