A Memory Drawing Walk

Article by Darren Rousar.


The physical and emotional benefits of walking are well-known. But did you know that going for a walk can help improve your memory? With some forethought, walking can also help improve your visual memory. Let’s take a look at how to go on a memory drawing walk.

Different Kinds of Walks

There are many kinds of walks. Some people simply walk for exercise (for themselves or the dog). Some walk to get from A to B. Others walk to solve problems. Songs, poems, and even entire books have been written while walking. A few tend to walk somewhat aimlessly about.

Then there’s the memory drawing walk.

With Purpose

A memory drawing walk is a walk with purpose. To be more specific, it’s a walk with a hierarchy of purposes. First among them is to return home with an image in your mind from which you will draw.

In support of that goal you have a couple of options. You can either seek a specific source, or let one strike you as you ramble. The former is more common. Plus, going out with a subject in mind will also improve your opportunity.

Maybe you’re looking for flowers? How about leaves? What about simplifying the patterns of tree branches against the sky? Perhaps today is particularly good for interestingly shaped clouds?

Whatever your predetermined subject is, don’t let it hinder serendipity. If you just happen upon something remarkable, use it and keep your original intent in reserve for a future memory drawing walk.


As alluded to above, your other option is serendipity. Of the two options this is the most risky. Why? Because the likelihood of returning home empty-headed, so to speak, is higher.

Chance assumes that you are an especially inquisitive sort, proficient in the art of noticing. Or, you are lucky enough to witness a rare and spectacular event like a sun dog.


Stop Or Walk On?

Logically speaking it makes sense to find your subject, stop to observe, and then go back home to draw it. But that’s rarely practical.

True, the main goal of a memory drawing walk is observing a subject so that you can then draw it from memory. But you’re also getting outside, resting your eyes from all that screen time, and having a little exercise. Therefore you need to work within those considerations.

Also understand that this endeavor is more akin to performance than it is to practice. No, you should not expect to show your results to anyone as would be the case with performance. Though at the same time you’ll probably not have the opportunity to compare your work to your source, as you would during practice.

That last fact alone makes it hard to consider memory drawing walks practice sessions. Nevertheless, every time you engage in any form of memory drawing there is an element of practice involved.

The Process During the Walk

The best thing you can do is to take your walk and when you come across your subject, stop and observe. This might be a brief stop, or it might be for an extended period of time.

Regardless of the length, once you’ve continued on your journey keep going back to the scene or object in your mind. As you do you may find that your awareness of the present drifts off a bit. That’s ok, but keep enough of your wits about you so that you avoid accidents and also enjoy the walk itself.


On The Lookout

Nature is overwhelming! Your task as an artist, in part, is to distill all that visual busyness into something others would want to look at. When going on a memory drawing walk, you distill down to simplify even more.

Whatever you’re on the lookout for, it is visually composed of line, shape, value, and color. In the beginning seek line, and shape patterns, then value relationships. Leave color notes aside until your visual memory is more proficient.

dow-1An image from Dow’s book on Composition.

Line and Shape Patterns

Line is often found in tree branches, roads, paths and trails, and streams and rivers. Line is often the easiest element to recall and it’s the perfect beginning.

Shape patterns are most easily seen as light against dark, and vise versa. Despite the terms, for the present purpose they have nothing to do with value. As an example, just about anything seen against a background of sky will appear as a dark – with the sky being a light.

To best see shape patterns, whether highly contrasted or not, squint. Squinting is helpful for this because it visually simplifies what you’re looking at. That’s important because the simpler your view of the subject, the easier it is to remember later on.

While squinting, whether for shape patterns or value relationships, think about size, angles, value, and distance. Consider the relationships between the items in the scene as well as between the parts of the items.

Try to think both abstractly and literally. Yes, I know that this goes against the rule of abstract shapes as sources for memory drawing. But remember, a memory drawing walk is more of a performance than practice. Therefore, if your subject is a cloud that looks like Mickey Mouse, and that impresses you, so much the better!

Useful shape patterns are farm fields, lawns, parking lots, and building and tree silhouettes.

dow-marsh-island-autumnArthur W. Dow, Marsh Island, Autumn (1906).


Shape patterns also have value relationships. Once you have some success with the patterns themselves, begin to incorporate their values. Limit yourself to two or three early on. Here, again, squinting will be of immense help.

You first step for value memory will be to observe the overall values of the two largest shapes in the scene. Fixate on those, and then find the third largest shape so that you can mentally add that observation to the comparisons.

Note that this is contrary to what you would do when seeking value relationships while drawing or painting from direct observation. In that case you initially search for the darkest dark and lightest light. The approach is different when doing a memory drawing walk because your goal is to recall the accurate relationships between two or three values for your post-walk memory drawing, rather than seeking an entire value range.

dow-moon-over-the-hill-1905Arthur W. Dow, Moon Over the Hill (1905).


You manage color memory on a memory drawing walk in a similar fashion to the way you do value memory. Find the overall color notes for the two largest shapes, and then add a third.

If you’re in nature rather than a city, color is often varied and gradated. That complicates things a bit. For your initial attempts at color, you might consider memorizing the gradation between the horizon and the top of the sky on its own without incorporating hills, foliage, or water. In other words, when beginning keep it simple and abstract.

Back At Home

Once you return home, get your materials together. Then close your eyes. While they’re closed think about your subject. In fact, try to mentally follow the same process you used when memorizing the scene on location.

Once you have the subject in your mind, open your eyes and begin drawing or painting it.

Rules For Memory Drawing Walks

You can certainly take a walk with no forethought about using it as a memory drawing walk, and then return home and try to draw something you saw. But you’ll have better success when being intentional about it from the start.

To help you keep on task, there are a few rules.

  • First, be safe.
  • A memory drawing walk is a solo activity, though your dog might not hinder your efforts.
  • As you memorize your subject, it helps to talk to yourself about it. Actually verbalize what you’re observing.
  • Keep your phone in your pocket. Period.


Not A Substitute

Memory drawing, whether formally or from a walk, is not a substitute for regularly drawing directly from life. It is meant to enhance your direct drawing. If your time is limited, always prefer drawing from observation.

Stuck Inside?

If you’re reading this sentence right now we’re still in the midst of the Coronavirus crisis. Hopefully you’re not ill. Though I’m sure each community’s response is different, where I live we are under a shelter-in-place order. Fortunately for us, during the time of this order engaging in outdoor activity such as walking, hiking or running, provided that one maintains at least 6 feet of social distancing, is allowed.

But if you truly are stuck inside you can substitute a walk inside, or a look outside your window. Get creative! You’re an artist after all.

Making the Most of Every Glance - An Introduction to Memory Drawing - Cover

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