Colours from the Blind Man

November 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

I found this fascinating article in The Observer today about Sargy Mann; “The Best Blind Painter in Peckham”. Unlike the amazing John Bramblitt of Texas, who paints by touch and only began after losing his vision, Sargy lived his years painting from perfect vision up to 36 years old  and all the way along the slow loss of sight over twenty years later.

He taught at Camberwell College of Art and was very conscious of the process and ways of seeing, very aware of how sight is actively created in the mind. Watch the film his son Peter made, which has a recording of Sargy before and after painting his first fully-blind canvas. It really shows his courage and also how particular his visual imagination has been developed. He seems to be reconstructing and both remembering and creating a scene all at once . Colour is central, despite the fact he doesn’t know if it’s ‘right’ or not. That’s ok.

Amusingly, Semir Zeki, a professor of “neuroaesthetics” in University College of London has been chasing the painter for years trying to get some MRI scans done… to track down the colour perceiving parts of his brain.

All great artists, Zeki believes, are instinctive neuroscientists; they have an innate understanding of how the brain “sees” the world, and they are fated by this knowledge to constantly try to find a correspondent visual language. Zeki pioneered, as long ago as the 1970s, the accepted understanding of the particular way in which the brain projects its concepts of colour on to the world almost from birth. For Zeki, seeing is never a passive process. When we look at a painting, as his sensitive MRI scanning proves, different bits of information are immediately separated and sent to discrete anatomical corners of our brains for processing. Our brains respond to this compartmentalised information at slightly different rates; colour is processed before form, for example, and form before motion. Having been taken apart, as it were, a painting that we love is never simply put back together again in our heads; rather it “exists” dynamically in the interplay between responses of different parts of the brain. That combination of responses can create a puzzling, powerful and lasting engagement with the image, an emotional response.

If someone is blind from birth, how do they experience the first impressions of a sensory experience? According to the scientist, we process colour first, but does this get substituted by another sense(s)?


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