Glen Keane, the Oscar-winning artist behind Disney classics such as The little Mermaid (1989), was described by Ed Catmull, the former president from Pixar and Walt Disney Studios, as “one of the best animators in the history of hand-drawn animation.” But when he sat down to conceive Ariel, or else the beast of The beauty and the Beast (1991), Keane’s mind was empty. He had no preconceived idea of ââwhat he would draw.
It is because he has aphantasy, a recently identified variation of the human experience affecting 2% to 5% of the population, in which a person is unable to generate mental images. Perhaps surprisingly, Keane is not the only one who is a visual artist who cannot visualize.
When aphantasy was appointed and publicized, a number of creative practitioners – artists, designers and architects – contacted the researchers to tell them that they too did not have “the eye of the mind.” Intrigued by the seemingly counterintuitive notion, we assembled a group of these people and organized a exposure of their work.
How is it then that a person like Keane can draw a picture of Ariel without a mental picture to guide him?
Know against image
The first point to consider is that there is a difference between knowing or remembering what something looks like and generating a mental image of it. To draw it, you just need to know how it looks or would look.
As an art psychologist Rudolf Arnheim noted, a draftsman working from memory “can convincingly deny that he has anything like an explicit image of [the object] in his mind â- yet, as he works,â the correctness of what he produces on paper âis judged and changedâ to a certain standard in the mind â.
We have found that aphantasics maintain such standards. “MX”, the subject of the first acquired aphantasia case study, could give detailed descriptions of scenes and landmarks around his native Edinburgh: âI can remember the visual details,â he commented, âbut I can’t see them. “
Aphantasia prevents the generation of mental images based on the knowledge of the appearance of things, but it does not prevent this knowledge from serving as the basis for an image made with pencil and paper. Keane can draw a picture of Ariel because he knows what humans (and fish) look like, and this information, along with the skills learned through study and practice, orient his hand accordingly.
See vs imagine
Another seemingly obvious but important point is that while mental visualization takes place entirely in the brain, drawing is a partly external act, taking place before the eyes of the artist. When you draw, you perceive the marks you make. Each change, perceived, suggests the next, in a feedback loop. You don’t have to imagine.
Many aphantastic artists we spoke to emphasized this aspect of their creative process: they would need to âdrop somethingâ onto the paper or canvas, or even start with a pre-existing image, which they would like to see. could then modify, delete or supplement. When Keane draws Ariel, he starts with what he calls a âscribble explosion,â then highlights and subtracts lines until he finds the shape he wants.
Designing the beast was a similar process of trial and error. Keane began by copying the buffalo head that hung in his studio, then tried out the features of various other animals – a gorilla forehead, a lion’s mane. The slightly drooping ears of a cow, he found, made the Beast less threatening. The eureka moment was when he added human eyes. For Keane, it was “like recognizing someone you know. “Someone he knew, but couldn’t imagine.
The way fantasies like Keane work challenges the stereotype of the creative artist that has ruled Western culture for centuries, at least since the Renaissance biographer. Giorgio Vasari said that “the greatest geniuses. . . are searching for inventions in their minds, forming those perfect ideas which their hands then express.
Vasari was referring to Leonardo da Vinci and his comments show how we have come to view artistic creativity as an internal capacity, the fruits of which are simply reproduced in the outside world. The genius artist is distinguished as much by the richness of his mental conceptions as by his works.
But there are historical reasons for this stereotype: career-conscious Renaissance artists wanting to define themselves against the artisan and his manual work respecting the rules, for example.
And while there are individuals who, experimenting with vivid images, have a preconceived mental idea of ââtheir works, Keane and his fellow aphantasics show that the creative process can just as easily begin with, and depend on, the material world in which they are. surrounded.