VISION ONE and VISION TWO


My painting of Vision One is what I see with both eyes open. Vision Two is what Vision One looks like when I scan different places on Vision One using only my left eye, which has normal peripheral vision but a centrally torn retina.

The lens grinder in the picture gave me an early and unexpected challenge. My first drawing of it looked fine, yet I knew something was wrong, even though my right eye was functioning quite normally. This was baffling, because for decades I've been easily translating the appearance of real things to the two-dimensional worlds of paper and canvas.

Then it dawned on me. The lens grinder is a complicated object with many parts, and even with normal vision in my good eye, my left eye's torn retina has destroyed my binocular vision. So I could not grasp fully the complex spatial relationships within the grinder's three-dimensional reality. I solved the problem by "drawing" the grinder with my sense of touch, not sight - using my fingers to feel the shape of each part and discover its possible function and relationship to the other parts. At last my good eye understood what I was looking at ... and so my next drawing was convincingly faithful to this ingenious little machine.

My loss of close-range depth perception also affects my ability simply to look at the point where I want the brush to touch the canvas and then apply paint precisely there. Instead, I must rapidly look back and forth between the point of the brush and the place I want it to touch. That allows me to see when the brush will be at the correct location when it meets the canvas.

In painting Vision Two, I wanted to preserve a viewer's orientation (including my own!) relative to its predecessor, Vision One. To do this, I began by entirely recreating Vision One's picture onto Vision Two's canvas. Then I chose which areas could be blurred and distorted in Vision Two without obliterating too much of the picture. With Vision One on a second easel next to Vision Two's canvas, I then selected a single item in the original picture which would disappear completely when I covered my good eye and looked at it through my torn retina at a distance of 28 inches. That 28-inch distance allowed me to illustrate several different areas of visual aberrations, none of which extended far enough horizontally and vertically to take over the picture's entire surface.

The letter "O" in line 3 of the eye chart served the purpose. On the canvas, this "O" has a constant diameter of 11/16ths of an inch. It is the one place in Vision Two where an entire item in the picture is blurred out completely. (It would not surprise me to learn that, if the mathematical relationship between my eye's distance from Vision One and the diameter of this letter "O" were computed, it would yield the size of the angular cone of my lost vision.)

After establishing the letter "O" as my constant reference point, I picked several places in the picture that would illustrate what my left eye sees when looking at different shapes. Having already repainted Vision One onto the second canvas, I was then able to over-paint these selected areas with blurring and distortions. Standing closer to Vision One would have minimized the visibility of the distortions. Standing farther back would have enlarged the size of the distortions, allowing them to consume too much of Vision Two's total picture. (Viewed through my torn retina from a distance of about 30 feet, Vision One's entire picture is an incoherent, X-shaped smear of pale bluish purple, with all four edges of the picture collapsing inward.)

On the left of the picture, the gray/blue sign is painted with an intentionally low contrast between the letters and their background. The low contrast aggravates my left eye's difficulty in perceiving the peripheral areas around my blind spot.

The pale, bluish purple, slightly tilted to the right "Xs" in Vision Two are not artifacts. My left eye actually sees this colored, smeared shape at whichever point I'm looking. Prior to starting work on these paintings, I had not been aware that there was an identifiable shape to my blind spot. Perhaps this means that the brain's sense of sight is geared to register consciously only what is there, not what is not there.

By trial and error, I learned how to replicate on canvas what my left eye could see only peripherally. With my good eye closed, the most minute flicker of eye movement immediately shifted the location of my center of vision, which for my left eye is a blur surrounded by distortions. To capture them, one after the other, I had to practice keeping my bad eye locked in a motionless stare at each chosen point in the picture. It required sheer will power to stifle my eye's involuntary, relentlessly futile attempts to "sneak a peek" at the peripheral clarity available to my awareness just outside my central vision's anomalies.

Whenever I kept my center of vision locked on a point on Vision One, while concentrating on the visual information peripheral to that point, I found myself having to tolerate a mental state comparable to cognitive dissonance. These transient states gave me the feeling of trying to herd a brain full of cats! Repeatedly, I was asking my brain to do something that it is apparently not automatically wired to accomplish; namely, paying attention to what was outside what I was paying attention to.

Evidently, it is not physiologically normal for the brain to focus exclusively on whatever is outside the point where the eye is aimed. It seems that even if one's visual field of awareness is microscopically small, the brain is nevertheless programmed to maintain a constant scan in search of the nearest available coherent visual information.

I've elected not to have corrective surgery for the torn retina. And even after a couple of years living with this alteration in my vision, I have no words adequate to describe how my experience of sight has changed, since it also seems not to have changed. I believe what I've been experiencing since the retina tore is an overlap of my right eye's visual clarity and my bad eye's blind spot and distortions. My brain's neural connections seem to have found a way to compensate for this aberration, because now I have to pay conscious attention to notice it - a vague visual sensation of an elusive, visual ghost at the left side of my center of vision.

All of that said, I am reminded of my eye doctor's question when I first showed him Vision Two. He asked: "Are you sure you don't want the operation?"!



Suzanne Lefranc Sheppard

September, 2014