Armagan was born completely blind, but he taught himself to draw with colours, shades, dimensions and perspective.
“The goal was never to be a painter. It was always to get to know the world I live in, to see it despite my condition,” Esref Armagan, in his signature cowboy hat and Ray-Ban sunglasses, told TRT World in an interview.
Visually impaired since his birth in 1953, Armagan had noticed at a young age that people always warned him about his surroundings, be it a passing car or a puddle in the road, but they never warned each other.
So, when he confronted his parents at the age of four, he found out that he was blind – or rather that other people could see.
“I accepted that I was born this way, and that I would die like this. My eyes would never see the world,” Armagan says, recalling his thoughts as a child.
However, a thought that followed, combined with his determination, changed his life forever.
“I exist, I am living on this Earth, I am experiencing its beauties through four senses. Why should I leave without seeing it?” Armagan remembers thinking.
Seeing through fingertips
At as young as six years old, Esref Armagan refused the idea of not knowing what the world looked like, of dying without ever “seeing” the world, and went to his father for help.
His father, Nazim Armagan, began to introduce him to various objects and teach him concepts like roundness, sharpness, etc.
“To get to know shapes and objects, a blind person must be able to hold it in their hands,” Armagan said, explaining that it was the only way to perceive the object from all six directions – top, bottom, and so on.
“If the object cannot be wholly examined at once, then the picture in the mind’s eye is disconnected, incomplete and inaccurate,” Armagan added.
So, when it came to things he could not hold, his father would give Armagan models.
It all began with a butterfly, when his father gave Armagan a paper butterfly to understand what the insects were shaped like.
While holding it, Armagan had the idea that he could try to draw the shape – a test to see whether he accurately perceived how objects looked.
He placed the paper on a surface that caved in under his pencil, using the relief method, so he could perceive the drawing through his fingertips, just like the model, and compare them with one another.
Later, when he began painting on canvas, Armagan would use a sticky rope to create the outline of his paintings so that he could feel the lines.
“I have to feel what I am drawing with my fingertips because that’s how I see,” Armagan explained.
Aside from the outline of the butterfly, Armagan’s father would describe the remaining visual qualities of the insect, like the spots on its wings and what colour they were. Of course, his father was also responsible for handing him the suitable coloured pencils.
With practice, Armagan could draw and paint butterflies, trees, apples, and more.
Moreover, he began arranging his paints in an order he memorised so he did not have to rely on others to colour his works correctly. As a result, his paints no longer get mixed, unless they are misplaced.
Life in colour
In addition to shapes, Armagan was also learning colours and their tones.
“I must have come off as quite naive, but I would always ask what colour things were, no matter how big or small,” he recalled.
Armagan eventually learned what colour things could be, making educated guesses. For example, leaves and trees were green unless it was autumn, and he could even recognise flowers by their scent and make out their colour.
Nevertheless, soon he began hearing that his paintings did not look real enough. They appeared two-dimensional.
Armagan was told that he needed to draw light and shadow to make his works look real. So, he learned what light was, how it created shadows and the illusion in his paintings.
He first struggled with the shadow concept, recalling that when he first tried to paint the shadow of an apple and showed it to his father, Nazim Bey told him he had painted two apples – both red and plump.
That led to another realisation for Armagan – shadows did not take the object's colour. Instead, they were a darker colour of the surface they were cast on.
Scale and perspective
What was amazing about Armagan’s paintings was not just that a blind man was able to draw lines and colour them accurately, he had also mastered scale.
The things he drew, from mountains to trees and apples, were all accurately scaled despite his lack of sight.
Nevertheless, as he painted more extensive scenes like landscapes, people began telling him the paintings did not look right. The objects alone were accurate, but something was wrong in the way he was putting them together.
“You put the tree on top of the house,” Armagan recalls someone telling him. “The tree was meant to be behind the house,” he explains. Eventually, he figured out that the issue was called perspective.
“I tried to understand perspective for years. People kept telling me that my paintings lacked perspective, but they could not explain what it was,” Armagan said. Eventually, his quest led him to a conversation with an arts teacher.
The teacher drew a V shape for him and explained that it was a road. The top point where the lines were wide apart was the point of view, and the road would get smaller as one looked on. As distance increased, objects looked smaller, vice versa.
After that point, Armagan’s paintings, and his perception of the world, transformed into what it is today – an incredibly accurate picture of a world that is no longer unknown to him.
“I am unique because I learned every method by myself. People only helped in explaining the world to me,” Armagan said, while also expressing sadness that there are not more people like him who have taught themselves to “see”.
“I never took a class because painting was a tool for me to see the world, to perceive the visual reality through my fingertips. That was the sole motivation behind my work.”
His works had become such an essential part of his life that he continued to draw and paint even at points in his life when he lived destitute, having to sleep in construction sites with barely anything to eat.
A ground-breaking mind
In 1994, Armagan was invited to the Czech Republic for an international exhibit of visually impaired artists. However, he had to refuse, as he could not travel alone and did not have the means to.
Joan Eroncel, who's now Armagan's manager, was requested to accompany him. They did not know back then that this journey would end up in a 28-year strong partnership.
"In 1994, I proclaimed that Turkiye possessed a genius that it was unaware of. I was pleasantly surprised that a very talented man was not well known. He had been treated rather poorly, so I decided that we should have a contract," Eroncel told TRT World.
Armagan impressed many around the world with his ability. He was included in a Discovery Channel documentary called "The Real Superhumans" and became the subject of neurological research at the University of Toronto and Harvard University.
In the documentary, Armagan is brought to Italy. He draws the Florence Baptistery, a complicated structure for sighted people, and the origin place of the discovery of perspective by Filippo Brunelleschi.
Based on a Baptistry model prepared beforehand by Prof. John Kennedy’s team from the University of Toronto, Armagan successfully draws the structure in perfect scale and perspective, wooing onlookers.
“Esref is doing something that, we thought, was locked in the visual brain and was only possible if you had visual input,” Prof. Kennedy says in the documentary.
In the Harvard study led by professors Alvaro Pascual-Leone and Amir Amedi, Armagan was asked to paint while having an MRI scan. Researchers discovered that drawing and painting activated Armagan’s visual cortex.
This activation occurred to the extent that Prof. Pascual-Leone said the images of his brain could be confused with that of someone who can actually see.
“When someone thinks of a waterfall, they see the image in their minds. What I see are lines, but only when I am drawing. I do not see when I remove my hand from a drawing,” Armagan explained.
62 years in the making
When asked whether he would accept an opportunity to gain sight, Armagan says “I have made a beautiful, colourful world for myself. My mind is filled with wonders and sceneries, I would never want to ruin that by gaining sight.”
Armagan has been able to draw everything he was challenged with so far, and can draw many things from memory. He can imagine a scene, and show it to others by putting it on paper.
Some might say that Armagan’s ability is miraculous. However, he laughs when he hears the word. “I have been working on this since I was a little boy. It’s the result of 62 years of work and perseverance. So how is that a miracle?” he says.
His biggest fear is that someday there will be something that he cannot paint.
Currently, Esref Armagan is happily married and has two children. He regularly uploads to his YouTube channel to demonstrate how he draws and paints.
Anyone who encounters him will see a fulfilled man who has achieved his life’s purpose, with the joy of life beaming on his face.
He cannot see the world through his eyes like most do, but he has the world in his mind’s eye. He is living proof that the human brain knows no limits.
“Today, I can tell you that I am not blind. If I were, I could not paint the world.”