Before Denton artist John Bramblitt can begin painting a portrait, he must first touch and feel his subjects.
He uses his fingers to lightly sweep across a person’s face and body, letting his fingers gently fall along curves and distinct features.
He uses the sense of touch to create a mental map of his subjects — a technique he developed after losing his eyesight.
“I’m a visually impaired visual artist. That might sound strange to most people, but to me, it isn’t,” the artist said.
Bramblitt, a 2007 graduate of the University of North Texas, spends most of his days painting.
And when he’s not painting, he’s thinking about it.
Bramblitt, 42, creates his artwork by using a special type of paint that creates raised lines on a canvas. He uses the lines to sketch his subjects so he can navigate by touch. It’s a technique he calls touch-to-sight. The texture of the paint tells him what color he’s using.
Bramblitt’s technique is similar to reading Braille or navigating a darkened room.
“When I lost my eyesight, it didn’t occur to me that I could still paint,” he said. “But when you’re blind, you have to learn how to navigate anything. And it occurred to me that I could also paint using the same techniques. But instead of being able to see a line, I would have to feel them.”
About two weeks ago, Bramblitt agreed to create a series of paintings for his wife’s roller derby team to assist with a fundraiser. The skaters mimicked dynamic poses normally seen on a track so Bramblitt could map them with his hands.
Team member Valerie Adair said the session was not what she expected.
“It’s hard to describe it, but it’s almost like a feather going across your face and body,” she said. “It’s really amazing and impressive what he does. I can’t wait to see the finished paintings.”
Art has always been a part of Bramblitt’s life, but it wasn’t until he lost his eyesight in 2001 that he began to paint.
“Sometimes it’s hard for people to understand how I paint, but it’s really simple,” he said with a laugh. “But it requires patience.”
He has a studio toward the back of his home where he does all of his painting. Hanging on the walls are portraits of his friends, wife, son, celebrities, even R2-D2 sporting a pair of wings.
Every painting is different, but it’s easy to spot a Bramblitt original based on the vivid, bold colors he uses to create intimate settings.
“When I was sighted and I did a portrait of someone and it looked just like them, it was a good painting. But now, that isn’t enough,” he said. “After I lost my eyesight and it looked just like the person, that wasn’t good enough.”
In many of his paintings, instead of trying to make the portrait look just like the subject, he puts in enough lines for people to recognize them but changes the colors to show emotion.
“Everyone has their own feeling, color and emotions. If you’re going to paint someone, it should be both the concrete and the emotion,” he said.
Bramblitt says there’s not much to his life outside of painting. But looking around his home, it’s easy to see that his family and friends weigh heavy in his life.
They’re his inspiration.
“Almost all of my paintings are my friends or my family,” he said. “I love painting them.”
Some of the first images visitors see when walking into Bramblitt’s home are of his wife, Jacqi, and his 5-year-old son, Jack.
“[Jacqi] ends up in a lot of paintings,” he said. “If you’re a friend of mine, for better or worse, you’ll end up in a painting.”
A mutual friend introduced Jacqi and John. The friend actually tried to set John up with someone else, but John said he liked Jacqi more.
“She was just such an interesting person, and so funny — I thought when I met her how lucky I’d be to have a friend like her,” he said.
At the time, Jacqi was the only person who could tear John away from his painting.
“If friends called to say they were going out, I would usually stay home and paint. But I’d ask if Jacqi was going to be there and, if so, I’d drop everything and go,” he said. “She is just one of those people that you feel better about yourself when you are around them.”
Jacqi said it was probably John’s paintings that initially attracted her to him.
“I was very impressed,” she said. “And I still am. He’s always coming up with new painting techniques and no one painting is exactly alike.”
She said that over time, she’s become one of her husband’s toughest critics.
“I probably tell him the things he doesn’t want to hear,” she said. “But I just want him to know that he’s capable of anything.”
Their son also shows up in many of John’s paintings. A normal youngster, Jack is into playing video games and playing tag with his mother — even after a long day of work.
For Bramblitt, his son’s eyesight was never a concern.
“I didn’t worry about Jack’s eyesight because my loss was from the epilepsy, and the form I have is so rare that it would be like lightning striking twice,” he said. “So the good news is that I don’t really have to worry about passing the condition on to my children.”
Bramblitt said art is about seeing the world in new ways, and he regularly teaches workshops on his touch-to-sight technique to artists, from beginners to advanced. He blindfolds them and instructs them to draw by feeling.
It’s an experience that opens their eyes — “no pun intended,” he said.
All of Bramblitt’s workshops have been conducted outside of Denton, but he’s hoping to change that. He said he would love to do more local workshops in the city.
“My journey has been amazing, and I want to share what I learn,” he said.
When he lost his eyesight, Bramblitt thought it was the end of his artistic endeavors. He said he fell into a deep depression and felt trapped within his own mind.
“I felt like people began to treat me differently after I lost my sight,” he said. “So I made the decision to start painting, because I wanted to show everyone that it’s still me inside of here.”
Over the years, Bramblitt said his paintings have become brighter — it’s because every day, he grows a little happier.
“Don’t get me wrong, I still have my struggles and challenges. I’m still blind, I still have kidney problems, and I’m still an epileptic,” he said. “The only thing that has changed is my perspective. That’s made all the difference.”
JOHN D. HARDEN can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @JDHarden.