The hidden artistic benefits of poor visual memory

“You must have a good visual memory, you’re an artist,” a teacher once told me, trying to talk me out of my discouragement about geometry. But in my personal experience, art-making and visualization ability are surprisingly unrelated.

I’ve always been interested in art, and I’ve always had poor visual memory and spatial reasoning skills. Some people can vividly picture complex images in their “mind’s eye,” while others have no ability to do so at all, a condition called aphantasia. I’m not quite there, but I’d rate my visualization ability at about 1 or 2 out of 5. I tend to process information more in words, which explains why I write so much and have so few images on an art blog.

As Shayla Love notes in the Guardian article, “I can’t picture things in my mind’s eye”, artistic interest is actually very common in aphantasiacs. Perhaps lacking internal mental images makes external images more interesting and novel.

Different artistic processes

Process 1: The Imagineer

People tend to assume that the default process for making art is:

  1. Picture something
  2. Try to make it

Perhaps this is really the way it works for people who can visualize, but this is not my process at all. I can’t do step one. If I have any idea of what I want to make at all, which is exceedingly rare, my visualization of it is not consistent or detailed enough to work from.

Process 2: The Camera

Instead, I usually do this process:

  1. See something
  2. Try to copy it

For example, I’ll work from one or more reference photos; draw from life; or make “nature spots” to capture colors from the real world. I might even copy another artist’s work, or follow a tutorial, to learn technique.

Process 3: The Chaos Demon

My other option is:

  1. Just start working
  2. See what happens

If I’m drawing, I might call this doodling, but it can be done in any medium. Basically this is relying on muscle memory and generalized process knowledge to create without having a specific plan for what it will look like. It’s possible to start this process with a topic or theme (for example, “I’ll do a sunset” or “I’ll do a dreamy vibe”), but I’m never thinking of a specific sunset or dreamy scene. Instead, I use the techniques that I am accustomed to from previous attempts to copy images (for example, I’ve painted enough sunsets to know which colors I use in which order), and see what emerges.

In other cases, I don’t even think about a topic or theme, I simply start making marks.

This is my favorite way of working because the result is a surprise. It can also come out a complete mess, but it doesn’t matter because it’s fun to do. And because I had no plan in the first place, it’s hard to be disappointed.

Effect on watercolor

It’s only recently that I realized that process #1, “picture something, then try to make it,” is not a myth, but most likely the natural way of working for people with a good visual imagination. If so, that explains why so many people find watercolor hard and frustrating. The more specific you are in what you’re trying to achieve, the more disappointed you will be with this medium, which inherently has some randomness.

But for people like me, who gravitate toward the chaos demon process, watercolor is a wonderful fit. The randomness of watercolor maximizes surprises.

I actually kind of feel sorry for people who have a great visual imagination. It must be hard to have a picture in your mind and lack the skill and/or luck to make that image a reality. Anything you do, even if it’s great, may disappoint you because it doesn’t match your imagination. But if you have no imagination, no expectations, you can be delighted with whatever happens.

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