Visual impairment can have a major impact on your life, no matter how you lead it. Anyone dealing with impaired or absent sight can tell you that even a small loss of eyesight can require some major changes that will take some getting used to. Those difficulties become even more pronounced if you happen to have a career or passion that lies in a field that logically seems heavily sight-dependent – like visual art, for example.
At first blush, vision loss seems like the death knell for any visual artist. And indeed, many painters, sculptors, and graphic artists would likely list it as one of their top professional fears. But even blindness doesn’t necessarily spell the end to an artistic life. Is it a hurdle? Absolutely. Is it an insurmountable one? Numerous people have proven otherwise. Read along, and we’ll talk about several figures, historical and modern, who found ways to work with their vision loss or impairment.
One of the founding figures in the American Modernist movement, O’Keeffe is best known for her close up, vibrant paintings of flowers. Born in 1887, she cut her artistic teeth in New York’s rising artistic scene and worked as part of an artistic circle that contained colossi such as photographer Paul Strand and fellow painter Arthur Dove.
In the 1970s, after years spent as a prominent painter, O’Keeffe began to lose her eyesight after being affected by age-related macular degeneration, a common problem for aging eyes. The condition eventually resulted in the loss of her central vision, and she would stop painting unassisted after 1972. However, a chance friendship with a young potter introduced her to a new medium, and she began crafting pottery. Later years also saw her work with watercolors and author a book about her art that later inspired a movie.
One of the biggest blips on the artistic timeline, Paul Cézanne is often considered one of the bridges between French Impressionism and the forms that would follow it. His abstract, carefully constructed paintings both explored the Impressionist style and expanded it. Some of his fellow painters, including Gaugin, Monet (another famously vision-challenged artist), and Degas all included Cézanne’s work in their own collections. Later artists would also pay homage to his work; Picasso even went as far to term him “the father of us all.”
Cézanne was myopic, or nearsighted. Strangely enough, this put him in pretty good company – a fair number of other impressionists had less than ideal vision. Monet, Pisarro, Degas, and Renoir all struggled with impaired vision, and in some cases may have exploited it. While the theory remains contested, one neurologist has suggested that the soft lines and vibrant colors found in many impressionist paintings are in part a result of the painters’ impaired vision.
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Even among the artists on this list, Armağan is unique. The Turkish painter is not only completely blind, but was also born without sight. In the absence of specialized help, he taught himself to write and paint. Instead of producing abstract art as might be expected, Armağan aims to portray real subjects and does so with an incredible degree of accuracy. Armağan’s work has been exhibited in multiple countries, and has even been featured as part of a BMW promotional campaign.
His process is also interesting. Armağan paints in total silence, using his fingers and waiting for each color to dry before proceding in order to prevent smudging. In order to produce portraits, he has a sighted colleague draw on a photograph, then feels and reproduces the lines.
Another intriguing modern figure. Keith Salmon began to lose his sight in his 30’s due to diabetic retinopathy. Salmon is best known for his artistic exploration of the Scottish Munros, or mountain-hills. Even the act of climbing a Munro isn’t exactly for the faint of heart. While Salmon’s descriptions of his walks are fairly breezy, your average Munro is high, cold, and wet. His paintings of them, and of other scenes, give some insight into how Salmon views the world as an artist. As he puts it:
I have tried to explore my new and changing view, recording, (using oil paint and pastel) not what I see, but rather how I now see my surroundings.
Overcoming the Hurdles of Vision Loss
While we hope that the above passages are at least inspirational, some readers might want some more concrete help. If you find yourself looking for ways to remain productive as a visual artist while going through vision change, you’re not alone. A bevy of online sources exist to help guide you through what can be an extremely stressful, frightening experience. The Art Sight is a screen-reader accessible account of how one artist creates paintings with impaired vision.
Anyone and everyone dealing with vision loss is also highly encouraged to visit VisionAware, a resource for independent living with impaired vision. They specialize in no-nonsense advice and can be tremendously helpful no matter your need. Similarly, they also contain well-trafficked forums, which act as a great secondary resource for anyone with particular questions.