Blind painter Esref Armagan

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Esref Armagan painted the artwork above. He's been blind since birth. He creates his oil paintings using his hands instead of brushes. From Armagan's Web site:
He needs absolute quite when working. First, using a Braille stylus, he etches an outline of his drawing. He needs to feel that he is "inside" his painting-- in fact, when he is drawing a picture of the sea, he often wonders if he should wear a life jacket so as not drown! When he is satisfied with his drawing, he starts to apply the oils with his fingers. Because he applies only one color at a time (the colors would smear otherwise), he must wait two or three days for the color to dry before applying the next color. This method of painting is entirely unique to Mr. Armagan. He receives no assistance or training from any individual. He also learned to draw perspective.

He has also developed his own methods of doing portraits. He asks a sighted person to draw around a photograph, then he turns the paper over and feeling it with his left hand, he transfer what he feels onto another sheet of paper, later adding color.
Esref Armagan (armagan.com)
Extraordinary People (YouTube)
Seeing is Believing (Xoom, via Fortean Times)

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  1. How do you explain perspective to a person who had been blind from birth? Wouldnt that result in triangles all the time?

  2. Hmmm. Can’t believe he “learned to draw perspective” without being coached, or somehow referring to other pictures (touchable line drawings, or whatever).

    I really don’t think you can understand perspective without having vision. Unless somehow the brain is hardwired for it? Then why did other artists (medieval european, ancient chinese) find it so hard to figure out the depiction of perspective on a flat image?

  3. He receives no assistance yet he paints objects the correct colors and puts them in perspective. Absolutely amazing!

  4. @Jupiter12: It doesn’t say he doesn’t receive assistance, but I’m sure said assistance is pretty extensive… I guess I’d have to witness this in person to believe it.

  5. How does he know what things look like?

    If he can visualize a scene like the one pictured from a description, then I’m truly amazed.

  6. To the commentors that are concerned about perspective: Look at the painting pictured. It’s clear he has a concept of perspective, but from a technical point of view it’s far from perfect.

    I hate to say even that, as I think what this gentleman is doing is really a feat and should be commended.

  7. @Jupiter12: It really doesn’t take much to learn perspective, especially 1-2 point…it’s more a matter of plotting lines than looking at something. (I know, because I’m a graphic designer. :D) As for the thing about color, I’ve seen a blind lady paint a pretty accurate landscape before, using the smells of the paint to figure out what color it is. Oils are very smelly. That would explain his affinity to paint in oils rather than with faster-drying acrylics.

  8. This is astounding…it’s like he is cognitively generating an entire visual sense that he has never actually (not once!) had the utility of. I cannot imagine the mapping-process that must be swimming through his imagination all the time…touching and anchoring in thought, measuring paces, but never having experienced a visual reference.

    It must be like a very, very slow sonar~

  9. Who cares about the perspective, I want to know how he does colors. It’s one thing to describe that parallel lines will converge on a vanishing point, but explaining color to someone who has no way to see them?

    It seems like the entire concept of color should be meaningless in such a situation. Sure you could associate the word “green” with “trees” based on someone’s description, but handling lighter and darker shades? Or any shading at all?

    Defies all my expectations, which makes this guy’s work even more amazing.

  10. I’ve often gotten lost in thought wondering what the mental images are like for someone blind from birth. Do they see (think?) in colors? How do they know how things look, especially things that are too large for touch to be worthwhile?

    It’s truly amazing when you sit back and think about it.

  11. It says that he receives no assistance while creating a painting, not that he has never received any assistance in learning to paint.

  12. “@Jupiter12: It doesn’t say he doesn’t receive assistance, but I’m sure said assistance is pretty extensive… I guess I’d have to witness this in person to believe it.”
    ========

    The paragraph under the picture says:

    “He receives no assistance or training from any individual.”

  13. Ha! Mark just pointed out that I duped one of my own posts! From 2005! See here for a New Scientist article about Armagan.

  14. I was recently reading Oliver Sacks book, An Anthropologist on Mars. He narrates several case studies regarding the restoration of sight in people who have been blind since birth. In every case there is a complete confusion about depth, space, dimension, and perspective. Here is a link: http://www.oliversacks.com/marsex.htm
    Based on this information, I can’t believe that these paintings are truly ‘his’ in any way.

  15. Perspective, colors, yes yes, all very good and valid points. But how the hell does he understand about reflections in water? I call shenanigans!

  16. I do not believe this story. Either some important information is being left out, or it is simply a hoax.

  17. @#8
    I think you missed the point. Even if he can tell which paint color is which by their smell, how would he know what to do with them? If he’s never seen red, how can he even understand it or when to use it?

  18. Agreed, shenanigans.

    There is no way for a person who is blind from birth to know how to represent something visually to a sighted person.

    They would have no concept of colour, no concept of perspective and even no concept of how a silent 2-dimensional surface could suggest a 3-dimensional perception (at least not without extensive coaching and assistance).

    Boo.

  19. Yeah…such amazing shenanigans that the discovery channel got in on the scam too. And the University of Toronto. And the New Scientist. Jokers! All of them!

    I bet he just learnt how to paint just well enough and then scooped his eyes out so he could get famous.

    That old trick ain’t gonna work on me Boy! I’m a skeptic!

    Sheesh. This guy is utterly caning. He’s my new favourite guy-with-no-eyes…

  20. It’s funny to watch people deny that there’s anyone out in the world that’s more gifted than them.

    Haters.

  21. I don’t buy it. Try explaining the concepts red and yellow to someone who’s been blind since birth.

    My guess is that the gentleman is “legally blind” but still has some limited capacity to see colors and shapes, though they are probably quite fuzzy.

    My wife’s grandmother was legally blind (not blonde). When she was a young woman at the turn of the 20th century she worked in factory feeding cork into a slicing machine. Since she couldn’t clearly see the blades she had to use sound as a cue for when it was safe to load the next batch of cork. She was quite proud of the fact that she was one of only a few workers who managed to keep all their fingers.

  22. Guess what?

    There’s a freaking youtube video! It’s not like you even have to read anything! Just sit back and passively absorb the data

    He has no eyes. No. Eyes.

    That’s pretty blind by my standards.

  23. Someguy (#23), according to the New Scientist article linked above, he one eye never developed and his other is stunted and scarred, and (quoting):

    “It is impossible to know if he had some vision as an infant, but he certainly never saw normally and his brain detects no light now.”

    So sorry, no. He’s blind, not just “legally blind”.

  24. I don’t know if others may be disputing whether he is blind; I am disputing the assertion “He receives no assistance or training from any individual”.

  25. New scientist article:

    “How do you know about shadows? He learned that too. He confides that for a long time he figured that if an object was red, its shadow would be red too. “But I was told it wasn’t,” he says. But how do you know about red? He knows that there’s an important visual quality to seen objects called “colour” and that it varies from object to object. He’s memorised what has what colour and even which ones clash.”

    So yeah – he’s definitely cheating. Gathering information and then using his memory and all that. I hate it when people do that.

    There’s no information to how he selects his colours whilst painting. Maybe he has to ask someone to put red paint on the pallet. I don’t know. Seems pretty trifling in comparison to the rest of his abilities.

    Even if he does…he’s still a ludicrously astounding person. A proper neurological mutant…

  26. Just watched the youtube video. Still hard to believe, but looks legit as far as I (and Harvard scientists) could tell.

  27. #28 posted by Cragsavage, so the claim “He receives no assistance or training from any individual” is admittedly no true then.

    Still, a wonderful accomplishment! It can only be described as an act of faith to create art according to principles you don’t really understand.

  28. Mr. Armagan’s paintings are quite remarkable for someone who not only is blind but has never been able to see. In fact, technically some of them are more sophisticated than similar compositions I’ve seen in folk art. While I cannot vouch for the truthfulness of what we are seeing here, I do not dismiss it as completely fake for several reasons.

    1. My mother is blind, and yet can draw simple diagrams and cartoony faces, figures, etc. Nothing very complex, but it gets the job done. If a detail is required, she can render the detail. Naturally, 3-D sculpture is one of her favorite art forms, as she can feel the whole thing. But if she feels a child’s tempera painting, she can usually make out the shapes that have been painted. (She was not born blind.)

    2. As #8 pointed out, perpective is fairly easy to learn. It could have been explained to him; he could even have figured out from insight that a distant object would appear smaller, and that therefore the far side of a house would appear smaller than the near side. He apparently has friends; someone may very likely have explained it or otherwise confirmed his “theory of perspective,” regardless of what his website says about him supposedly working in a sort of vacuum. As for the absence of Durer-style perspective in Oriental and Egyptian art, that’s a matter of style. There are a few examples of Egyptian art that include informal poses, quarter-turn portraiture, and superimposition — but most of the nobles wanted their art done a certain way, and that was that. It could be that someone felt that realistic perpective made a picture “too real,” and the practice of omitting or distorting perpective became de rigeur.

    3. I’m a little color-blind, and I’m an illustrator. I keep my paints properly labeled so I can tell what that gray or brown REALLY is, and I know what colors certain things are (like the green traffic light, which just looks white to me). Someone definitely told Mr. Armagan how to determine shadow color, unless he’s also a scientist who knows a great deal about light wavelengths (the only way you could figure out the color of a shadow without seeing it or being told how it works). As for the placement of shadows — blind folks are sensitive to heat & sunlight, too, and quickly learn where the shadows will be in the sun is in X direction. As for the creative use of colors, the color wheel pretty much lays everything out nicely. My Mom can determine which color rugs & furniture would do well in a room, depending on the color of the walls.

    Therefore, I think that Mr. Armagan had some assistance, even if it was merely a little information. But I see no reason to doubt that he painted these pictures.

    Unrelated topic: “Armagan” happens to be a name I invented for a character in my fantasy novel “Jenna of Erdovon,” published almost exactly one year ago. Naturally, I did a double-take when I saw this article.

  29. Well…if you count asking people what colour stuff is and then remembering the answer as ‘training’ then sure…split hairs all you like…

    I’m switching sides anyway…

    He’s clearly a blind photoshopper…

  30. I have always wondered what a person blind from birth must dream about. I mean think about it….NO concept of anything visual, yet they surely must dream right?

  31. Oh come on people, this is supposed to be a geek blog and nobody has framed the issue in using an obvious facsimile. Since the 1970s, computer software has been able to draw objects from memory exponentially better than this guy, and it has no semblance of sight, or any senses, or even information about the world around it. Sure, it’s not a perfect analogy, but clearly rendering can be done by rote if given the right instructions. This guy was just given/figured out decent instructions.

  32. @36 – yeah kinda what i was thinking. As far as learning perspective – if he has someone trace photos of people to do portraits than he could easily have done the same to ‘see’ perspective drawings. Or he could work from photos. Touch is just another way to let info into the brain. And I don’t think you can call asking someone what a color is, or ‘looking at/touching’ a photo cheating. Anyone who paints or draws has looked at photos and other paintings.

    I’d be really interested to see a portrait he did without a photo. He could have photos of different people and then touch their faces – to get an idea of how the 2d and 3d relate. Then see what he would paint just given the real face. That could be really cool!

  33. In the immortal words of Columbo, “One more thing…”
    #12 inquired about how blind people could “understand” color, and #35 asked what they dream about.

    For someone blind since birth, color is an abstract concept indeed — but not completely incomprehensible. Most of us can sort of “imagine” infrared and ultraviolet, even though very few humans can see infrared at all (and then only as a faint increase in light rather than a discrete color). But colors, as most of us know, absorb certain wavelengths and reflect others; this can translate to temperature differences when touched. A blind person knows that black clothing will feel hotter than white, and thus at least one practical use for color knowledge exists. (My aforementioned Mom can pick the decor for a room with great skill despite being blind, simply because she knows color theory and how colors affect mood.) I myself choose colors very carefully when I paint pictures, more so because a great many of them are indistinguishable from each other to my eyes.

    Blind people dream about what most people dream about. The emphasis (at least for those blind since birth) is on things one perceives with senses other than sight. Sighted people tend to think of dreams as being rather like TV or movies; but dreams can and often do include sound, touch, even taste and smell (not to mention strong emotional content at times). In some blind people’s dreams, everything is there but the visual part; the dream is no less vivid for it. In the case of persons who became blind later in life, some dreams may include visuals, some not. As for the role of color in dreams — as a somewhat color-blind person, I usually dream in color but rarely notice it unless the colors happen to be very pronounced or unusual. Unless there’s a vivid splash of color, it’s rather like watching a movie that was shot in color but faded due to improper storage. A person who has never seen any colors would not see them in a dream either, although color could play a part in the dream (“I dreamed she kept re-painting the house because it was the wrong color…”). You don’t have to SEE it to have an idea of what it is and how it affects others.

  34. If you watch the kind of landscape painter who can dash off two or three canvases a day while sitting in a studio, there’s a lot of “cheating” involved. A “happy little tree” over here, a few daubs over there to approximate distant rocks. A great deal can be accomplished with a few techniques.

    Still, there are problems here.

    It’s difficult to see how something like the appearance of light reflecting from the surfaces of thousands of leaves could be learned from exposure to “casual comments.” Ditto depth, dimension, etc.

    It’s also problematic that Mr. Armagan’s visual cortex responds as though he’s seeing during FMRI scanning. Scans of others showing activity in the visual cortex while “imagining” were presumably conducted on sighted persons. Even the researchers who have studied the gentleman note that his case is highly unusual.

    If entirely blind, he can’t see his paintings any more than he can see an actual landscape. He cannot know therefore, in any real sense, what his paintings look like. He has supposedly never experienced visual stimuli, with the possible exception of some fuzzy images from his single, stunted eye during childhood. What then is his brain “seeing” while he imagines himself inside a landscape?

    Is it remotely possible that Mr. Armagan’s stunted eye is actually seeing a good deal more than is believed but that, due to faulty wiring, his visual cortex does not have access to what he sees? (Thus, during FMRI, if shown an object his scan indicates that he is not “seeing.”)

    Perhaps he is storing visual stimuli in memory, without ever being consciously aware. Thus, when he tries to “imagine” a scene, he finds that he can do so quite accurately. His visual cortex lights up in response to stored memories, rather than to direct information from his eye.

    The test for this would obviously be to expose the artist to a well-lit object with which he is completely unfamiliar and could not have had prior experience. If he then found that he was able to “imagine” the item and to paint it, this would support my little hypothesis.

    (Please take this with a grain of salt… shake well and pour over ice. Garnish with an olive.)

    Bob Rossney: “Anagram.” Good eye.

  35. Hehe…anyone quoting my ‘cheating’ remark in seriousness…really needs to check that their sarcasm detector…

    I’ll also posit that the computer analogy isn’t just less than perfect – it’s terrible. Because the human mind and a computer do not work in anything resembling an analogous fashion.

  36. “He said that the light of the world was in men’s eyes only for the world itself moved in eternal darkness and darkness was its true nature and true condition and that in this darkness it turned with perfect cohesion in all its parts but that there was naught there to see. He said that the world was sentient to its core and secret and black beyond men’s imagining and that its nature did not reside in what could be seen or not seen. He said that he could stare down the sun and what use was that?”

  37. @#24 posted by Cragsavage

    So, he has “no eyes”.

    Right. So – how does he perceive the scene he is depicting? ESP? Wandering around he entire landscape feeling things out with his hands? Or… conversation with other people who DO have eyes? It’s got to be one or the other.

  38. What? I’m suddenly this guy’s agent it would seem.

    The discovery program youtube clip states he has a genetic disorder that means he was born without eyes. That’s where the ‘no eyes’ thing came from. I didn’t just make that up. After posting that comment I then read the New Scientist article which clarifies this a little less dramatically –

    “One of his eyes failed to develop beyond a rudimentary bud, the other is stunted and scarred. It is impossible to know if he had some vision as an infant, but he certainly never saw normally and his brain detects no light now.”

    So yeah – silly me…he’s got eyes…but they’re not really recognisable as such and he can’t see…so I’ll forgive myself for the discovery channel’s error.

    And yes…wandering around the landscape is clearly part of how he forms an image in his mind – again the video clip shows this. The New Scientist…wait…no…I’m not going to precis everything for you…

    If you’re not going to bother reading the article or watching the clip then what’s the point in talking about it?

  39. This is quite astounding, though I do agree with some of the posters that he’s obviously had “training”. Perhaps not in the technique he uses to put paint to the page, he may have come up with that all on his own, many have achieved similar feats, but he has had help in understanding color, perspective, shadows, etc., he says so himself. The original article is a bit misleading that way, but sensationalism always wins the day, which is the spirit in which the article seems written. No one should be too surprised by that.

    I’m still tired of gimmick artists though, like the post a while back about Frank Calloway, the 112 year old mental patient who paints. It’s amazing that he paints, and his drawings are interesting in that context, but not beyond that. Do we have to know about Michaelangelo’s homosexual tendencies to know his art is profound, or about Van Gogh’s suicidal tendencies to see how radically different, and yet beautiful, his art is? No, though the context adds something even more to art already possessing great depth. This blind guy’s art, and Mr. Calloway’s art, is wonderful in the context of their lives and it’s astounding that they have created it in spite of the struggles they face, but it’s the story we’re most interested in, not the art itself.

    Mozart still sounds amazing if you don’t know anything about Mozart.

  40. He already has painted something he had no experience of. For the ‘Extraordinary People’ docu, he was taken to Italy (I think?) and was asked to touch then paint a very famous sculpture. So famous, that erm, I forget the name hahaha!

    Was most impressive, have a search for it :D

  41. About twenty years ago I was an art critic in Maine and saw a show of work by visually impaired people. I am a painter myself and thought I had some special visual skills. But that show forced me to understand that everyone, even blind people, “sees” something and what each person sees is his or her world. It is valid to express what you “see” as an art form regardless of the parameters of your vision. Likewise in the early days of VR a brain damaged woman presented a VR installation (I’m sorry I forget her name now) that showed how things look to a brain damaged person, or at least to this particular brain damaged person. So she had large paintings that had jagged blank spots in them and so on. Thanks for including this link as a way for us all to broaden our “vision.”

  42. When he is satisfied with his drawing, he starts to apply the oils with his fingers.

    Oil paints tend to be rather toxic.

  43. I’m surprised that I’m not surprised to learn that some people’s first thought is “This man, all the people who met him, and the people who recorded and wrote the information I’m reading on him are wrong and I’m right – he’s a fake!”

  44. @48
    Yeah, but barrier cream will block out cadminum, lead, and cobalt. It’s like a wax lotion.

  45. Argh. Cadmium, I mean. I started using barrier cream too late.
    While I’m at it, ACE said: “Do we have to know about Michaelangelo’s homosexual tendencies to know his art is profound, or about Van Gogh’s suicidal tendencies to see how radically different, and yet beautiful, his art is?”

    I would have to say context provides a bigger picture beyond the image the artist produces. An image should provoke questions like “who, where, when, and why” This information can only add to the greater dialogue.

  46. My follow-up comment to the above, which corrected my spelling of ‘cadmium’, and included an art tangent, never appeared here, though I can see it on “recent comments” and on my profile. What gives?
    Also, where did the moderator thread go? Am I in some kind of cyber gulag?

  47. Your comment is right there above the one from 6:55 PM. The Mod thread is off the Don’t Miss board. I’ve requested its reinstatement.

  48. Thanks Antinous-it’s weird but the comment was invisible to me for maybe 40 minutes although I could see it in the column and in my profile. I’m ready to blame Safari, if need be.

  49. different pigments have different smells! acrylics all have a fairly consistent smell. although there may be subtle differences that i’m unaware of. just a theory (or a hypotenoose!).

  50. It just seems weird to me that he would use oils. I can’t see a single plus for him. And I could list negatives, beginning with the obvious . . . he’s blind.

    All acrylics smell enough alike as to be the same. That’s not the case here, however; this smells fishy.

  51. I saw this man’s story on the Discovery Channel, the documentary was titled ‘The Real Superhumans’, where they also chronicled the lives of a man in the Netherlands who can withstand extreme cold temperatures and who does not suffer from frostbite, a lady who sees colours and shapes floating whenever she hears a sound, a man who can do complex calculations in his head, etc.

    Esref was one of the more extraordinary stories, as the article mentioned, he has not ‘seen’ anything before due to his non-functioning eyes, but is able to grasp the concept of perspective and being able to put it down on paper. In the documentary he was given a test to draw a building in Italy by feeling a scale model, and he was able to produce it on a paper with the correct perspective, as if viewed from an angle on street level.

  52. I probably should have joined this discussion earlier. I have been Esref’s volunteer manager since 1994. I have been the lucky person to follow him around and witness so many new things that he experiences. Since 1996 he has been using acrylics because they dry faster (and are probably safer). If you would like to know more, ask and I will try to answer. On the 20-22 August Discovery Science will again be showing the Real Superhumans if the youtube ten minutes wasn’t enough. We will be going to Argentina next week for a conference and hopefully to the Frankfurt Book Fair.

  53. It is easy to be skeptical. Test your own ability. Draw a cube, a circle with your eyes closed, and see how you did. Draw the figures on the two sides of a dime that you have seen and touched all your life.

    Esref is not asking anyone to do any thing for him anyways. He has a blind wife two children and is an exceptional artist. Do look at the portrait of President Clinton which he painted. Look at Clinton’s smile, the expression on his face. This has been done by a person who never had sight. It is his Mona Lisa. Astounding has been the word.

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