As the yoga class ended, Alice Coles rose from Savasana. Her friend Jessica rubbed her eyes and told Alice that she had experienced a breakthrough. Jessica had just visualized a flock of ravens bursting out of her stomach and flying in all directions.
“It was a big release for her,” says Alice, “and I was happy that she had had this beautiful moment, but I was thinking: ‘Jessica, what are you talking about?’”
It wasn’t until later, when Alice watched an animated video by the artist AmyRightMeow, that she realized she thought differently. The video was about a condition known as aphantasia, the inability to picture things in one’s mind’s eye.
Alice had always gotten frustrated when she was asked to visualize anything in her mind’s eye, because she didn’t have one. She could never picture her “happy place,” much less count sheep to help her fall asleep. “In my head, I might know a sheep is leaping over a fence, but I don’t ‘see’ a sheep. It’s all literary, all words.”
Alice Was Drawing before She Was Talking
Originally from the United Kingdom, Alice lives in Colorado Springs, CO. The artist and illustrator is the creator of the popular YouTube page HulloAlice, which has over 300,000 subscribers. On her page, Alice exhibits her whimsical watercolor paintings and illustrations through speed-drawing videos, original animations, and lifestyle videos.
With two artists for parents, Alice grew up surrounded by art and was drawing before she was talking. Aiming for a surreal, almost psychedelic tone, she likes to create figures and put them in Alice in Wonderland-like scenes.
With almost two decades of making art under her belt, Alice was shocked when she learned she had aphantasia, a condition that affects two percent of the population. Like most human traits, such as intelligence and height, aphantasia exists on a spectrum. While Alice’s friend Jessica could visualize ravens flying from her stomach as though she were watching a movie, Alice can only see blackness.
Most people’s capacity for mental imagery exists somewhere in the middle. The strength of one’s mind’s eye can be evaluated with the Vividness of Visual Imagery Quiz (VVIQ), which is a proven psychometric assessment used by the cognitive scientist Adam Zeman, who coined the term aphantasia in 2015.
“When I first learned I had aphantasia,” Alice says, “I spent about a year researching the condition, trying to come to terms with it. At first, I wished I didn’t know aphantasia existed. I now knew that I was missing something.”
During that year, Alice talked about aphantasia with anyone who would listen. It turned out that both her sister and her father, a painter, have aphantasia. “No one can do that!” her dad told her in disbelief. Alice’s mother, on the other hand, scored at the upper end of the VVIQ and could conjure vivid images in her mind’s eye as if they were photographs.
A “Literary” Mind
After several months of trying and failing visualization exercises, Alice realized that she had already made it so far as an artist without being able to visualize. She soon shifted her perspective, no longer seeing aphantasia as a disorder or even a condition. “I just think differently than other people. And that’s okay.”
Despite working in highly visual mediums, Alice says her brain works in a “literary” way. “My head is a book. I often think of my life as a literary character. Sometimes, I narrate things to myself. My brain is so heavily wordy.” Alice says her large vocabulary is fueled by voracious reading.
Her artistic projects typically begin with a word, a concept that represents one component of an illustration or painting. Alice then uses her experience and instincts to combine this original concept with others. Usually, a project will begin with a single inspiration.
Right now, she’s inspired by plants.
For example, Alice might begin a drawing with the word “succulent.” I want to paint a succulent, she thinks. She then uses her literary mind to imagine possibilities. She might wonder how large the painting should be. Large, she thinks. Colors? Purple and green. What kind of purple? Dark purple, plum, magenta, maroon, or eggplant? Eggplant. What shade of green? Sage or light green? Sage. Should the eggplant go on the edges of the leaves or the inside? Inside. The sage? Outside. Now, Alice has many working ideas for her drawing—a large succulent with eggplant color on the inside of the leaves and sage on the outside. Okay, that’s what it’s going to look like.
“I’m not visualizing any of this,” says Alice. “I’m drawing on my knowledge of the artistic principles and following my instincts.” She continues this wordplay, shuffling components of the drawing. Should the succulent go in the left or right corner? How about a sunset in the background? Sure, and let’s have the succulent float in front of the sunset. What about a shadow? Yeah, let’s add a hot-pink drop-shadow below the succulent. Should there be a human subject? Let’s have a woman looking up at this floating succulent. What should she look like? Her hair’s in a bun, but it’s loose and messy and flying toward the succulent as if she were in a hurricane.”
After this period of mental gymnastics, Alice creates a mock-up of the drawing in Photoshop, where she moves elements around to see how the final product might appear. Since she can’t picture the final product in her mind, combining these components in Photoshop allows her to make sure the elements work together before she begins the project.
Using the digital rendering as her guide, Alice would then begin the drawing or painting. As she works, she isn’t attached to her original concepts, such as objects, their placement, or colors. “Some artists fall in love with the first images that pop into their heads. I don’t have those mental images, so I’m not precious about any of my ideas. I’m more willing to stay flexible and change things to make the strongest composition.”
The “Superpowers” Associated with Aphantasia
In October 2019, Alice posted a video about how she works with aphantasia, titled “I Am an Artist Who Can’t Visualize,” which has over 40,000 views. In the video’s comments section, Alice was surprised to see people write that they will often have images in their heads that they won’t do anything with because they know they can’t live up to the image in their mind.
“I don’t have those images that I can’t live up to, so I’m never going to be confined to that first image that pops into my head,” says Alice. (She adds that these comments likely have less to do with one’s capacity to form mental imagery and more to do with one’s self-confidence in one’s artistic skills. For example, Alice has avoided drawing complex human figure because her facility with anatomy isn’t strong enough yet, but she knows it will get better with practice).
Over time, Alice began to think that her aphantasia might be a superpower. She thinks of aphantasia like her attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). She doesn’t try to control the ADHD. Rather, she embraces what she sees as the condition’s benefits, such as “hyperfocus” and “being creative and deriving energy from the condition.”
“Aphantasia gives me freedom to think outside of the normal way of thinking. This is thinking outside the box ‘on steroids.’ I don’t even have a box to think in,” she says.
Aphantasia Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Be Creative
Tragically, upon learning they have aphantasia, some artists think they should no longer make art. Are you a writer, painter, visual artist, or filmmaker struggling with the realization that you have aphantasia?
“The first thing I would say is that it’s okay to be upset about this realization. It’s okay to feel like you’re struggling, and it’s okay to take some time to come to terms with it. It’s a big thing to learn that you are different than most people in a way that you didn’t even know,” says Alice.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking that having aphantasia means you don’t have an imagination or can’t be creative. “Do you think a blind person can’t be creative? Just because somebody is missing a sense, doesn’t mean they can’t be creative. It’s just creative in a different way!”
If you’ve been sculpting your whole life, adds Alice, aphantasia clearly isn’t affecting you. Why stop sculpting just because you found out you’re different? If Beethoven had stopped writing music when he lost his hearing, we wouldn’t have some of the world’s most beautiful music.
“If you’re an artist, it’s good to be different. So embrace your differences, go make some badass art, and don’t let aphantasia get in your way. Make it your superpower, and rock on,” says Alice.
Aphantasia May Be Why Alice Makes Art
As she continues to grapple with her aphantasia, Alice now wonders whether she draws and paints precisely because she can’t see pictures in her mind. If she doesn’t externalize these ideas on paper or canvas, she would never get to see what they looked like.
“My biggest motivation as an artist is, I just want to add more beauty to the world. The world can be gray, and there’s a lot of crap happening, especially now. If I have a concept that might be beautiful and might speak to someone, I don’t want to just leave it in my head. I want to share it with other people.”