Painting without sight


Dear Artist,

Recently there has been a bit of excitement around the painter Esref Armagan. The 51-year-old native of Istanbul, Turkey, has been blind from birth. Researchers at Boston University and the University of Toronto have been analyzing his work, trying to dig into and understand his thought processes. They bombard him with questions and subject him to brain scans while he paints. His work, which could be characterized as naïve or primitive, nevertheless shows some use of perspective and other sight skills. So you get an idea of what I’m talking about, see below for samples of his work.

Butterflies Acrylic  by Esref Armagan (b. 1953)

by Esref Armagan (b. 1953)

For the blind, being able to draw objects such as cups, fish or hammers is one thing. For these tests Armagan used the “Sewell raised-line drawing kit.” This device leaves a Braille-like line that can be felt with the fingers.

Being able to visualize and paint distant scenery in colour is something else. It’s safe to say that a tactile understanding of objects such as cubes, cones, spheres, etc., go a long way toward building a “hand’s eye” picture. “A house is like a box,” etc. Just as a sighted person looks out and sees, the blind reach out and feel, and this produces a similar understanding of the forms in our world. But Armagan’s use of colour and cast shadow presents further areas of interest. For a while he thought that shadows should be the same colour as the objects that cast them, but someone corrected him on that. While he claims no formal art teacher, his knowledge of light sources and colour choices come from the more or less casual remarks of those who look over his shoulder.

Woman Acrylic by Esref Armagan

by Esref Armagan

What I find so interesting about these studies and their results is not the quality of the work, but what appears to be the similarity to the processes, pitfalls and desirable effects experienced by sighted artists. The verbal nature of things helps to inform the “mind’s eye” and interferes with the actual image on the “eye’s-eye.” In Armagan there is no eye’s-eye — not even the perception of light. In him we have the extreme end of theoretical imaging. Wonderfully though, his world is just as real as any other painted world, and therein lies both its faults and its charms. One wonders what would happen should he turn his mind to thoughts of abstraction.

Fish Acrylic by Esref Armagan

by Esref Armagan

Best regards,


PS: “Mr. Armagan is an important figure in the history of picture-making, and in the history of knowledge. He has demonstrated for the first time that a blind person can develop on his own pictorial skills the equal of most depiction by the sighted. This has not happened before.” (John M. Kennedy, University of Toronto)

Esoterica: Armagan first draws his composition using a Braille stylus. Working with his fingers in oil or acrylic he fills in his colours. He says he feels it — as if he was “in it.” In painting the sea, for example, he says he should wear a life preserver in order to prevent drowning. According to the results of the brain scan, areas of his visual cortex light up as if he was seeing. This also suggests that the seeing of both sighted and unsighted persons is somewhat a matter of belief.

This letter was originally published as “Painting without sight” on February 1, 2005.

Landscape Acrylic by Esref Armagan

by Esref Armagan

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“I shut my eyes in order to see.” (Paul Gauguin)




  1. It was themes and articles like this from Robert Genn that I so appreciated. As many of you know, in the 00s and until his departure on May 27th, 2014 the ‘Twice-Weekly Newsletter’ would be in our inbox’s just before midnight (in many areas) the night before. I would return from an evening of floor hockey, with my heart pounding, to only have it race even more with content like this. Robert Genn was selfless. He truly cared about opening up our minds to see what was possible. What we were able to do, not only with our art, but on how we treated our fellow person. Were we going to go through our lives acting blind? Being blind in the world, and not helping our fellow person?

    Imagine each of our lives if Robert (and now Sara) weren’t there for us?

    Robert didn’t need to do this. To start this community back at the beginning of the internet. He solely did this to reach into our souls. He cared, as his daughter, Sara, does, so very much for each one of us. And there are others behind the scenes, lives, just like you & I that give of their time to see our lives flourish.

    If you can make a donation, please do. Touch those lives back through your actions.

    “There is a wonder in reading Braille that the sighted will never know: to touch words and have them touch you back.” – Jim Fiebig

    I always felt Robert’s style of writing made you feel the words. They always touched me back. His daughter, Sara does this as well. I marvel at their ability. Each and every time I write they’re appearing over my shoulder. I thank Sara for looking over my right, Robert over my left. If you are interested in reading an article that they helped guide me with, please click on the link below. It is my own story with a blind person.

    I thank you each for your time reading my post, and considering my message.

    As always, love is the way,

    Miles Patrick Yohnke


    • Joan Eroncel on

      I have worked as a shift manager for almost 30 years. There is a new documentary out that you might want to watch it will answer a lot of your questions, even about dreams I believe. Please go to YouTube, Al Jazeera English, painting in the dark. Enjoy.

  2. Fascinating! He has visual images in that brain that got there somehow. That would be a good exercise for we artists who are a bit over-sensitive on being absolutely “correct” in recreating what we see with our eyes. Blindfold and using our hands in making art from imagery we visualize by imagining. I know, not the same as what a life long blind person is doing, but an interesting thought.

  3. I have several exotic birds, some of them tiny finches. A few of these are “rescues” that were born with deformed beaks. I have to catch them in my hand, from within their spacious cage, for beak trimming on a regular basis. These are high-strung, fast-moving, delicate little birds. A bird is less hyper and easier to catch when it is dark, so I dim the lights. But I always do my best “catching” when I close my eyes too. I do it by feel. I don’t really understand how I can do this, since they are evasive and unpredictable, yet I seem to know where they are. And the bird seems to go along with being in contact with my hand better that way. When caught, and they struggle to get away, or I have to turn them over or transfer them to my other hand, I also close my eyes and readjust my loose clasp on them entirely by feel, with my eyes closed. “Seeing” the bird while trying to do this is distracting information-overload for me and causes me to let them go so they won’t get squeezed.

    • Lisa Aarflot -Biton on

      A few years ago I saw a group-exhibition of paintings made by blind artists , in the Emmanuel church in Tel-Aviv . It was hard for me to understand how they could paint and also what motivated them . After all they can not see what they had painted . Some paintings were very nice . It really gives food for thought . Perhaps there is an inner need to give form and show what is in their imagination.

  4. I think one big thing that’s happening is the Universe is trying to teach us that our physical conscious brain is extremely limited compared to universal consciousness or awareness, which most scientists don’t want to acknowledge, but some do. The limitation extends throughout our physical world and we are being pushed to at least consider expanding our awareness. This includes, blind people painting, LGPQ, ETC being all varieties just like skin color and cultural variations and on and on. It could be fun if we could simply surrender to new to us and all potential that we are all capable of. Maybe the Universe is asking us to please stop being teenagers and move on into adulthood as creative creatures. Think how much fun that would be.

    • Enjoyed this article so much! I’m a perfectionist to the degree that it immobilizes me as far as art. Need to try to let loose. Blind fold myself & just paint what I feel, this might be a great exercise in letting go of perfection.

  5. it may be that this man illustrates an aspect of life as it extends beyond lifetimes. Could it be that he was a painter in his previous life and brings the skills of seeing into this strong desire to “continue” painting this time.

  6. I really enjoyed the responses to this wonderful article, specially Jennette, Lisa & Ann’s. Thank you! When I met mixed media artist Laura Hosaluk in early January of 2006, I asked her what her hobbies were. She replied: “learning.” I was hooked. I was in love with Laura right then and there. She had an open mind to everything. This beautiful sighted woman taught herself braille. She also taught herself how to make copper bracket jewelry. On Wednesday night, May 3, 2006, she came over to my apartment, the one I have lived in now for 30 years, and presented me with a copper bracket that she made for me (that you see on my right wrist at this link below). In braille she placed a scripture: “Your Beauty Is Truth.”

    Laura Hosaluk also took the steps and created one of the most thoughtful acts of kindness that I’ve ever experienced in my life. In 2006, on Easter Sunday, she searched out my father’s tombstone, and placed a single red rose. I would later write a poem about her actions. But she really penned it. I just documented her huge heart. If you’d like to read it, please click here:

    Laura Hosaluk would go on to become an internationally shown artist. To learn more about her life, and the art she makes, please visit her website:

    As always, love is the way,

    Miles Patrick Yohnke


  7. Wow! How extremely interesting, not only Robert’s story but the responses from all of you. I wonder what Mr. Armagan’s night time dreams while he sleeps are like. Does he dream in colour and if so, how would he know about colour? Does he see what sighted people see? Does he have lucid dreams like us? It would be so wonderful to be able to ask him these questions. Although I am sighted, my dreams every night are beyond fantastic. I dream of people whom I have never met, things I have never seen, and places I have never been. The exquisite architectural detail of the cities I ‘visit’ is incomprehensible and almost beyond description. Once in awhile I journal just for fun, but it has to be fast because the detail of these dreams evaporates so quickly. Oh what a mystery, the brain and this life.

  8. Thank you Sara for this wonderful video..once again it proves that all is not as it seems…there is magic and wonder out there that we scarcely touch or reach..I know for myself that getting caught up in creating the ‘right’ image leads one on a downward spiral as opposed to truly reaching within..excuse me I need to get off the computer and go to the studio and paint that dream I had the other night.!!

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No Featured Workshop series #1
Oil on canvas with pyrite and amethyst
48 x 48"/122x122cm

Featured Artist

Candace studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Angers, France but it is her travels in the deserts of Africa and Oman, Antarctica and the Arctic, and sacred sights of Machu Picchu and Petra that serve as her true place of learning. A desire to combine these experiences with a deeper understanding of her own spirituality has provided the underlying focus and inspiration for her paintings.