Did you ever participate in a meditation or relaxation session? They usually start with something like that:
“Imagine yourself in a safe place. A spot in Nature or even your favourite place in the world”.
How does your place look like? Where is it? Is it dark or light? What do you can see around?
This one seems like a simple imagination exercise. For drawing, painting, sculpturing and many other artworks is natural to start it like that: with an image in the head. But if you cannot do it?
Ok.. maybe I am asking too much, let’s go back to the basics and focus on a common object instead of a whole place, all right? An apple! Can you picture an apple in your mind? If you can, how it looks like? Is it shining? Where is it? In a table, in your hand… hanging in a tree? Can you rotate it to see the other side? Can you take it in your hand and put it in another place, or under another light? Can you imagine it change colours from red to green?
People are different and each one lives into a distinct inner world. Maybe my apple is not equal to yours. So, on a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 is no image at all and 10 is almost real, where can you put your imaginary apple?
At the end of the XIX century, Francis Galton -- a researcher who had a wide range of interests that goes from anthropology to medicine -- initiate a study about mental imagery. In his studies his discovered that not everyone can actually see something in a mental space, this phenomenon was called “Aphantasia”.
Aphantasia is described as a condition where one does not possess a functioning mind's eye and cannot voluntarily visualize imagery.
These studies were revolutionaries because it starts a discussion not so common: our inner mental space. We cannot see (listen to, feel, or whatever…) the other’s mind, and we talk very little about it. So, it’s natural to assume that what happens in my head happens in everyone’s head as well. And if it doesn’t, this person has a problem. However, the truth is that there are many mental variations as different people. Our outside is not equal in everyone, why it would be different with our inside?
Although revolutionary, this research doesn’t evolve much until recent years. When in 2015 (aka yesterday in science history), the University of Exeter in the UK decided to continue and deepen the studies on the topic when it was discovered a man who had full capability to imagine detailed objects, but after a traumatic situation, he just lost it completely.
Professor Zeman was in charge of the studies and in his studies it was clear that this condition is not rare at all, and it not a disability or a special condition, it is just a quality that some people have. You can be born this way or develop it with time.
In my personal life, most of my artistic activities evolve to imagine something before making it real. I confess I am not a 10 on that scale -- I would say a 5 on a good day -- but I can have some idea of shapes, light, shadows and this kind of thing. But would it be possible to have an artistic life without it? Well… it was shocking to me but I found out that Blake-Ross, co-creator of Firefox, and Ed Catmull, former chief of Pixar both experience aphantasia. Amy, a cartoonist and YouTuber, talks about her experience with the phenomenon in her channel as well.
It is interesting to highlight that Aphantasia is not an absence of memory. They can memorize things, remember places, recognize faces, and even dream with images. However, when wake the imagination is just not the same. Picture real shapes and objects and have the ability to interact with them and change them as wanted is another thing. On the other hand, Kim Jung Gi, is an artist famous for his large brush pen drawings from his imagination. No reference, no eraser, no corrections. Just a straight line from mind to paper.
Kim and Amy are both on each end of the scale. However, both have the same idea of training, they both exercise drawing in their head. It is important to consider its own limitations. While Kim trains like a bodybuilder (or it would be an imagination builder…), Amy trains like a newcomer. And that’s ok! Just find your place on the scale to determine your personal training. If you want you can take the scientific test right here.
Amy starts with closed eyes trying to see any kind of shape and make an effort to make them clear in mind. She starts with some shades, then she draws some imaginary lines around it and little by little she starts to give some shape, colour and texture. Otherwise, Kim plays focus on the same object and turns it into his mind. He tries to see it from the top, from the bottom, in other lights, and also put more than one together in the same perspective. If you want you can also try it!
After all, Amy is really hard on her point when she says (and I agree) that this is not a 100% necessary skill for an artist. Seeking to get around the situation she bases herself on references and a sort of different computer softwares. Because sometimes it can be extremely frustrating to draw from memory Amy just change the approach and focus on have better abilities using her computer skills. Which made a great difference for her, as a successful digital artist. In my opinion, the important part is to focus on whatever is your main goal and apply the exercises for it.
Let’s try it?