We think of being blind as a disability, not being able to function properly in daily life, but that is definitely not true for John Bramblitt of Denton, Texas. He’s an artist whose work has been sold in over twenty countries and has appeared internationally in print, TV, and radio, and yes, he is blind.
Over 13 years ago Bramblitt lost his vision due to complications with epilepsy and he fell into a deep depression, feeling disconnected from the world around him. “All of the hopes and dreams that I had for my life; all of the plans for what I would do after I graduated school were gone,” he said. He had been suffering from epileptic seizures from the age of two. As he got older the seizures became more and more frequent. His vision gradually began to deteriorate until 2001 when he had become completely blind. However, during this journey something amazing happened – he discovered painting.
He learned to distinguish between different colored paints by feeling their textures with his fingers. He taught himself how to paint using raised lines to help him find his way around the canvas, and through something called haptic visualization, which enables him to ‘see’ his subjects through touch. He now paints amazingly lifelike portraits of people he’s never seen, including his wife and son.
Bramblitt starts by forming a picture in his mind and then uses fabric paint to produce outlines that can be felt with his fingers. The Braille on the tubes of paint help him identify colors, but over time, he has learned to recognize them by touch – white, for example, is thick like toothpaste, while black is runnier. So he uses this technique to mix shades and fill them into the outlines.
He also has an interesting solution for color; “All of the bottles and paint tubes in my studio are Brailled, and when mixing colors I use recipes. I other words I will measure out different portions of each color that I need to produce the right hue. This is no different than using a recipe to bake a cake.” Sure is easier said than done. “At first the idea of being able to draw without eyesight didn’t even occur to me. Basically what I do is replace everything that the eyes would do for a sighted artist with the sense of touch.”
The first art shows done by Brambitt no one ever knew that the artist was blind. “I didn’t tell people that I was blind not because I was ashamed, but because I didn’t want it to affect the way they perceived the art. I’m really caught up with the idea of perception. The way people look at things and the way 20 different people can look at one thing and see 20 different things. I think that’s amazing.”
Many of his portraits are taken from events in his life he experienced while he could still see. Art was always a big part of his life, but it took on a new kind of importance following his blindness. “Art reshaped my life,” he said. Alongside creating new works, Bramblitt teaches art workshops focusing on adaptive techniques for young artists with disabilities, for which he has received three Presidential Service Awards. Bramblitt says, “Life for me now is way more colourful than it ever was.”