Visualisation and Why We Don’t Need it to Make Visual Art

Artists, writers, illustrators, photographers and all people who work with their creative impulses are not limited by their aphantasia.
Aphantasia by Elina Cerla

Table of Contents

When I was invited to lead a workshop for the Extreme Imagination conference last year on drawing with aphantasia my brain started exploding with ideas. I have long taught Visual Thinking classes that combine learning to draw and paint with an understanding of perception and vision. To throw aphantasia into the mix seemed not only exciting but deeply coherent. I wanted to give people tools to counter the mistaken assumption that if you cannot visualise you cannot create visually. Enough artists, illustrators and photographers with aphantasia have appeared, even early on in research, to quash negative causal relations between the two. Let’s call the ability to create visually ‘external visualisation’, be it map-making or painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. So why is internal visualisation not necessary for external visualisation.

Visualisation May Not Be Visual

The relatively simple to understand word “visualisation” condenses many more concepts than its already numerous syllables. This is complicated further when we throw in the also deceptively simple word “imagination”. You know…

“Imagine an apple.”

imagine an apple
The associations of imagining an apple will be different for everyone.

Let’s wind back a little from imagination, through visualisation, to simply seeing…

“See a red apple?”

green apple

It has long been understood that seeing isn’t a simple bottom-up retinal reaction to stimuli but also a complex top-down response to sensory input affected by previous experience, stored knowledge and contextual cues.

How quickly can you say the actual colour of the words here?

Color words

How about now, remember, the colour not the word the letters spell?

words color

That’s an example of the Stroop Effect that shows that there are various factors at play when seeing a set of shapes in a specific colour. If seemingly simple seeing quickly becomes a complex top-down process, then visualisation will also quickly hit against complex mechanisms based on prior knowledge, assumptions, context and individual experience.

To start to understand the question Why is internal visualisation not necessary for external visualisation? we need to show how the term “visualisation” is a complex and not a simple phenomenon; an umbrella term that denotes myriad interrelated processes in the brain, many that are not visual at all.

Crucial in the definition and identification of aphantasia itself is the example of mental imagery, a concept that needs to be broken down into at least object imagery (conjuring pictorial images) and spatial imagery (conjuring spatial responses). This could be why, against early hypotheses, people with aphantasia are actually very good at mental rotation tasks such as the one below (where you have to identify which of the four lower 3D objects is the same as the first one just rotated differently).

Mental Rotation Task 2 1
Image from mental rotation tasks article.

To complete these tasks, it was thought that visualisation understood as object imagery would be necessary. If this was the case, people with aphantasia would be significantly worse and this contradicts actual research findings.

So, “visualisation” includes the visual but needs to be widened to include spatial imagery; the Stroop Effect points to the interference of verbal cognition in vision; and we may even need to incorporate concepts of haptic ‘imagery’, acoustic ‘imagery’ and other sensorial forms of imagination that are less widely studied.

Visualisation and Imagination: A Faulty Correlation

We get to play with even more moving parts when “imagination”, at the heart of the term aphantasia, is thrown into the mix. Aphantasia means to be without imagination. The etymologies of both phantasia and imagination are linked to being made visible and to images, and yet the accepted use of imagination spans much further than the visual sphere (some resist the term aphantasia because of this).

In semantic defence of the word, it is easy to say that in a research context aphantasia will only be taken to relate to the visual, and yet the complexity and assumptions around mental rotation and the Stroop Effect show how difficult it is to draw clear lines between different cognitive processes. The need to be careful when sorting through and identifying embedded assumptions about visualisation, imagination and perception that might be affecting research parameters was addressed by Dr Fiona MacPherson during the 2021 Extreme Imagination conference.

What is clear is that many painters, architects, photographers, illustrators and other visual artists haven’t been hindered by their non-visual imagination. And it is crucial to remember this fact. Especially as aphantasia is becoming more known, people are realising that they may have different ways of developing their creativity. This is wonderful, as many people find it a relief and a joy to identify how their brain might be processing information. At the same time, we mustn’t fall into the assumption that having aphantasia will limit what we can do.

And that’s why I thought it would be great to run a drawing workshop…

Learning to See to Draw

I wanted people to realise that the ability to draw, or paint, or create visually, can be developed regardless of whether you have aphantasia or not. The most damaging cliché that rears its head, and it’s not limited to those with aphantasia, is: “Oh, but I’m useless at drawing.” Or: “I can do maths but I’ve always been terrible at art.”

I often ask people if they expect to wake up in the morning being able to speak German or Arabic. Unless they speak German or Arabic when they go to sleep, the answer is invariably “of course not”. Why do we think a language like drawing will be any different?

I deeply believe that everyone can learn to draw. Or, more importantly, learn to see to draw. If we are sighted, the way we learn to see is calibrated for our everyday tasks; for moving around and communicating. For recognising apples. To draw something that emulates something we are looking at, we need to recalibrate the top-down conditioning of our visual understanding so it can take on a new function. Much like learning to speak German or Arabic, where we have to retrain vocal cords and add new symbolic or syntactical paths, we are adapting to use a new language.

Although the process of learning to draw for someone with aphantasia will be much the same as someone with hyperphantasia or someone with a more average level of phantasia, it is understandable that we ask: How might aphantasia affect the way you draw, or learn to draw?

Neurodiversity Made Tangible

Most people with aphantasia will have been through those mind-blowing first conversations where they realise that their brain functions differently to others when it comes to internal visualisation. You know, that mutual incredulity when someone with the ability to visualise realises for the very first time that for you there is a visually blank space and you realise that for them the simple statement “imagine an apple” isn’t metaphorical!

An awareness of how aphantasia affects drawing or learning to draw is especially important for teachers, as is all sensitivity to neurodiverse forms of learning. Standardised methods have long assumed processes and cognitive methods that are not available or useful to everyone. Many people with aphantasia will have been put off mindfulness thanks to teachers who, although they mean no harm, insist on visually anchored language in guided exercises and meditation. While other exercises based on somatic awareness of breathing and developing interoceptive acuity will be equally useful and enjoyable as there is no need to invoke a visual process.

With drawing, a large part of the learning process is also common across many forms of neurodiversity. As with all processes of learning, especially when muscular agility is involved, there are no quick fixes or massive shortcuts. Although I don’t believe in the 10,000-hour rule, a certain amount of deliberate, personalised and guided practice will be necessary. Similarly, there is no formula for people with aphantasia to learn to draw overnight.

To look for tools that differentiate people with aphantasia can be misfocused energy; wanting to find the ultimate individualised panacea that assumes that everyone with aphantasia is
alike. Sensitivity and inclusive language, and individualised teaching are key; these could be equated to replacing right-handed scissors for a left-handed pair, but you still need a full toolbox of instruments to then chose those best adapted to your way of working and your interests.

Useful Tools Part 1: Constant Feedback Loop

One of the possible correlations appearing when people with aphantasia make artworks, or externalised visualisations, is the need to embrace the feedback loop that explicitly externalises the visual process. Regardless of drawing style, because not having internal visualisation creates a visual pause between the imagining and the appearing on paper, that visual silence needs to be bridged or acknowledged.

In the workshop, I encouraged this by asking people to put down some light marks very early on, knowing that these foundations are malleable and will shift and stay open as long as possible. By getting some marks down quickly, you are kick-starting the necessary feedback loop created between mind, hand and page. To keep this stage loose and open allows things to be shifted and adapted to follow the initial feeling you have as a starting point, the model you are working from, or the exploratory process.

drawing by Elina
Drawing by Elina Cerla

Putting down these marks is like slowly creating a moveable web that you can push and pull to become the foundation of your drawing. When you decide you want something fixed or anchored, you can darken the mark. It’s also really fun!

Useful Tools Part 2: Shapes, Mapping and Spatial Imagination

I’d like to invite you to think about how you recall information. Firstly, I’ll ask you to do something and, as you do it, observe what things pop into your mind:

Think of a triangle.

Do you feel you understand the word and know what a triangle is? Maybe you could explain to someone else what a triangle is. Depending on your interests, maybe some formulas are popping up or you’re thinking of words like equilateral, isosceles, scalene and hypothenuse. Maybe you’re remembering a building with a triangular element, thinking of a typical V shaped roof. Or maybe your mind quickly quietens after your initial moment of identification.

Draw a triangle.

Were you able to draw a triangle? Everyone in the workshops was, so it is possible to have a framework in your mind, bypass visualisation and still produce that in a drawing.

Drawing a triangle may seem overly simple, but when drawing it is extremely helpful to reduce complex ideas and inputs to simple fundamentals, geometrical shapes and the basic principles of mapping one point relative to one another. Here is a visual example of how simple mapping and shapes can help us to build much more complex and subtle images:

8 Degas
Simplified information mapped over a Degas drawing.

As I was interested in working with the human figure and exploring the expressive power of gesture, and that my imagination does allow me to use spatial understanding, I decided to learn some anatomy. This felt indispensable for my toolbox. Someone who wants to work with abstract compositions, colour and light, or who doesn’t easily navigate spatial cues, may choose to focus on other tools.

9 ElinaCerla levator scap origin
Levator Scapulae Origin by Elina Cerla

Useful Tools Part 3: Working from References

I do have one clear preference when I work: having something to work from. And this may well be influenced by my aphantasia. Having a visual reference allows you to have two points of reference at either side of the visual silence in-between imagining and appearing. It is also partly a choice as, for me, embracing the externalised feedback loop is most fun and responsive when I have a model to work from. Be this someone sitting for a painting or drawing, or objects to work from, I enjoy the conceptual complexity of translating three dimensions into the flat two-dimensionality of the paper or canvas.

For someone with aphantasia, working from references (be that working from life or from photographs) can provide a springboard to start the creative process and it may even become the foundation of their practice.

Although I sometimes use photographs, I don’t find the process as engaging and fun. In part, because you are delegating much of the decision-making to the hidden mechanical and digital processes that precede the image, but mostly because I am fascinated by how form and light come together and can be artificially flattened in an enticing and deeply absurd, even antithetical, way. It is part of what draws me to making work on a flat surface.

As a tip to people who want to or need to work from photographic reference, I do recommend you also find occasions to work from life (like joining local life-drawing sessions or organising a group where you sit for each other for portraits) so you can compare the process with using images. If you do choose to work from photographs, and you don’t want to be limited to simply copying, I recommend having various images of what you are drawing. Having points of view from different angles allows you to understand how the form works as well as creating a more complete stimulus to work from.

Useful Tools Part 4: Exploring Creative Solutions

I don’t believe in rules, but if there ever was one helpful maxim, this might just be it: Focus on what you can do, not what you cannot do. If you know you need to resolve a problem that is getting in the way of what you want to do next, and the answer isn’t clear, then you need to start experimenting to find possible solutions.

This happened to me when I wanted to paint some chimerical humanoids; human bodies with heads that were both human and animal hybrids. I started looking at many images online of different animals and made some sketches, but this didn’t bring me closer to merging the two together. Someone else might visualise this hybrid internally in their mind but I knew that wasn’t going to help me and so I looked for another solution. It turned out to be pretty simple: tracing paper.

There are many ways of resolving the hurdles we come across so it’s a question of trying things out and experimenting.

10 ElinaCerla hybrids 1
Sketches for hybrids by Elina Cerla

Useful Tools Part 5: Enjoy the Magic of Conjuring

I like to use the word “conjure” rather than imagine or visualise as it best fits the often amorphous, non-visual feeling people with aphantasia have when they bring something to their mind (and because a little sprinkle of magic can never do any harm to imagination). Just as not being able to visualise doesn’t mean you cannot imagine, not being able to visualise doesn’t mean you cannot conjure something that isn’t there tangibly. When I recall my grandmother, a wonderful strong and beautiful woman who had a deep influence on me, I don’t feel sorry because I cannot “see” her face. I remember moments we shared together, the role model she was, the passionate engagement with teaching and helping others she had, her lovingness and kindness, I remember gestures she would use, emotions she triggered in me. The depth of my recollection is so much deeper and multi-faceted than a visual snapshot.

And in any case, we all know that we rewrite our memories when we access them so as I remember her the memory grows and morphs in a beautifully human way. I don’t feel like I am missing out simply because I cannot “see” her. I feel and understand and intuit and celebrate and enjoy who she was. So even as someone with aphantasia I have all these tools and semantic cues, and these feed into the way I draw. Being able to tap into emotion is an important aspect of drawing for many of us.

Correlation Not Causation

The examples above are not just useful tools for people with aphantasia but for everyone who wants to draw. Keeping things open is good practice for all artists and often leads to far more engaging and exciting work. Simplifying, recurring to first principles in geometry and mapping are some of the building blocks in anyone’s drawing toolbox. Using references such as working with models is something that many artists find fundamental to their process. And looking for creative solutions is at the heart of artistic expression. So, it is important to remember that choosing to use these tools is not causally linked to aphantasia, they are just useful tips, and if artists with aphantasia choose to prioritise these tools it is at most a correlation and not a necessity born of limitation.

The brain’s predisposition to create narratives, fill in gaps and find patterns fascinates me. I am also healthily wary of this as it can lead us to embellish correlations and revel in confirmation bias. This balance of excitement and scepticism has fuelled my journey since I discovered I had aphantasia and whenever I have been asked to talk and write about its effects on my way of working. Useful tips and helpful tools are just tips and tools. There are no hard and fast rules for how to work for anyone, let alone anyone with aphantasia.

On the flip side of this, in the realm of half empty glasses, I have met some who chose to use their aphantasia as a self-fulfilling prophecy and a justification for what they ostensibly cannot do, for example, draw. This saddens me as I know it stems from not having been given the tools to work with, rather than against, their way of being. We are all different and learning to celebrate that difference is one of the most vital things we can do.

Resist the Temptation of Comparison

It seems logical then that comparing ourselves to others will never be a helpful exercise. I have always run group classes for beginners and practicing artists side-by-side where everyone works at their own pace and a symbiotic group dynamic is created where the beginners remind the more experienced artists of the foundations and those with more experience help to inspire the beginners.

If you keep looking over your shoulder at others to compare your level, not only are you making the process stressful and shutting down your receptivity to learning, but you are likely to be making damaging comparisons for yourself and others (for all you know, the person next to you may have been drawing every day for decades or may have recently had a stroke and be learning to draw for their new-found self).

To not compare and judge makes for an enriching learning environment and quickly shows how comparison is a futile exercise. A non-judgmental environment helps build both openness to others and individual confidence. After all, you need to develop what works for you and what fulfils your interests and curiosity.

Choose Your Teachers Carefully

Especially when we are learning something new, we do often look for external validation and someone with expertise to know if we are on the right track. This is of course natural, and it is in part why we look for people to teach us skills. We rely on their experience and feedback to adapt as we learn. This is why it is so important to, whenever possible, choose your teachers carefully. I have heard many stories about teachers who have put students off learning for life and it always breaks my heart.

So, what makes a supportive teacher? Someone who:

  • Questions their own knowledge and is open to learning.
  • Can explain the why behind a method they are teaching.
  • Recognises their limitations and helps you find an answer if they don’t know it.
  • Listens to you and adapts their explanations to your needs.
  • Creates an enriching environment where you can learn at your own pace.

What would make me hesitate about a teacher? Someone who:

  • Is rigidly certain of their methods and skills.
  • Tells you what to do without ever explaining why.
  • Is reactive and defensive when you ask something they don’t know the answer to.
  • Doesn’t adapt their teaching to you or, for example, refuses to understand your explanation of having aphantasia (unfortunately, this does happen).
  • Creates a competitive environment.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be exercises everyone is asked to do, nor that there won’t be times when a good teacher gently pushes you outside your comfort zone, this is all part of the process of learning. But you should always feel listened to and supported.

Two words that for me summarise an enriching environment for learning (applicable to all involved) are generosity and curiosity.

Self-Awareness and Self-Acceptance

Part of building people’s confidence in their growing skills is to give them the tools to be self aware and become their own teachers. In the long run, the best thing you can want for anyone who you are teaching is for them to no longer need your guidance.

At the Extreme Imagination conference, several people referred to their aphantasia as a super-power. This is a refreshing reconfiguration of the more usual negative formulations. I have had people say: “that must be awful for a painter”! Other than never ceasing to be amused by people’s tactlessness, it betrays the misguidedness of automatically seeing anything neurodivergent as a problem.

The generous thinker Paul Heilker has focused some of his research on his concept of “being in the world through rhetoric” including how he has learnt new ways of being in the world thanks to his close experience with autism. The rhetoric we construct which mediates our interactions is influenced by how our neural architecture is built and, the more we embrace diverse ways of being in the world, the more we embrace the potential of our collective intelligence.

Choosing What Is Right for You

Artists, writers, illustrators, photographers and all people who work with their creative impulses are not limited by their aphantasia and there is no one formula for them to make their work. For me, discovering I had aphantasia sparked a fascinating journey of discovery and I did, retrospectively, identify where it might have contributed to how I learn and enjoy working. Learning about anatomy ticked the box of using first principles and spatial understanding, but I also know artists who don’t have aphantasia who use anatomy. My love of verbal thinking seems coherent with someone who cannot visualise internally and has prioritised another cognitive method, but I have met people with aphantasia who don’t enjoy verbal methods as much. My reliance on working from reference and with models might seem reasonable given the visual gap between imagining and appearing, but I know artists who use this gap to explore where the unknown will take them.

There may be correlations to uncover but ultimately the way we work is always a choice.

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Total Comments (4)

Thank you Risa. Enjoy exploring new ways of working!

This was a really great article! You brought up so many great points, and I related so much to the topics you discussed. Thanks for the drawing tips. I love making science illustrations for educational purposes and have decided to focus more on this in the future. When I found out that I had aphantasia, I wondered if that is why I prefer technical and realistic drawing. I have always had a difficult time drawing from my mind, but I wonder if I could do it if I used the lighter lines technique that you mentioned. Also, I also think that it would have me a lot to think of the spatial relationships based on geometric shapes like you suggested. Thanks again!