Saturday, July 6, 2013

Can blind people draw?

Can blind people draw? It seems like an absurd question on the face of it.

Tommy Edison, who has been blind since birth, takes on the task with courage and humor. (Direct link to video).

The challenge is not just remembering where you put the lines. There are tactile drawing tools he might have used. The problem is that a blind person's apprehension of form is primarily tactile, and therefore viewpoint-independent. As he puts it: "Everything I experience is three dimensional. So it's very difficult for me to imagine putting a three dimensional thing onto a flat piece of paper."

He visualizes both a cat and a car from the side, but made up from details gathered by the hands: The car has only wheels and doors, but no roof, hood, or outer contour. A three-quarter view or foreshortened view would probably be hard to conceptualize.

A good challenge for sighted artist is to do the exact opposite of what Tommy Edison is doing: to look at an object, and to apprehend the felt form, ignoring appearances.

Previously on GurneyJourney
Seeing with the hands
Tactile drawing (using yarn on Velcro)
Check out Tommy Edison's Movie Reviews


Roberto said...

Very interesting! Did you know this other man?

Roberto said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

!!!the third paragraph,"A good challenge for the sighted artist...."is a perfect description of EXACTLY what the first exercise in" The Natural Way to Draw", "Contour Drawing" is really about!![the Modeled drawing exercise,too!]I hear people talk about this exercise as if were primarily just a visual task.But if you approach it this way ,as it was intended it can be mind altering[..if not life altering,as I humbly attest].[CO-]incidently in the same chapter is a photo of a sculpture of a violinist made by a woman who was blind since birth.[THe car thing reminded me of story of the three blind men describing an elephant!!thanks James this is all so interesting.!

Diana Moses Botkin said...

I love Tommy's humor and charming drawings. This video reminds me of an exercise I have students do who look too much at their paper. They wind up drawing what they think they see (such as a circle instead of an ellipse for the top of a cylinder). Blind contour drawing is useful to get them to look at the subject.

For the exercise, one must look only at the object to be drawn and not at the paper at all. After doing even a few of these, it is apparent one should look back and forth repeatedly from subject to paper to get a likeness.

K_tigress said...

Interesting. It reminds me of this show I watched awhile ago. It featured Stan Lee as show host and they had these amazing people with extraordinary gifts. One person in particular was very much like this person you've written about, This artist is also blind since birth. I think he was born and raised in Iraq. I can't remember his name. But it was truly remarkable how he can draw and paint scenes of cities. Some how he just does it. Going to have to catch that show again if I can to see how he can do this stuff.

Revo said...

Interesting vid & links. Now I'd really like to try some tactile drawing. :)

As for the problem of the viewpoint independency/imagining of 2D:
Couldn't it be described like holding out a straight stick, only changing it's angles (and maybe length)?
The stick would basically only touch what is not covered from your stand-/viewpoint.
No idea if it would be useful to draw from imagination, because I can't imagine the way blind people think or imagine these things. ( Those that are blind since birth at least.)
But I could also imagine actually doing just that. Holding a stick and tracing forms.
Probably only works for smaller things , but in some way those same movements ,tracing the edges with a stick, could be used to draw the thing in 2D.

That would probably also mean, one could train someone blind to draw something legit looking, by simply making them trace and memorize the movements. (Could also be made simpler, by making a simplified flatter version, just to trace the lines.)

A nice trick to make people believe in a miracle, too.
Can't say I like that part of it, though.
If blind or visually impaired people want to draw/paint, more power to them. But I don't like it to be used to deceive people.
I would be -very- careful with those „blind painters“ that produce things that actually look like something.
Either it's a trick (and not that impressive), they are just called „blind“ (but actually see quite a bit) or they are lying altogether.
I mean, there were „blind“ painters found out to be copying photographs...while claiming otherwise(of course).
So, yeah.

Aldo Ojeda said...

This video makes me think that blind people's brains create the same symbols, or concepts, as sighted people. Which remembers me what philosopher Dan Dennett says: pictures in our heads are not really pictures.

Roberto said...


Just because something is bizzarre or beyond our current comprehension doesn't necessarily mean that is a fraud. If I'm not mistaken this man is born without eyes, I think we can be pretty sure is not lying about being blind.

Nick Woolridge said...

John Kennedy (the psychology researcher, not the president) wrote a whole book on the drawings of the blind:

Many of these drawings are very sophisticated, especially when they use a medium that allows tactile lines...

Nadina Cardillo said...

Very interesting video, and your "tactile drawing" idea is very interesting.

For a long time when I began drawing I didn't understand why my drawings looked so "off". If I was copying a vase, and I got the outline perfectly (i.e. as I saw it from that point of view), then why didn't it really look like a vase?

When I understood that knowing the contours in your mind was much more important that seeing the real life object and copying it, a whole new world opened before me.

This blind man and the past me each had only half the perspective: He can only feel the contours while I could only see the outline.

This is why I love this blog, it makes me think haha

Revo said...

I think that might came out wrong. It's not that I think it's all impossible for a blind person to draw/paint. Although the ways I imagine it works, it just wouldn't be bizarre or all that impressive.

I do think though, that those claims should be carefully questioned. Especially if they sound bizarre.
All things I read about turned out to be frauds, mislabeled or with quite some info conveniently withheld. Probably because it's the story that sells(itself and the pictures), so more bizarre = better.
I just can't seem to like that. I like things a little more honest and informative.

As for the man you linked: There are some paintings I can perfectly imagine to be possible, with a little training.
Actually I wanted to tell you know, that this mans' „story“ suffers from very similar obscurifications as the other ones. Because I found quite some things that were contradicting the „main headlines“.
But funny enough, I just found a huge text(german though) featuring some parts with some of the same thoughts it seems, but with more to back it up. ( )
Much of his „story“ and profile as it is presented, seems to be unfounded and just for making him seem more special and probably making money. And it directly contradicts what he himself says.(!)
Instead of the isolated blind child, that learned to paint basically on his own and by magic, it seems he was at least heavily pushed and coached by his father from a young age.(So he would be successful of course. Who would have guessed?) It suggests, that while he may not have been able to see, he had lots of heavy critical input from those that can. (And also sought it.)
That -to me- does make a huge difference, indeed. They put quite some emphasis on the opposite after all.

Sadly though, it also suggests, that the research being done on him is also biased by this wishful thinking and stylization of his person.

Aside from that, I read somewhere else that „no eyes“ isn't all that correct either, and that he does have one eye that might have seen at some point.'s made to be obscure on purpose.:( I don't see why I should be any more trusting now.

Katy said...

This reminded me of a show I watched, awhile ago, about an artist who was blind from birth. The amazing thing about him was the beautiful paintings he created though he never saw colors, vistas, objects...etc.I think his name was Esref Armagan.