How can you paint in colour if you are blind?

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Dr. Simon Hayhoe FBCS,
Lecturer in Education
University of Bath

Early in the new millennium, I got to hear about a professional artist from Turkey called Esref Armagan who was born without any use of his eyes. His total blindness from birth meant Esref had never seen colour, shadow, different tones or how colour fades in a landscape as it heads to the horizon. He had also never seen other sights, such as distant objects becoming smaller or parallel lines such as the edges of a road disappearing to a point. And yet, despite a lifetime’s lack of sight Esref painted and drew using color, shadow, shade, beams of light, tones and objects in a distance disappearing or becoming smaller. Esref also created unique realistic scenes, using different and imaginative ways of showing colour that have never been seen by sighted people before.

So, how did Esref learn about colour?
The answer to this question seems to be through five stages of creativity, language and his remaining senses.
Firstly, Esref remembered what he was told about the visual world by his father, whose engineering workshop Esref attended as a small child. He was often taken to this workshop and as his father worked, Esref asked about his surrounding environment and what it looked like.

Secondly, Esref had the opportunity to use the knowledge his father gave him. For instance, being an engineer Esref’s father had a board and scribe, a sharp tool for scratching, cutting and drilling points on metal, and Esref etched images on card board with it.

Thirdly, Esref’s father guided Esref’s hand over the lines which resembled the surface edges of a two-dimens
ional picture, and described his own experience as he did so. Esref continued drawing on card, and created images using more scratched lines to represent visual edges and shading. Later, showing these scratched pictures to family members also got him feedback that helped him correct any miss-understandings and broadened his knowledge of the visual world.

Fourthly, having mastered simple visual ideas such as edges and shade, Esref began drawing with coloured pencils and again getting feedback from those around him about his use of colour. Esref describes this process as one of repetition, “By asking and showing – over and over again.”

Fifthly, having mastered a rudimentary understanding of colour Esref began painting in oils as a young man. As Esref described this time in his life, “I started with coloured pencils and then switched to oil paints. But they took a long time to dry so I finally discovered acrylics.” This is the technique that Esref now continues to use as an older man.

As he has to rely on touch and language, Esref cannot use watercolours because he builds layers of paint on board and paper with his fingers, letting each layer dry before he adds another. This technique allows him to feel and imagine innumerable colours and shades he’s creating as a substitute for seeing his new image. “I have created my painting in my head, including colors, before I ever start to paint. There are no Braille names on my paints, it is strictly memorization.”

Esref’s case challenges our beliefs about colour. What’s more, given the correct description by sighted family and friends, Esref’s paintings show us it is possible for people born blind to understand, describe and create colourful images.

We now also understand that thinking about colour through language has a bigger impact on imagination than we previously thought, if it is supplemented through the remaining senses. For instance, Esref compares the dimming of sound as it becomes distant with perspective, and the touch of something hot with the color red as he has been told about their similarities.

Esref’s understanding of colour challenges the meaning of colour as visual, as well of our belief in the outside world being purely sensory. Perhaps now, by thinking of colour as an idea as well as an impression, we can begin understanding what our imagination is capable of and how art can change the way we think about the world around us.

I would like to thank Ruby Cohen, a former student at Central St Martins School of Art, London, for allowing me access to the answers she received from Esref Armagan via email.