I have a condition called prosopagnosia, commonly known as face blindness. My case is not so severe that I don’t recognize faces at all, but I am prone to snubbing people because I don’t see them, even if I look right at them. This even happens with my own mother. If I see someone outside of the context I usually see them in, I won’t recognize them unless there is something else about them that makes them stand out from others, such as unusually colored hair.
I have developed workarounds for this problem over the years. I use other cues to recognize people, such as hair style, clothing choices, mannerisms, gait, or voice. Quite often when I am watching a movie, I won’t recognize the actor’s face, but I will recognize their voice. Someone changing their hair style can completely throw me off if there is nothing else unusual about them.
If there are two people in an environment (such as an office at work) who have similar hair, similar coloring, similar voices, similar height, and dress similarly, I may not realize for some time that they are two different people. This has happened to me more than once in different work environments or classrooms.
A lot of people strive to look like everyone else looks. This is just asking to not be recognized as an individual.
Face blindness affects my perception of beauty as well. There seems to be a particular configuration of features that most people find attractive. In any particular era, I cannot tell actors apart, because they all look the same to me, as they all follow that era’s ideals of attractiveness.
To me, if I can’t tell someone apart from someone else, I can’t find them particularly attractive. In my eyes, it’s the people with unusual faces that attract my eye. Prominent noses, unusually set eyes, anything that changes the lines of the face from the average, those are what cause me to find someone attractive. I can recognize them, and therefore I notice them.
People often wonder why I draw and paint portraits when I have this condition. I guess the assumption is that if I can’t recognize faces, I wouldn’t be able to draw them. But I don’t look at a face and draw eyes, nose, mouth, etc. I look at a face and draw the lines I see, or paint the blocks of hues, tints, and shades. In the end, the sum of those things equals a face.
Chuck Close is a famous artist with face blindness who is known for his large-scale portraits. His method for reproducing faces involves creating a visual grid and painting what he sees in each pixel of a photograph. It’s basically the grid system of drawing but on a pixel level. In the end, all the pixels go together to create the face.
My own method is different, as I focus on painting areas that are similar rather than focusing on squares on a grid. Here, I will illustrate how I create vector avatar drawings using Adobe Illustrator. For these, I need a single reference photo. Sometimes people give me several photos, thinking that I can get some detail from one and some detail from another. But due to my face blindness, I cannot do this. If I try to combine photos, the end result is distorted and unrecognizable to anyone.