Bumblepost: Art without a visual imagination

Owen here! Today I’d like to talk to you about how my brain works.

I found out recently that I have aphantasia. I’m including some links about it below, but here is a brief summary: I don’t have a visual imagination. More specifically, I have a teeny tiny visual imagination that can barely do anything. Somehow, I didn’t realize I had this until some recent articles came out describing the phenomenon.

How can this be? You’d think I have noticed, right? Well, my brain is also good at lazy abbreviation. So if someone says, “Imagine a car,” my brain simply says, “We are imagining a car” without doing any of the work to make it manifest. In my particular case, I can imagine bits and pieces of the car one at a time, or I might imagine something that has to do with what the car does. A fast red blur for a corvette, for instance. I’ve also drawn what I was dreaming about directly after waking up, and have ended up with images that could weren’t even advanced enough to belong to an old low-polygon count video game. During the dream, however, I was content with my brain’s explanation that these are people. I didn’t realize what was going on until I learned that aphantasia was a thing. Basically, I knew I was having an experience, but didn’t fully acknowledge it until I was told it was possible.

There are disadvantages to this. I get nothing out of most hypnosis and meditation that requires visualization. I can’t retain what people look like when they are out of sight, even if I see them every day – though I do recognize people when I see them. (That would be called Prosopagnosia, or ‘face blindness.’) Since I am bad at names, this means I don’t put up any pretense about whether I remember someone.

Making Art

I find that aphantasia does not hinder my ability to make art. Learning perspective and proportions was not as difficult as finding useful ways for me to learn them. However, where my skills really shine is working with patterns. When making patterns, I don’t have to know exactly where everything is going to be. (And I don’t recommend that as a way of making Celtic knotwork or any large busy pieces – though if you can do it that way, I salute you!) Instead, I block out areas where I want something to go. Then I choose a place to be the focus, decide where large things will be, and then go about the work of filling in details.

I don’t entirely know why a pattern should be any particular way. I fill in space, and see if it works. At this stage, I don’t entirely know why a particular mix of patterns works. I just know it when I see it. The same goes for the level of detail. Some pictures work best with minimal detail, while others really need every crack to be filled in. I never know when I’m done until I am! It is a very exciting way to work, for sure!

What I can visualize:

Now I’d like to close with a little on the specifics of my imagination. I mentioned that I have very little visual imagination – so yes, I do have some. However, it is so miniscule that it doesn’t help me to do much of anything with my art.

What I can visualize amounts to dots or lines. I can only imagine one color at a time. And I am able to get maximum visualization in the dark. I can imagine the vague outline of an object or it’s features, but not both at the same time. When I do try to have all the details, the features distort. For instance, when I try to picture a face, I can imagine an oval. Then I can imagine an eyebrow. And then I imagine a closeup of a vague outline of an ear – more of a bean shape. If I try very hard to picture the oval with eyes and eyebrows on it, I instead get very large dark eyebrows superimposed on the thin oval. That image is only fleeting, though.

If you look at my current work, you’ll bright glowing lines of color and dots on dark background (Mostly black or dark blue). After finishing my most recent pieces, it has dawned on me that I am attempting to recreate my imagination on canvas. Realizing this has given me a lot more ideas about where and how to travel in my artistic journey.

Aphantasia links:

A test to see if you have aphantasia