Sight, visual loss and disturbance

'Eyes' Own image from Exhibition in Vittoria Spain

Plato and Aristotle, both Ancient Greek philosophers believed that there was a hierarchy of the senses, with vision being the most important. What are your thoughts?

How we see things is so much more complicated than the image projected on the back of our retina.

We might take our vision for granted but in the UK, there are almost 2 million people living with vision loss. Of these, around 360,000 are registered as blind or partially sighted. Globally, it is estimated that approximately 1.3 billion people live with some form of visual impairment. Approximately 80% of all visual impairment is considered avoidable.

Visual loss is defined as the decreased ability to see, to a degree that causes problems that are not fixable by simple means, such as glasses.

'Glasses' own picture from exhibition in Vittoria Spain

Use these statements to explore your understanding of sight.

‘I saw it with my own eyes’

‘Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak.’ John Berger Ways of Seeing

‘The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe.’ John Berger Ways of Seeing

‘The mind is the real instrument of sight and observation, the eyes act as a sort of vessel receiving and transmitting the visible portion of the consciousness.’ Pliny

‘We see the world not as it is, but as we are.’ Anais Nin

Understanding Sight Loss

Think back to the last patient you saw with visual loss or disturbance, did you discover how this impacts their daily living. 

Notes on Blindness by John Hull

In 1983, after many years of gradual visual loss, the writer and theologian John Hull lost the last traces of light sensation. For the next three years, he kept a diary on audio cassette of his interior world of blindness.

These are excerpts from his audio diary.

The world into which I am being dragged with my loved ones will engulf us.
There will be no return.
Blindness is permanent and irreversible… My life is in crisis.’

‘Six weeks have passed now since the haemorrhage. I had expected, in time, to accommodate my blindness, my hemispace, but this has not happened. Every time someone or something suddenly appears to my right, it is just as unexpected as the first time. I am still in a world of suddenness and discontinuity, of sudden apparitions and disappearances.

‘Don’t expect me to recognise you by your voice. Face recognition is instant but voice recognition can take weeks. I ask my incoming students to identify themselves when they greet me’. 

‘For the blind, people are not there unless they speak. Many times I have continued a conversation with a sighted friend only to discover that he is not there. He may have walked away without telling me. He may have nodded or smiled, thinking the conversation was over. From my point of view he has suddenly vanished.’

The transcript can be read in his book and his story has been made into a film, ‘Notes on Blindness’

Visual image resources

Paintings and pictures are a visual medium that usually requires both the artist and the observer to use their visual sense to fully appreciate the execution and development of a composition. When looking at visual art the viewer should be reminded not merely to reflect on what they see, but also to consider what the artist saw during the creative process. Edgar Degas poignantly said:

 ‘Art is not what you see, but what you make others see’.

Take a look at the work of Rachel Galsden, a visual artist who has visual loss due to retinochisis.

Historians have suggested that many famous artist’s suffered from visual loss or visual disturbance and this is reflected in their work.

For example Vangogh may have experienced subacute angle closure glaucoma or the visual disturbances associated with migraine and this may have accounted for the  ‘halos’ in ‘The Starry Night’

In his 60s, Monet started to develop bilateral age-related cataracts  He complained that ‘colours no longer had the same intensity for me’, that ‘reds had begun to look muddy’ and that ‘my painting was getting more and more darkened.’ To avoid choosing the wrong colours, Monet labelled his tubes of paint and keep a strict order on his palette.

You can read more about the role of vision and eye disease in art in this book by Ophthalmologists Micheal Marmor and James RavinRavin who examine the role of vision and eye disease in art. Their book explores many interesting questions: Why do Georges Seurat’s paintings appear to shimmer? How come the eyes in certain portraits seem to follow you around the room? Are the broad brushstrokes in Monet’s Water Lilies due to cataracts? Could van Gogh’s magnificent yellows be a result of drugs? How does eye disease affect the artistic process? 

The Starry Night Vincent Van Gogh  1889 MoMA Image in Public Domain

Jorge Luis Borges was an Argentinean writer and artist who experienced progressive visual loss. He drew this self-portrait shortly after becoming completely blind aged 56.

He wrote this about his experience of visual loss:

One of the colours that the blind or at least this blind man – do not see is black; another is red. Le rouge at le noir are the colours denied to us. I, who was accustomed to sleeping in total darkness, was bothered for a long time at having to sleep in this world of mist, in the greenish or blueish mist, vaguely luminous, which is the world of the blind. I wanted to lie down in darkness. The world of the blind is not a night that people imagine.


Borges also wrote poetry about his experience of blindness

On His Blindness

In the fullness of the years, like it or not,
a luminous mist surrounds me, unvarying,
that breaks things down into a single thing,
colourless, formless. Almost into a thought.
The elemental, vast night and the day
teeming with people have become that fog
of constant, tentative light that does not flag,
and lies in wait at dawn. I longed to see
just once a human face. Unknown to me
the closed encyclopaedia, the sweet play
in volumes I can do no more than hold,
the tiny soaring birds, the moons of gold.
Others have the world, for better or worse;
I have this half-dark, and the toil of verse.


Watch this amazing story of visually impaired artists coming together with musician, Marie Naffah to produce a piece of music called Blindfold.


Ray Charles 2004

Blindsight 2006 

Notes on Blindness 2016


The Mind’s Eye Oliver Sacs. An amazing collection of short stories of people who navigate the world without the benefit of sight. A great teaching resource.

All the Light You Cannot See Anthony Doerr. A beautifully constructed novel about the survival of a blind child in Nazi-occupied Paris in WW2. A great book club read.

Blindness Jose Saramango. A complicated and frightening story about a contagious virus that causes the citizens of a city to lose their sight. The book is harrowing as it vividly describes the civil unrest that results from the contagion as seen through the eyes of a survivor unaffected by the virus.

The Story of My Life Helen Keller


In this painting the blind artist has abandoned his painting and is using his sense of touch to explore sculpture.

The Sense of Touch, Jusepe de Ribera, 1615-16 Pasadena Norton Simon Museum Shown under Fair Use

Further thinking

These questions might provoke an interesting discussion.

You could find your own price of art for each question.

  • How is the eye seen in other cultures?
  • What is the role of amulets such as the evil eye? 
  • Why are our eyes described as the window to our soul?
  • What is the significance of the third eye?

Page created with help and inspiration from Beth Jakeman 2019

Updated 2022