The Art of Aphantasia

Discover the art of aphantasia. How Disney animator and 'mind blind' artist Glen Keane creates without visualising.
art of aphantasia
Glen Keane at work.

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Glen Keane, the Oscar-winning artist behind such Disney classics as The Little Mermaid (1989), was once described by Ed Catmull the former president of Pixar and Walt Disney Studios as “one of the best animators in the history of hand-drawn animation”. But when he sat down to design Ariel, or indeed the beast from Beauty and the Beast (1991), Keane’s mind was a blank. He had no preconception of what he would draw.

This is because he has aphantasia, a recently-identified variation of human experience affecting 2-5% of the population, in which a person is unable to generate mental imagery. Perhaps surprisingly, Keane is not alone in being a visual artist who cannot visualise.

When aphantasia was named and publicised, a number of creative practitioners – artists, designers and architects – contacted the researchers to say that they too had no “mind’s eye.” Intrigued by the seemingly counter-intuitive notion, we gathered a group of these people together and curated an exhibition of their work.

How is it, then, that a person like Keane can draw a picture of Ariel without a mental picture to guide him?

Early stage sketch of Ariel
An early-stage sketch of Ariel from the Little Mermaid by Glen Keane. 
Disney/Google Developers/YouTube

Knowing vs Picturing

The first point to consider is that there is a difference between knowing or remembering what something looks like and generating a mental image of that thing. To draw it, you only need to know how it looks, or would look.

As the psychologist of art Rudolf Arnheim noted, a draftsperson working from memory “may deny convincingly that he has anything like an explicit picture of [the object] in his mind” – yet, as he works, “the correctness of what he is producing on paper” is judged and modified “according to some standard in the mind”.

We’ve found that aphantasics retain such standards. “MX”, the subject of the first case study of acquired aphantasia, could give detailed descriptions of scenes and landmarks around his native Edinburgh: “I can remember visual details,” he commented, “but I can’t see them”.

Aphantasia prevents the generation of mental images based on knowledge of what things look like, but it does not prevent that knowledge serving as the basis for an image made with pencil and paper. Keane can draw a picture of Ariel because he knows what humans (and fish) look like, and that information – plus the skills acquired through study and practice – steers his hand accordingly.

Late stage sketch of Ariel by Glen Keane
A later-stage sketch of Ariel the mermaid by Glen Keane.
Disney/Google Developers/YouTube

Seeing vs Imagining

Another seemingly obvious but important point is that whereas mental visualisation takes place entirely within the brain, drawing is a partly external act, taking place in front of the artist’s eyes. When you draw, you perceive the marks you make. Each change, perceived, suggests the next, in a feedback loop. You don’t have to imagine.

Many of the aphantasic artists we spoke to emphasised this aspect of their creative process: they would need to “get something down” on the paper or canvas, or even start with a pre-existing image, which they can then alter, erase or add to. When Keane draws Ariel, he begins with what he calls an “explosion of scribbles”, then highlights and subtracts lines until he finds the form that he wants.

Designing the Beast was a similar process of trial and error. Keane started by copying the buffalo’s head that hung in his studio, then tried out features from various other animals – a gorilla’s brow, a lion’s main. A cow’s slightly drooping ears, he discovered, made the Beast less threatening. The eureka moment was when he added human eyes. For Keane, it was “like recognising somebody you know”. Someone he knew, but couldn’t picture.

Creativity Diversified

The way that aphantasics like Keane work challenges the stereotype of the creative artist that has held sway over Western culture for centuries, at least since the Renaissance biographer Giorgio Vasari declared that “the greatest geniuses…are searching for inventions in their minds, forming those perfect ideas which their hands then express”.

Vasari was referring to Leonardo da Vinci and his comments show how we have come to think of artistic creativity as being an internal capacity, the fruits of which are simply reproduced in the outside world. The artist of genius is distinguished by the richness of their mental conceptions as much as their artworks.

But there are historical reasons for the stereotype: career-minded Renaissance artists wanting to define themselves against the craftsman and his rule-following, manual labour, for one.

And while there are individuals who, experiencing vivid imagery, do mentally preconceive their artworks, Keane and his fellow aphantasics show that the creative process can just as easily begin with, and depend on, the material world around them.

“Aphantasia prevents the generation of mental images based on knowledge of what things look like, but it does not prevent that knowledge serving as the basis for an image made with pencil and paper.”

Matthew MacKisack
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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Total Comments (5)

Hi, I am aphantastic! I am 74 years old, and have had the blank screen forever. Until I was about 50 I had no idea that people actually had mental imagery or had some discursive thoughts with the self.

In terms of work history, I was a nurse practitioner in geriatrics and mental health and taught at a university. In my “spare” time I have always been an artist. I write and sculpt. Since retiring, art take up a great deal of my time. I find I can think through my fingers, and am often quite surprised what emerges. I find that I feel or sense people and situations quite easily and reliably. My home is filled with art, and photos, as they bring me back to autobiographical information about my life, which solidifies experience of self.

My bodily experience has been one where I become ill easily if distressed as I cannot “think” through what might be disturbing me. I wonder if there is a higher rate of illness and disability in aphantasics?

As a side note, I have three sons, none of whom have aphantasia.

I am curious if older aphantasics have organized their ways of working in the world differently that younger folks who have been introduced to these concepts at an earlier age?  I am open to any research being done.


In appreciation,

Michael Ann Leaver

I am an artist/designer/writer who has only just in the last hour learned that some people actually SEE an apple when they’re told to ‘visualize’ one. Honestly, I’m still unclear if I’m understanding all this correctly. You close your eyes and actually SEE an apple? Not just a bunch of blackness while you’re just sort of ‘knowing’ what an apple looks like?

In terms of drawing, I have always been able to realistically draw things that I am actually looking at… Sit me down in front of a crocodile, and I can draw a picture of that crocodile. Given enough time and patience (which I had way more of when I was in art school than I do now), I can eventually make it look pretty darn real. For awhile, back in school, I thought I might want to be a scientific illustrator.

But if you ask me to draw a crocodile right now- without a photo of one and without a real one to look at- I’m completely hopeless. I mean, I know it has eyes and a tail and is kind of bumpy and greenish-brown and big teeth… But I can’t actually SEE any of that stuff.

I feel like people are often surprised by how bad I am at the game ‘Pictionary.’ I always assumed drawing from memory was just a completely different skill from drawing from reality: a skill that I definitely do not have.

One time I had a drawing teacher ask us to ‘draw one of your dreams.’ I thought it was an incredibly stupid assignment. Little did I know that people can actually recall IMAGES from their dreams?! Real actual images they can ‘look at’ and draw?

A few years ago, I learned that I have, like, zero visual memory. I knew this anecdotally, because I have zero sense of direction. I once got lost in a local bookstore.

But at some point I started using the ‘brain training’ app called ‘Lumosity’, and I would score above average on most games… except anything having to do with visual memory. On those, I would be in something like the 5th percentile. At most I might make 20th percentile, but that was when I was somehow able to make up a verbally-based or mnemonic device like ‘cross with a dot’ or ‘3 squares space 2’.

So you’re telling me people close their eyes and see the actual squares in these memory games? Like, actually SEE them?

My [completely verbal] mind in completely blown right now. I need time to digest.

I am an artist who works from photographs, but I didn’t understand until recently that it is probably because I don’t visualize images. That does change (apparently temporarily) if I spend some concentrated time in drawing and painting. Several months of almost obsessive work will do it. Once I got myself through a 2-hour dental procedure by visualizing the steps needed to create my next watercolour commission. Afterwords, I actually did those steps and it was one of my best paintings. When I paint only intermittently, I lose this visualization ability again. I am about to try to regain it by getting back into daily sketching and painting. I am hoping it will work as it certainly makes life more interesting. It will be interesting to see if it might be a learnable skill.


Hi Nachum 

Thank you for your message. I’d certainly agree that ‘visualisation’ and ‘knowledge’ are separate things: you can have knowledge of how something looks – be able to describe it and recognise it – without being able to visualise it. I like your description of what constitutes your knowledge of an object. But I wouldn’t attribute ‘not knowing how to draw’ to aphantasia – as Glen Keane or indeed the artists in our exhibition demonstrate! 

Matthew, hi ! To be honest, I do not understand the meaning of the expression “Knowledge of an object as it looks”; more precisely, I put my meaning into it, which may not correspond to your meaning. Maybe first need to give a definition ; otherwise “visualization” and “knowledge” for me are two different disparate categories. I am an aphant, and my knowledge of the subject lies in defining its schematic form, some few scattered details and trained hand movements to transfer to paper. I don’t know how to draw at all, or rather, I do it at the level of my ten-year-old; what I attribute to aphantasia.