Living Paintings

I love art. As a small child, I used to love making pictures and I continued trying to paint and draw even when most of my sight was gone. I was blessed with an artistic mother who described the world around me in vivid detail, so I always had pictures in my head, even when I couldn’t actually see the things imagined. Later, I became fascinated by the pioneering artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was hard to visualise their artworks, though, so I was thrilled when I discovered an organisation called Living Paintings.

Living Paintings produces tactile representations of works of art.

I have to back up a bit here. When I was at school, diagrams, such as maps in Geography, were made of something called “thermoform”, a type of plastic. A map would be created from, say, bits of string for rivers and cut-out shapes for land masses. Then a sheet of heated thermoform would be rolled over it, and, hey presto, the thermoform would take on the shapes, which would then be raised on the plastic.

The amazing technicians at Living Paintings use all sorts of clever tricks to create their tactile artworks, including carving shapes from wood, but the end product is the same as with thermoform: a sheet of plastic with raised images.

When you sign up with Living Paintings, they send you a box with ten or so tactile sheets in it plus an audio CD, a package which they refer to as an “album”. The artworks in the album will be linked by theme, maybe a particular artist (the Monet album was one of my all-time favourites), or perhaps a topic such as “Weather”. Each track on the CD relates to one of the pictures. A narrator will describe the artwork, including the colours used, the size of the original image, the medium used to create it – for example, watercolour or oil – and then you will be talked round the picture. As you feel the artwork with your fingers, there may be large raised areas to denote cloud, shiny smooth areas for water, and ridged areas to convey foliage. It is wonderful to be able to get “hands on” with great works of art.

They even represent highly visual artworks such as Mondrian’s coloured shapes. Using a different texture for each colour, you can appreciate something of the artist’s intention.

I even wonder if some works of art are more interesting as tactile images. Take surrealism. What, to the sighted person, is an anarchic jumble of objects can be really pleasing shapes to the touch. I particularly enjoyed the bunch of bananas in Giorgio de Chirico‘s 1913 painting “The Uncertainty of the Poet”!

Living Pictures don’t just provide interpretations of paintings. Another of my favourite albums was the one containing thirteen images from the Radio 4 series “The History of the World in 100 Objects”. Of these thirteen images, the one which impressed me most was the representation of Hokusai’s woodcut “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”. My sister and brother-in-law bought me the print for my birthday last year and my amazing PA produced a tactile version for them to give me as a birthday card. This is now framed in my office and you can see a photograph of it on my website.

If you fancy ordering a tactile card, her talent is boundless and I can braille a message if required. Of course you don’t have to confine sending tactile cards to visually-impaired people. Everyone enjoys an interesting gift card, don’t they?