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5 Things to Keep in Mind When Drawing for the Blind

drawing for the blind using paper muffin

One of the many great things about being near the Smithsonian is that neat projects are everywhere! There are so many things that still need to be researched, shared, and illustrated. Last month, I met Dr. Francisco Lima, a researcher specializing in educating blind or low vision students. Working with experts is so inspiring, and I just learn so much. Dr. Lima says he needs help drawing for the blind using written and haptic description of insects. Insects are great and I’ve been drawing as long as I can remember! I’ll kick butt! As usual, I make all the mistakes at the beginning trying to draw for the blind. 🙂 

About an hour after talking to Dr. Lima, I probably had to unlearn most everything I learned in my art studies. Good news is, now I know.

I felt like the Pilot from The Little Prince. When he first meets the Little Prince, he is asked to draw a sheep. He “incorrectly” draws three sheep. I did something very similar. I even drew a box. Here’s what happened. I am most certain I will discover more things I don’t know, but here are my top five. 

1. Why Draw for the Blind?

Paper Muffin is a special type of surface that bubbles up by drawing using a pen or another sharp tip. The raised surface has a stitched texture. We’ll use paper muffin as well as more advanced technologies. Blissfully, I drew something.  When the technique is done correctly, the paper muffin creates a stitch-like effect. 

drawing for the blind using paper muffin

They use their fingers to “see” the drawing. People assume a lot when going about their lives talking. “Seeing” and “Looking” are very different activities. Dr. Lima mentioned that when we describe things, lots and lots of information are glossed over. What makes giraffe special? Most people will say their long neck. That’s not very helpful to someone who has not seen a giraffe. 

They need more information using more descriptive terms. Long necks compared to what? What about their long legs? What do their bodies shaped like? Their colors/patterns? (color is a whole different story) Do they have a mane?  What do their faces look like?

References for the blind at least in the biological sciences are not complete. Hopefully using my training in medical & scientific illustration, I’ll be able to look at important details and make decisions on what information to keep and what to not include. I’ll be filling the gaps in some of the descriptions to make a template. This will be an interesting project for someone like me who spends a lot of time drawing things that can’t be seen (see-through people, cells, molecules, space telescopes, extinct fauna, etc) to draw for someone who can’t see at all.

Let’s jump in head first. 

2. Where is the top?

Using my illustration skills, I drew a bird at an angle to capture their characteristics. Also I drew a little plant in the background.  Yes, I drew this in one shot. Please excuse the anatomical errors…:D

drawing for the blind using paper muffin

The first question from Dr. Lima was, “Where is the top?” Good heavens, that’s SO obvious! Just look at it! Oh wait, it’s not to someone who can’t see. Then he wisely stated that a cartoon heart is an upside-down cartoon butt. We shared a hearty laugh.

drawing for the blind using paper muffin

To annotate the top of the image, first draw a frame. Then create a double line to denote the top of the illustration. In the same line of design, some cards and keycards have a cut corner to show the direction of the cards. The NYC subway cards have that notch in one of the corners since they use the magnetic stripe. Looking at that again, there’s also a tiny hole! I guess the DC metro card doesn’t need indicators since the entire card is touched against the sensor and it works on both sides.  

3. Where to Start and Where to End

Like a good illustrator, I used line weight and calculated line spacing to denote overlapping of shapes in space. To add visual interest, the subject is at an angle. 

Dr. Lima said, “Tell me where the drawing starts.” Then he places both of his hands on the surface to first find the continuous line. When the line ends, he said, “Where do I go now? Up? Down? Left? Right?” Well, that’s SO obvious…oh wait. Right. “Seeing with fingers” is like using a little tube to look at the world. If the line you were following ends, where to turn the tube next? I should’ve known that, losing thousands of birds when looking in my binoculars or losing that microfauna under the microscope.

drawing for the blind using paper muffin

Have a continuous line to describe an object. If the subject is symmetrical, draw a symmetrical image so two hands can follow both sides to give information. Leave at least 1/8 inches to notate a separate object. 

4. What is Perspective?

drawing for the blind using paper muffin

Like a professional illustrator, I did my best to show perspective and to have a focal point of the artwork. Plants in the background is smaller. But wait! Are the leaves really smaller than that bird?

If someone has to rely on only the haptic (tactile) sense, is a rectangular table ever a trapezoid or parallelogram depending on the angle? There must be differences in how the world is perceived if vision was lost later in life as opposed to be blind from birth. I need to find out more about that, but it’s safe to say for now, I’ll work for my imaginary target audience to be blind from birth. 

The lesson is, draw everything as an orthogonal view–no diagonals or perspectives. I’ll dig up my medieval manuscript books to review the more abstract sense of space depicted on a flat surface. Maybe I just want to look at medieval manuscripts in my spare time.

5. When Things Overlap?

Lastly, I drew a simple butterfly. The forewing and the hindwing are overlapping. The lines need to connect to show that each wing is an independent object (image right). Similar to not showing perspective, the tactile drawings need to be crystal clear when there are multiple objects. First the drawing needs to establish that there are total of four wings. Then there needs to be a second set of illustrations showing the four wings apart to show the individual characteristics.

If there is a basket on a table, first draw the rectangular table. Then leave at least 1/8″ space to draw the basket separately from the table. Make sure the shapes are symmetrical (usually baskets and tables are symmetrical).

To be continued!

Armed with my new knowledge that most of what I know in art can’t be used, I opened up the first dropbox file to describe a long-winged butterfly. We’ll tackle different antennae shapes. 

Parting thoughts:

When drawing, did you have to unlearn something to be a better artist? Please share in the comments!

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  • Mark
    Posted 11/21/2019 4:40 am 0Likes

    Hey Ikumi, your blog is very informative to those who are in the field of illustration. It is quite difficult to draw things for the blinds. Similarly, it is tough for medical illustration.

    • ikumikayama
      Posted 10/16/2020 12:49 pm 0Likes

      Thank you so much for the kind comment, Mark! Yes, I’m learning more and more that the target audience we aim for does not cover everyone in a particular audience group. Assumptions are baked in everywhere that stem back centuries sometimes, so I’m enjoying the challenge to make the illustrations more accessible and relevant to everyone!

  • Barbara Gleason
    Posted 10/05/2020 6:20 pm 0Likes

    Wow! Great article Ikumi! I’m a long-time GNSI member and we’ve met at a convention some years back, I recall…! About 8 years ago I opened a Wild Birds Unlimited store in Eugene with my husband, Dan, so kind of dropped off the GNSI planet as a result… didn’t realize it would take ALL of my time!

    In the past couple of years, Dan has added several scary diseases to his list of “acquisitions”… One of them, leukemia, required heavy-duty chemo to beat. Sadly, it drastically affected his eyesight and now one eye is essentially blind, and the other was the worst one from macular degeneration before leukemia! So, he has lost all depth perception, has a very narrow field of vision in the left eye (think of very narrow binocs that don’t let you look to left or right), and the other eye sees no detail, only blobs of color which are themselves washed out. Low vision, I’d call it!

    So, I read this out loud to him and he wants you to be closer so you could work with him on bird drawings! You see, he was a superb birder, taught ornithology for over 30 years at the University of Oregon, led field trips at Malheur NWR, gave lectures up and down the Northwest, etc. Now, he can’t walk around the block by himself safely. He has a chauffeur, cook, stalwart cheerleader, but he’s lost alot. But, as he says: he’s HERE!

    Where can I get the cool material you are drawing on, the Paper Muffin? I’d like to try drawing on it with him!

    I still am in charge of the store, but I have a wonderful staff who deal with the day to day workings now; I have no choice but to do that. So, I spend time with him, and he can still write and read. He uses an iPad because he can enlarge the type to about 1-1.5” tall and then read it that way…

    • ikumikayama
      Posted 10/16/2020 12:55 pm 0Likes

      Hi Barbara, I would LOVE to meet your husband (virtually for the time being) and talk about birds with you both. I looked online for paper muffin as well but all I can find are cake/muffin baking supplies. I’ll see if I can contact Dr. Lima and ask where to get more.

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