Blind Artist

Written by: Kirsten Williams; Edited By: Gioel Gioacchino and Ani Hao

Can we understand others without ‘seeing’ their experience? Try painting an image you can’t see! This is an experiential learning exercise that helps participants become aware of our biased and limited awareness as researchers.   

Our experience using this technique:

Researchers observe reality and abstract it. This is a really hard (and sometimes dangerous) task. This exercise is a great metaphor of the research process. Working in pairs, one participant is asked to describe a painting to the other partner. Just like a researcher tries to make sense of the reality of another person, the partner is tasked to re-paint an image they can’t see. This exercise sometimes can be very  frustrating, but it is a powerful reminder that as researchers we need to be aware of our limits and our bias.
Stepping into a community, there is so much that we don’t see. If a painting is so hard to describe, imagine describing a personal experience of another person! We need to be humble, listen carefully, and communicate effectively.
At the Recrear House-Office we organize lots of ‘painting nights’: we hang out with our friends and paint together. Afterwards, we recycle the painting for different exercises. We adapted this exercise based on a workshop that Cuso International utilizes to train their international volunteers to be conscious of their limited perceptions of a community when working in different country.

Research and Development:

What are we trying to understand about the community?
This exercise helps participants realize that we all experience reality in a very unique way, and it is hard to describe our reality to someone who is not in our shoes.
Why is it important for the community’s development?
When carrying out research we need to be conscious of our own assumptions, how we perceive the world and are perceived by others, and why these dynamics exist they way they do. This exercise reminds us of the importance of being humble when working as a researcher.
At what stage(s) of the research cycle is this method used?
Great to do when you are getting the research team together. It allows you to explore and observe one another’s position in research before actually getting down to business.


What do I need?
Depending on how creative you are, there are some different variations.
You can print a collection of images (some should be more abstract, i.e harder to describe than others). Alternatively, if you have done painting in former workshops you can recycle these images for this exercise.

  • Pens, coloured markers, coloured pencils, paint
  • White paper
How long does it take?
You will need about 1 hour. 
Step-by-step description
  1. Divide the group into pairs and leave around 2-3 observers. Pairs should be sitting back-to-back.
  2. Distribute markers, pens, and coloured pencils to each pair. Note, every pair should have a different collection of colours (some may have more than others). 
  3. Ask the pairs to assign one person as A and the other as B. Once decided, announce that A will be drawing and B will be describing.
  4. Hand out a painting to B. State the rules: A cannot see the image B has. A cannot ask questions, request clarification or respond in any other way (non-verbal communication included). B must keep describing the image without any input from A and should try to be as detailed, explicit as possible – without showing the image. Observers are asked to take notes.
  5. For this first round they have 15 minute.
  6. At the end of the 15 minutes, ask the pair to keep silence and not reveal either of their images. Explain that round 2 will begin. In this round A can ask for clarifications and person B can answer. They may chose to keep working on the same image or turn over their papers to start again. Observers take a second round of notes.
  7. For this round, they have 10 minutes.
  8. At the end of the second round the pair can now turn to each other and share. Ask them to take a minute to stretch their legs and then get into groups of 5 with their partner and at least one observer.
  9. In the groups of 5, ask the group to go through the following debrief questions (asking one person to take notes):
    1. How was the experience of those describing the image?
    2. How was it for those interpreting the description?
    3. Where the differences between round 1 and 2? How so?
    4. How can we apply what was just experienced to the context of doing research in communities or working with co-researchers?
    5. What would be the recommendations you come up with to work well together as a research team?

Benefits and Challenges

What are the benefits of using this technique?
Allows participants to explore their positions in communities and what kinds of invisible factors create barriers or facilitate opportunities for learning.
What are the challenges of using this technique?
If the pairs are researchers from different communities/nationalities, there might be communication challenges. They may face difficulties in finding the right words to express themselves, or use references that are not as relevant for the other person. These obstacles are all part of the important lessons we need to take with us when stepping into community. Allow participants to experience those challenges and reflect on them later.


Tips and Traps :
During the final debrief, think about addressing power dynamics and experiential gaps between researchers and co-researchers (such as gender, class, race, sexuality, nationality and disability).

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