Are you an artist with aphantasia?
I am a student at Cardiff Met, doing my MA in Fine Art, I have aphantasia and recently discovered dyslexia.My artistic practice is about reflecting my aphantasia through sculpture. I work in the dark initially, which reflects my inability to visualise. Creating work without vision removes an element of control and also removes design and intention. I feel this process calms my mind and helps with my creative expression.These issues are completely new to my tutors who have no experience of aphantasia. I have been in contact with Prof Adam Zeman at Univesity of Exeter both during my degree and now in my MA.I would be very interested in feedback from other artists in whatever field on this subject. I am very interested in collaboration.
Hello there Rachel, lovely question. I write poetry and I also have aphantasia. I respect your process a lot. I’m not sure how a sculptor and a poet could collaborate, but who knows! Anyways I have some questions about and for you.
When do you begin to work on the piece with the lights on?
Do you feel as if you’re "working out" your minds eye when you sculpt in the dark?
Do you feel disconnected from your memories without picturing them?
How absolute is the lack of all your 5 senses of the mind rated from 0-5?
Do months feel like weeks to you sometimes?
At what age did you realize you had aphantasia?
I’m going to talk about myself now.
Hello again Rachel! Nobody else has read this far. I’m 20 and live in Miami. I would see thought bubbles in cartoons growing up and assume it was a tv gimmick to transition a scene. You are way out of my creative league but I’ll still show you some poetry if you’d like. I erase almost almost everything I write but I’m very proud of a few things I have. It’s spoken word but I could write it out and email it to you.
Sight – 1/5
I see grey when I close my eyes, but one time I saw a small green monster for a split second in my imagination out of nowhere. That was the first and only time I’ve ever seen any color or outline or shape with my minds eye.
Hearing – 2/5
The faint voice in my head, sirens, tones
Touch – 0/5
Taste – 0/5
Smell – 0/5
I realized I had it at 19
Hi Rachel, it was really interesting to read about your practice as an artist with aphantasia. I haven’t talked to another artist about this subject, or rather, I have mentioned it in conversation a couple of times but was usually met with a perplexed expression and the conversation didn’t go further. I almost sensed a kind of embarrassment, or worse, pity.
Are artists secretely ashamed of their lack of ability to visualise? Perhaps we are conditioned to think of great artists as the ones who have the amazing ability to remember visual detail, like Picasso who claimed he could recall in perfect detail every work of art he ever saw. For sure, what an advantage! But I hate to think that artists have been so discouraged by their aphantasia that they stop making art.
I graduated with a degree in fine art painting in 2000 and have been painting and showing my work since then. I realised I had aphantasia (although i didn’t know the term then) around 2013 after listening to a scientist talk about it on BBC 4 one morning. It blew my mind a little bit to recognise my own experience being described. So, THAT was why I make art the way I do. I knew that I was different than other artists I talked with because they would describe how they would first visualise the finished painting or sculpture and work towards it, whereas I had no such image in my mind. How wonderful to have this self created image that you aim towards. Then is it just a matter of building it up, or taking it away until you’re left with that image you had from the very beginning? I’m aware that is a complete over simplification of artistic process but it is hard not to allow myself to imagine that is how it might work for some.
Would I want to experience that process? Absolutely. But then I would not be the artist I am. That leads me to wonder whether the experience of aphantasia shapes my personality and therefore the type of art I make. I make the art I do because of the person I am which is influenced by aphantasia which leads me to make the art I make. A circular concept.
I really admire that you have recognised early on that you have this unique experience and have decided to explore it through your making. Turning it into a strength, or at least not allowing it to be a barrier. If I want to draw a figure, I will decide on the position of the body, the type of body, the position on the page and then start drawing, perhaps starting by sketching the head and then continuing on with the rest of the body. Any time I make an image without a reference it is by feeling out the form. In other words I react to the lines I have already made. I sketch it until it makes sense and looks right. So I find it is possible to work this way without a reference. However, with a reference it is a very different story and my surety and skill increases and the work is far more assured.
It is entirely possible to play with both techniques to create interesting work. For example, I made a painting a few years ago using a photo of a bird fossil as reference. After making a couple of these paintings I realised I had a particular interest in the collarbone of the animal. I then left the reference at that point and explored the abstract quality of the shape of this bone, using it as a starting point for many works. I would begin with that form which had become muscle memory for me (I didn’t need to try to visualise it which I couldn’t anyway) and played with it as way to initiate semi conscious free associations of other forms. So what started as a careful study of a physical image led on to very imaginative images that could only have come out of my head. In other words, for any artists who are concerned about their aphantasia being a barrier to personal expression, I believe it is possible to create completely original art. More than that, perhaps aphant artists have the advantage of surprising themselves more with the product. I know I take huge pleasure in studying the work I have made and trying to understand how it came about and why I made the decisions I did. Perhaps that is shared by all artists though?
As an aside, I wonder if artists with aphantasia find a special significance with the process of making art? I had one show early on that I titled “Process is the thing”, which now that I am more aware of my own experience tells me that perhaps they do. I’d be interested to know.
I hope more artists will add to this thread, Rachel, and describe their own experiences. Thanks for starting it. DM me if you like.
Hello Dan, thank you so much for replying, I have felt very isolated in my experience with aphantasia and having your reply has really spurred me on! I hope it will encourage others to get in touch – understanding our own art practice is so important – why we make what we do and how we go about doing it matters as much as what we actually create. Also, shedding light on the condition to others with or without aphantasia is so important especially in the academic world of art. This is where I have particularly struggled in doing my degree and where I intend to push forward not only in my own practice but in getting information and understanding out there to others. The Aphantasia Network is a great place to start! Maybe putting on an exhibition of aphantasic’s work would be a thought?? Now I am doing my MA in fine art, armed with the knowledge that I have this condition empowers me play to my strengths. Yes I feel that having aphantasia is a strength if it is harnessed!
According to VVIQ, I am phantasic, not quite aphantasic, though I think that is due to my years of training myself through art school to work through things. Often I found professors in art schools were very uncompromising and I either effectively failed, got harrassed by peers, or were looked down upon by professors because my drawings didn’t stand up to others. Regardless, I persevered and am here now, with a BFA in Graphic design from Savannah College of Art and Design and in my final year towards an MGD in Graphic Design at North Carolina State University.
I’m actually writing my thesis on people with aphantasia, and it is leaning more towards creating and designing tools to help people retain information and/or remember things due to creation of visual reperesentations (as opposed to just seeing a visual representation). This is mostly based off my personal accounts and from people I’ve talked to that have aphantasia. My creative process usually involves playing with things or referencing existing projects/shapes/images. I don’t see anything in my mind and when I do, it is more of a vague outline and in a flash. Probably to help me contextually, but everything is pretty much lost. I like being in design because I can use tools like the Adobe suit to faciliate playing around with shapes and objects and how things relate to one another where I don’t get that connection in my head. That and I can pull represenations into a select area and use those for ideas based off of associations on them. Those like myself and a few other designers I’ve met that have aphantasia have worked through problems by creating visuals (usually loosely drawn frameworks) to work through long areas of text. We try and create the visuals that we cannot see in our mind. I think this might just be a specific subsect of learning to conquer the lack of imagery in our mind, wheras others might embrace the lack of visuals and follow more into factual based positions. I wonder since you’re a creative individual, do you, or anybody else who is also a creative and reading this, often run into this? Do you find the use of creating visuals more useful than looking at one and remembering it later?
Hello Anna! So great to hear from you.
It is very exciting that you are writing your thesis on people with aphantasia, I would love to read it when it is done, please feel free to contact me direct. I feel it is very important to bring attention to this as everyone I have spoken to feels that they have struggled in some way in their lives before they knew they had aphantasia. It is also interesting that we all seem to have our own strategies for coping with this – passing on this information might well help others in the future. I definitely use visual cues to help me organise and take in information. I need to create different ‘piles’ and use colour as markers. It is very exiciting to think that you are designing tools to help people – I would be very interested from a personal level. I struggle with information on the computer particularly – I crave a physical piece to work by so I can move it around at the moment. I also use ‘mind maps’ on paper a great deal to order my thoughts – again colour plays a big part and images, and emotions. However as far as my art practice is concerned I have bypassed all these problems by embracing the fact that I cannot see in my mind’s eye and then use a blindfold to ensure I cannot physically see; the art work I produce therefore is a direct embodiment of my emotions and empathy – if that makes sense?!