The Results Are In!

Thanks to everyone who responded to the thermoform landscape image. The primary response was that it needs to be accompanied with a verbal description! I hear you and I promise to make descriptions available with all subsequent images from now on.  Scroll to the bottom of this post for a verbal description. Enjoy!

mountain landscape 5 2015

I received a number of thoughtful comments and started some interesting conversations.

This from Jim Ballard, a fellow stone sculptor, who creates tactile paper embossments.

I showed your landscape design to friends of mine who are blind or visually impaired but I modified parts of the surface before doing so. Both front and back were modified. The brown strip seen in the photo below is a sprayed on section from a sandstone texture spray can, the section to the left is untouched , the strip at the far left is a “plastic dip” spray from a spray can. It has a rubbery feeling. 

Three people liked the untouched plastic just as you sent it and three liked the slightly gritty sandstone texture best and everyone ranked the Plastic Dip spray area third. Some thought that a combination of the natural plastic surface with select sections altered with the sandstone texture would work better than only a single surface. They wanted to feel a contrast of textures like having leaves with a gritty surface and the rest of a tree left in the natural plastic surface. I haven’t found a paper-like texture that I can apply over the plastic. 

man's hand touching the back of the Mountain Landscape thermoform image. A dark brown stripe runs down the left hand side of the picture and a light brown stripe runs through the middle.

Jim Ballard modified landscape, back

So, this small sample shows the natural plastic surface is acceptable to the adults I had feel it. Maybe children would have a different experience if given these same choices. 

I like to have my final results in paper rather than plastic.  I learned from Carolyn Meyer, a braille transcriptionist and director of the Louis Braille School, a school that

taught children braille using many different teaching aids, that children most often preferred touching embossments made of paper rather than plastic. Some children

refused to touch the plastic because it irritated their fingers. I know that the standard for book illustrations is the Thermoform sheets which makes practical and economic

sense. But, in my experience, paper is the preferred material if a user is given a choice.

Could you do me a favor and show the paper embossments to the children (or adults) who you teach? I’m curious about what they will say to touching the paper embossments because most embossments they have experienced are made of plastic.

Ann responds:

I will gladly show these images to students who are coming to the Colorado Center for the Blind to work with a scientist from the Carson Nature Center who is coming in to talk about birding. Perfect opportunity.

I learned from one of my students that if you use cornstarch it allows your hands to move smoothly over plastic. I like the feel of that and use it on warm days frequently.  Ann

Lana Van Horn, is a fantastic embroidery artist, whom I had the privilege of working with in a class for a number of years. 

I have been enjoying the landscape you sent and have a few observations.

The mountains were wonderful. The sun looked like a moon, though. I think most of us have heard of the concept of a sunburst so that thin lines representing rays extending even just a fraction from the disk would better represent that big bright ball in the sky.

The ridgeline threw me until I reviewed the audio presentation describing the piece. Then it made perfect sense. The thing is, I had never encountered the subject depicted before. It is amazing the basic little things we must learn.

I loved the trees and the way they were shown on the slope such that some were below the line of the hill and some rose above it. I am surprised, though, that none of the trees overlapped one another. It would have been truly confusing, just a jumble of bumps, if they had been overlapped too much, but a few distinct individual trees with one or two overlapping with their trunks and tops showing distinctly might have worked. Also, I was surprised at how skinny they were. I suppose that goes to the kind of trees they were. It was good, though, that they weren’t all the same size or on the same level.

Some of the shapes to the right of the trees were a little confusing. I gather they were hills, but they were below the level of the treetops. Did that mean they were at a distance off to the right? Or did I misidentify what they were entirely? There was one straight line that was especially confusing. It looked like the ridgeline but wasn’t in alignment with it. Was it a different ridge? Why was it located lower than the trees?

I found the path easy to follow and could trace the almost U-turn at the far right. 

A fun piece. I am enjoying it. Let’s have some more.

Colin Antwis, from UK wrote:

Morning. Thanks for your landscape received this am. Thermaform I think. I have tended to use swell paper that is easily and quickly(and cheaply), reproduced. Always supplied a large print/braille/audio guide/description, guiding the reader across the paper, which has a cut out corner top rhs. Like me with an ordnance survey map of a new area, I too need time to assimilate the information. Time must be given to the reader of our tactile illustrations to understand the layout and orientation.

Think I agree that trying to include perspective could confuse more that clarify. I am trying out tactile pictures by using a paint material that adds a textured surface on which is painted colours for those with some residual sight. Near and far shown by the thickness of lines.

I find over here that illustrations and maps do not feature high on VI’s agenda. Even colleges didn’t seem to focus on them. So we have an uphill struggle getting acceptance as 1) a need 2) benefit 3) how to use. Although I have sold several of my tactile bird images and other subjects(guide dogs), pictures are seen as a bit of a “luxury” item rather than a necessity with benefits on offer.

Fieldsman Trails

David New, a new artist friend of mine writes:

Dear Ann,

I thought it was spectacular! This process can be used in so many applications. Perhaps we can talk in Orlando? That’s right, I think

I‘m coming up for the NFB convention. I can bring one of my smaller sculptures for you to see as well.

Talk soon,

David New

Dawn Wilkinson, educator par excellant responded,

Being someone who has never had vision, and although I consider myself to be pretty good with tactile graphics, I personally find art to be very difficult. Actually, I would find absolutely ANY tactile graphic impossible to figure out without some kind of description accompanying it. Part of what makes a student a “good tactile graphic reader” is that he/she takes the time to obtain any and all information provided before ever really attempting to decode the graphic. A description, whether it be braille or audio, is a must. I know this sounds contradictory to the purpose of a picture, as pictures take the place of words. Although this is true visually, 99.9% of the time, this would not hold true for a tactile reader. If you gave me, let’s say, a page with nothing but the outline of a heart on it, I would know it was a heart. But, if you gave me a page with a round circle on it, it could be just a circle, but it could be a ball or a ring. Without context, tactile graphics just don’t mean much; unless they are so obvious like the Tactile Treasures series from APH. Where they take real objects and thermoform them—pretzels, beads, etc. Those are absolutely obvious, as long as a child has actually seen a pretzel or crayon before.


I think having this raised depiction is awesome, as long as you have something like the video with Josh to watch along with it. I think having the tactile drawing is imperative to provide someone who is blind some way of having accessible art. But, without an accompanying description, I just couldn’t begin to have any concept of what this is, no matter how good the art is; and I know it is. I’m just saying that, as a blind person, I couldn’t even tell you which part of the page is the top with certainty. That’s absolutely no reflection on the quality or expertise behind the drawing; it’s just a fact of tactually not being able to discern any of the details that are obvious to anyone with vision. A map would mean absolutely nothing without a key. A bar graph would mean nothing without the labels. And even a coloring page of a turtle needs to have a label that says “turtle.” I’m wondering if you would consider adding a page of description to accompany the drawings so that someone with no background at all could easily enjoy the tactile artwork? Would it be possible to put a short title at the top to help orient the page?


I know that Josh had vision until age four. I have no idea how much of this he would have been able to figure out without having some background information ahead of time. My guess is that having vision during those early years certainly offers a solid foundation that someone who is congenitally blind absolutely does not have. Actually, that’s not a guess as it is well documented in the research. That is not to say we can’t be taught, because I believe we have missed out over the years with that assumption. Thank goodness for the research done by Kennedy, right? Getting rid of the misguided theory that blind people cannot understand art is where you shine, and I am so grateful that you have done so much to teach these skills. But, I would encourage you to include descriptions if you possibly can. 


I hope you can understand where I am coming from. I have your book Sadie Can Count sitting right here, and it makes perfect sense to me. But, again, there is text which brings the pictures to life for the braille reader.


I really hope this makes sense. Thank you so much for sending this to me. I know how much thought and time these take, and it is much appreciated. So, in order to make sure I get it right, I am going to go listen to Josh’s interview again.

I think the picture itself is very thought provoking and leaves the observer with the message  of a nice peaceful feeling.

Brian Jernigan, who teaches 3D printing in public school added:

I appreciate your gift. My 2 and 4 year old boys immediately took it from me and painted it before I knew what was going on.

Two small children working on painting the landscape picture with watercolors.

Two young painters know exactly what is needed. No reprint permission is granted on this image.

The following is the promised description:

Mountain Landscape

Position the image so that the circular shape is in the upper left hand corner with the circle projecting out towards you. This is the front of the image with the sun in the sky.  That is the sun or moon, your choice. 

Starting at the bottom of the image, in the foreground, there is a strip of grass that runs beside the smooth path that starts at the left hand side of the page and runs to the right.  As it crests the hillside, near the right hand side, you will feel it drop back to the next hillside where the path will turn back to the left. You can follow the path up the page as it recedes into the foothills. The path disappears behind a hill when it turns back to the right. It is very small at this point. You can tell it is crossing large gentle foothills. 

A mountain range runs across the entire picture in an extremely rugged line describing the peaks. This is  These mountains are positioned above the hills and below the sun in the sky.  

If you go back to the bottom of the picture, in the foreground, you will find a row of tall, narrow trees that start at the path on the left hand side of the image and run up over the hillside to the right. There are seven trees, the sixth is near the crest of the hill and the seventh is on the other side of the hill. The trees near the ridgeline extend above the hill they are planted on. 

I think I could have done a better job of this if I had gradually eliminated detail and the amount of relief of the trees the same way I diminished details and thickness in the receding hills.  

At the very top of the image on the right hand side you can feel a few wispy clouds. 

OK, now it is your turn to chime in, post comments below!

Drawing Conclusions

At first I was overwhelmed by the comments I received from Josh Miele, . I felt as though I  was missing the mark. I had a lot of thinking to do. But isn’t that just what this blog is supposed to be doing for me this year?

As I listened to our conversation again it slowly began to dawn on me that Josh was using the term perspective with the traditional definition. Why wouldn’t he?  It was only later that I realized that over the years I have wandered away from the actual meaning of the word and have redefined it for myself. I guess I even knew that subconsciously because I would often describe what I was teaching as Approximate Perspective. I had already culled a lot of the tactually meaningless aspects of visual perspective from my tactile drawing classes. Light and shadow, color and foreshortening are not things I include in class unless a student brings it up.

There are exceptions, for instance tiger’s stripes, I sometimes use textures to create the illusion of color. I think, if we could explore the characteristics of a tiger, accessible to touch, we would be able to eliminate the colored patterns and still be able to identify it as a tiger. But who gets a chance to get that close to a tiger? For the most part a tiger will always be known by his stripes. The same with a zebra but a giraffe is easily identifiable even without its distinctive markings.

image of lilly pad floating in a pond surrounded by pine trees. The outline of a woman is shown  swimming up to the surface of the water.

Air by Ann Cunningham now on exhibit at Lakewood Civic Center in Colorado until, August 7, 2015

More and more often, I find myself wishing that I could go touch the actual object that I am illustrating as I work on a bas relief image. I no longer feel as though I get enough information from reference photos. This is generally not true of my visual work.

As I think about it, I know when I am creating strictly visual art, I am editing sensory information to fit the visual criteria, even when I work from life. I don’t spend much time struggling to illustrate the stickiness of sap on a pine bough. But when I am working on a bas relief I consider it for hours.

Is the solution to find more materials to work with? Materials that are durable and have a distinct feel? I’m looking. If you have ideas I would love to hear them.

Next point, I know that verbal description is helpful and sometimes essential for people to successfully interpret an image. This is true visually as well as tactually, context is everything! Well, maybe not everything but it certainly helps.

I still don’t like Braille on pictures, captions, yes, on maps, yes, but not on the pictures. I really like Touch Graphic’s pen solution.  Steve Landau has successfully developed a pen so that it can tell what the pen is touching and read back an audio description about that specific part of the tactile image. He has a STEM binder with some great images and a number of museums also have create guide books using his technology.

It would be a huge advantage if the user could add audio description to their own  thermoform images using his pen too. I hope that might be an option someday.

In the last few months I have been looking at museum access. Docents armed with good tools, materials and techniques can make the museum experience come alive for people who are blind or visually impaired. I don’t think that training the docents and tour guides is the problem but giving them enough experience using their new skills is. Once they are trained they need to get comfortable conducting tactile tours before they lose their confidence. Once that fades they will not see a cane or a guide dog as an opportunity to offer their expertise to a visitor.

This is a two sided issue. We need museums who have and maintain an access program, and visitors who use their services. Without both I don’t think it will gain the momentum necessary to truly become a part of the institutional culture.

Would it help if willing advocates and participants rallied together in one spot to inspire each other to push forward? What would it be, a listserv, a twitter # or a conference? Who would host it, National Federation of the Blind or Art Beyond Sight?

Most near and dear to my heart is the idea of promoting tactile art. My hope is that fine art museums find a way to expand their idea of what fine art is to include art that can be touched and is judged by touch. Not just tactile interpretations of visual artwork but original tactile artwork.

It is a real issue that touch will alter or even destroy objects over time but I think we already have some options that might address these issues. Three-D printing is the most obvious. Since the original work is preserved as a digital file, the artwork could be replaced as needed without compromising the artist’s intent or the originality of the work.

As a variety of 3D printing materials become available we will have better options, beyond plastic, when creating the artwork. (This is the equivalent of 2D digital images. Reprints stay fairly true to form.)

Any material that can be cast into a mold is also a possibilities since we can reproduced them too. (This is the equivalent of chemically developed photographs. Reprints can vary.)

The third option is to let some work expire knowing that it disappeared because it was well loved.

What will tactile art become when it is encouraged to evolve onto an art form onto itself? I think it is time to find out. It is time to share our ideas and work with each other to inspire and challenge ourselves to be better and more innovative, more true to touch. Let’s discover what touch can do.

This is a call to artists and those who want to be involved. It is also a call to organizations who would like to have a say.  Let’s gather together to stage an exhibit and experience what we can already do. Then let’s brainstorm and experiment with ideas about where we think our next steps should lead.

Please comment. I know when I started making tactile art in the early 90’s I was pretty much on my own. I know I am not alone now but how many people are curious about this too?

Are you interested in making art or looking at it? Do you want to see original work or would tactile interpretations of iconic cultural pieces interest you more? Maybe access to information rich graphics is most important to you.

If you have problems posting just send your comment to me and I will post it.

The Raven is my first tactile fairytale created in 1999. It was purchased by the Museum of Outdoor Arts located in Englewood, Colorado. It was good to see again and I hope you take the opportunity to check it out if you have the chance.