Painting with the colours of the mind

In 2001, John Bramblitt went blind because of epilepsy. A year later he picked up a paintbrush, and never looked back.

Bramblitt was born in Texas and has lived with epilepsy his entire life. He was always an artist but never used paint or colour until his condition robbed him of his vision when he was 30 years old. “My eyes are perfect but the part of my brain that makes the images just doesn’t work anymore,” explains Bramblitt. His blindness put him into a dark depression, out of which he saw only two ways – suicide or art.

He decided that painting would allow him to create art using his sense of touch. At first, he used quick drying acrylic paint to create raised lines on paper which would allow him to feel out what he was creating. Eventually, he learned how to draw again, and soon after started incorporating colour into his work.

There are over 200 different receptors in the human fingertip, and Bramblitt has learned to feel out the various colours he is working with. “If I’m working with black it’ll be runny almost like oil and if I’m working with titanium white it’s like toothpaste. So if I want a gray halfway between, I just mix for a texture that’s halfway between that really loose feeling and that really thick feeling,” says Bramblitt.

John has also mastered the skill of haptic visualization, a technique used by blind people that allows them to “see” things in their heads through the use of touch. Haptic perception is an important mental tool used by those who have gone blind but have had vision in the past.

John uses it to draw incredible life-like portraits. He develops a detailed 3D model of their face in his mind, and works from memory. “If I want somebody to look to the left or to the right for my painting, I don’t need to have that person actually do that because I have this 3D model,” he explains. “And once it’s there, it sticks. Someone whose face I felt five years ago – I can still paint them. And they never age, which is a great thing.”

John’s gotten so good at it, he was able to re-create a strikingly photo-realistic image of his son, whom he has never actually seen.

Since he started painting, John has been exhibited and sold artwork around the world. He also gives talks at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, and has authored the award winning book, Shouting In The Dark.  

But more important for John is the positive impact art has had on his life personally. Saving him from a life of darkness, it has allowed him to evolve and grow as a person when the odds were stacked against him. Art provided him with an outlet to escape, and in return let him truly find his artistic self.

“Everyone has an artist somewhere in them; sometimes they just need a little help letting it out.” says Bramblitt. “The painters I admire are the ones who work really hard at their craft. They’re always coming up with new ways to do something. And when they’re done, people say, ‘Oh, they’re gifted and that’s interesting.’ I don’t know if it’s a gift or it’s just that they’re obsessive. Like if I want to make a certain line or a certain colour, I’ll work on it forever.”

To learn more about John and his work, please visit his website.

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