The Dyslexic Artist

Is it just me or isn’t it ironic that the word dyslexic is not easy to spell for someone who has dyslexia? I know I won’t be alone in having this ‘condition’ and in fact I’m positive there are lots of creative people who are in the same boat. Dyslexic people nearly always have a natural flair for one or more of the arts such as music, acting, dancing or like me, art.

You may be wondering what this has to do with being an artist? I’m sure that without my dyslexia I would not have followed my career path and find myself working as a full-time artist.

Dyslexia is defined by the British Dyslexia Association as “a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling. Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed…” What is sometimes ingrained in some people is that it is definitely a weakness and never a strength. My mother-in-law meant no harm but unconsciously slipped when she called me ‘disabled’! (we are still talking and on very good terms).

What is regularly overlooked is that people with dyslexia have strengths in other areas such as design, problem solving, creative, and oral skills.

Jumbled letters

I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 16, so the majority of my school reports said ‘Must Try Harder’. I found lessons difficult, stressful and uninspiring, simply because I couldn’t relate to the teaching methods being used which were always focused on the mainstream pupils. I am such a visual person that unless I could see something it just made no sense to me! School taught me to be frightened of being wrong and I would sit at the back of the class, avoiding eye contact and praying the teacher wouldn’t pick on me to answer any questions. 

My saviour was my Art Teacher who encouraged me to develop my creativity and apply to art college, which I did. I have always seen the fine detail in everything and have a very strong visual memory (something dyslexics often have). I’m also very literal, so if you show me an apple and ask me what it makes me think of, I say… “It’s an apple”. If I’m asked to elaborate, I’ll describe it as a green or red apple. My friends on the other hand, will start listing things like film references, music etc etc. We will look at each other, confused about our respective responses.

Throughout my earlier careers I learnt techniques to cope with my dyslexia and really related to a Ted Talk I discovered a few years ago by the late Sir Ken Robinson called ‘Do Schools Kill Creativity’.  He claims that ‘creativity is as important in education as literacy, yet schools stigmatise mistakes and this can result in educating people out of their creative capacities. I can certainly relate to this through my own school education, where being artistic was not really thought of as a positive talent to be encouraged.

As I said, I learn visually and through practical experience rather than by memorising or other standard education methods. My computer password is 14 letters/symbols long and I remember it through muscle memory and the pattern I make over the keyboard when entering it, rather than by conventional means. When it comes to my art, I think my relationship with my dyslexia influences my work. My paintings represent the way I see, feel, and process the world – for me it’s all about the details – the more the merrier!

My first soft pastel painting (before discovering Unison Colour pastels) was a dog portrait of a retriever puppy with a wet muzzle. I used pastel pencils, which suited my detailed approach and just a few PanPastels for the background. However, it wasn’t long before I realised if I wanted to complete more than one painting every month, I needed a faster method.

Pastel painting of a young Golden Retriever
Golden Retriever Puppy by Tricia Findlay

Discovering Unison Colour soft pastels has helped me explore a less rigid approach albeit for the backgrounds and under-layers with just a few of the details at the moment. I still revert to my pencils for the finer details. Unison Colour’s creamy nature appeals to my tactile senses and I am learning to explore new techniques using soft pastels, such as quick upward strokes to mimic grass. This may seem obvious to others, but my natural instinct is – if I can see 5,000 blades of grass, I need to paint 5,000 blades of grass! Can you imagine how amazed I was that I could give the impression of a clump of grass just using this quick technique. My backgrounds have become looser and I have been braver inventing backgrounds – such the one in this tiger cub painting. 

Pastel painting of a Tiger
The Stare by Tricia Findlay
Close up section of grasss in a pastel painting of a Tiger.
Grass detail

My attention to detail sometimes trips me up and becomes my worst enemy. When I started this puffin painting, I had no idea how to approach doing the rock. I started trying to replicate it exactly – well that was clearly a very bad idea and it looked nothing like a rock. I realised I needed to experiment and ‘let go’ a bit. Not something that comes naturally to me. I used a random pointillism approach dotting my Unison Colour soft pastels across the paper and hey presto, it worked! I had to learn to just trust it would work and not beat myself up.

Pastel painting of a Puffin
Puffin by Tricia Findlay

Just recently I have experimented with using water and Unison Colour pastels to create a ‘watercolour effect’. For me this is a huge leap, as failure is not an option. I still have a way to go with this technique and the uncertainty of the end result isn’t particularly comfortable for me.

Assortment of images of pastel work, pastels and other equipment such as brushes and a sponge.

In my previous life I ran my own interior design studio which involved creating 3D visualisation of homes as part of the service. I’ve always been able to visualise a space and imagine the end result, thinking about light (natural and artificial), colour, form etc and their relationship to one another. I have the same approach with my art.

Whilst I look at the whole form (albeit a 2D photograph of an animal) I imagine how it looks in three dimensions.  A bit like a sculptor who chips away on the block of stone to reveal the shape within. I guess as artists we do the exact opposite, we build up a 3D form on a 2D surface. I try to imagine how it would feel to run my hands over the subject in my image. This helps me ‘feel’ the structure of their bones, muscles etc and I think it helps me create a better likeness. My latest triple dog portrait shows how I have started to captured the shape of the Labradors chest in the first image, and neck and shoulder in the second image.

The Dyslexic Artist 1
High Alert by Tricia Findlay
Partially complete pastel painting of black labradors.
High Alert by Tricia Findlay

I start with an underpainting, blocking in the initial colour and shapes. I then blend these using a Soffit tool or my finger. This helps with getting the initial form of the subject. I usually work dark to light (though there are a few times when I’ll put some basic highlights in just to help me map everything out and not get confused). I can suffer from information overload as I see so much detail. Breaking things down into small manageable steps is less stressful. 

I look at the background and lighting to pick up on colour adaptation (where adjacent colours affect and often reflect off one another). I then work through the mid to light values before adding the fine details.

So what happens when it doesn’t go according to plan ? When I was younger I would have had a bit of a melt down and rip up what ever I was working on. Now with the help of perhaps being a bit wiser I realise I can correct mistakes. I’ve learnt soft pastels are pretty forgiving which I was really grateful for with this dog portrait commission of the handsome Dexter. The reference photos were not great and he hadn’t been to the groomers recently. The client wanted me to tidy up his chest fur a bit as it was very long and straggly in the photo. The commission was to be a surprise birthday present for her son (who Dexter belongs to). I started painting the chest fur and was really unhappy with it. I had a few sleepless nights before attempting to use a soft brush to remove as much pastel as possible, then using a putty eraser and starting again. The forgiveness of the soft pastels meant that I was finally happy with it and when the client arrived to collect it, she cried… thankfully in the good way! I was able to breathe again.

Pastel painting of a Black Spaniel
Dexter 1 by Tricia Findlay
Pastel painting of a Black Spaniel
Dexter 2 by Tricia Findlay

So despite my school’s best efforts to convince me being creative was not the way to go, I returned to my artistic roots and now work full time as an artist. Here are a couple of quotes that really resonate with me. The first from Picasso who once said “all children are born artists.  The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up” and the second is from another artist, Edward Hopper who said “If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint”

The latter is heaven to me as words do not come naturally.  Painting on the other hand is more like breathing, it’s much more of an intuitive process.

Now with the benefit of hindsight I see my dyslexia as an advantage – it’s really my superpower.

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20 Responses

  1. Thank you for publishing this article.I am now 82 and ver dislexic,passing it onto my son and two of my grandaughters.
    Myone aim when at school was to go to Art school ,but in 1950 nice girls had to ,go to secretarial college,I failed badly at this being unable to spell.
    Without an Art school training I have managed to sell mypaintings and embroidered clothes for many years and so agree that its time we encouraged the visual child .

    g

  2. Hi Tricia, great post and well done! I am also dyslexic. My blog starts with… I’m dyslexic so forgive the inemitable errors, which i can’t spell for the life of me lol! Even if i learnt to spell it, i wouldn’t remember it lol. You were lucky to be diagnosed at 16 – I was diagnosed until I was in my 20’s and I only found out by a change of career and i learnt how to spell better as a result or learning how to teach kids how to spell. I also remember passwords by muscle memory and adresses I just can’t remember but I can take you there…. really not helpful lol. Digital devices are a god send in many ways with spelling and memory issues. Your art is beautiful!!

    1. Hi Sue. Thanks for your lovely comments & glad you enjoyed it. As you’ve said digital devices are great for correcting spelling. I’m like you with getting from A to B. I can remember a route either from looking at a map or having done the journey once. My husband calls me Tracker Tricia 🤣

  3. Hello Jean, lovely to read your journey and fantastic that art has provided an income for you. As you say encouraging the visual child is so important. If you want to watch/listen to the Sir Ken Robinson talk I mentioned – ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ you can access it for free by going on the TED.com website and just searching for his name. It’s a fantastic talk and has been viewed over 73 million times !! Hope you enjoy it and keep painting & embroidering.

  4. Very true about creativity in schools. Trying not to discourage is a hard task. I enjoyed reading about your journey. Your work is fabulous!

    1. Hi Sue. Thanks for your lovely comments. Here’s hoping schools are getting better at nurturing & encouraging the arts 🙂

  5. I had to print this article because, despite your dyslexia, you wrote the words that are in my mind. I love, love the pet portraits; just when I think I have “nailed it” paintings like yours come along to inspire me to go further. We’re so very blessed to be the children who were artists and kept it going in our lives aren’t we? I came back to it after a long career and being retired is such a gift now because I have the time to paint.

    1. Hi Patricia. Thanks for your lovely comments. As you say having art in your life is definitely a privilege. I’m still learning new techniques & tricks in my art & lovely being inspired by fellow artists whether they’re beginners or experts. Thanks again 😁

  6. Thank you for your portrayal of dyslexic artists. You put into words what I have struggled with for decades. And oh, those tiny details ❤️

  7. Thanks for your encouraging words. As a pianist in my younger years, now pursuing pastels in my 60’s, details have been my life, and my brain struggles to let go of every single blade of grass or grain line in wood or every piece of fur – it is very hard for me to let my imagination guide me. You encourage me to keep at it!

    1. Hi Lori, thanks so much for your great comments. I feel your pain getting caught up in all the details. I often look at the other artists more impressionistic work and feel envious, but like you letting my imagination take the lead is not something that comes naturally, if at all ! Keep going and I look forward to seeing some of your work on the Unison Colour Soft Pastels Facebook page 😁

  8. Hi Tricia,l loved how you described how you have coped with dyslexia,as you say the body adjusts and develops in other ways,eg your Art.Any skill has to be worked on its not just talent..The more one practises and learns from mistakes,the more they grow,in whatever path is taken.l admire your work it is beautiful.Thankyou for sharing.

  9. Thankyou for your story I love your work and feel some of the pressure you should be so proud of yourself for sticking with what you do best.

  10. Thank you so much for this beautiful blog post. As a fellow dyslexic artist, it really warms my heart. I am such a perfectionist, with my writing as well as my art. I check and check again to make my words clear and check the spelling so often. Your art is fantastic and an inspiration. Thank you

    1. Hi Serena, thanks so much for your lovely comments. There are so many creative people who have dyslexia it really is wonderful to have the chance to connect with you all. Growing up as the only dyslexic in my class it felt a lonely place, it’s only in my later life I’ve really embraced it and felt I am not alone and it’s okay. Keep on painting 😁

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