What is Memory Drawing?

Article by Darren Rousar.

“Why should an artist bother to train their visual memory, and what does that even mean? Can’t I just paint what’s in front of me, or from a photograph, or from my imagination?”

Those are the kinds of questions I get from students when I bring up the subject of memory drawing.

What is Memory Drawing?

Memory drawing is the regular practice of training your visual memory to retain what you see. That training involves doing numerous drawing exercises during short but consistent periods of time. The practice will help you make the most of every glance you take at your subject.

But remember, memory drawing is not a replacement for drawing directly from life. It should be done in addition to it.

Why Bother?

If you think about it, all life drawing and painting is at some point being done from the artist’s memory, even if that memory is only a few seconds old. Every time the artist takes their eyes off of the model or scene and looks at their paper or canvas, their visual memory is involved.

What if that artist’s visual memory was highly trained? That artist might need the model for a shorter period of time, or she might have a more productive time when the model is in pose. He might be better at painting all of the fleeting effects that nature throws at us when we are landscape painting en plein air.

This is Not a New Idea

Although the concept of memory drawing might seem foreign to us, it is not a new idea. Over the centuries numerous teachers have encouraged their students in the practice, despite the fact that it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that a formal curriculum was developed.

In the Present-Day

The practice of memory drawing almost died out but for R. H. Ives Gammell and his students. Gammell was taught to train his visual memory by one of his teachers, William McGregor Paxton. Paxton had studied with Gérôme in Paris and it is assumed that’s where he picked it up.

All of my teachers (most of whom had been Gammell students) strongly recommended that their students engage in regular memory drawing practice. Often, that admonition was paired with a suggestion to read an old book by an obscure French painter and teacher named Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran. That book, Éducation de la mémoire pittoresque, had been translated into English in 1914 but was still hard to find in the pre-Internet age.

If one did come across a copy, it soon became clear that only the basics were covered and the student had to figure out most of the process on their own.

Memory Drawing Book-open

In 2013 all that changed with the publication of Memory Drawing: Perceptual Training and Recall. Since then, numerous ateliers worldwide use the book in their curriculums. Thousands of self-taught students make ample use of it as well.

About the Memory Drawing Site

The memory drawing site is an additional resource to help guide you along the journey of regular memory drawing practice. Consider it a supplement to the book. The site contains an ever-growing collection of articles about the practice of memory drawing, its history, as well as forming and maintaining the daily habit.

Memory Drawing Prompts

Also on the site is a series of Memory Drawing Prompts, which you can find here. What are the prompts? Memory drawing prompts are images that you’ll attempt to memorize and then draw from that memory. The point is to regularly exercise your visual memory, rather than to retain the images in your memory indefinitely. If you’re interested, begin with the first prompt here.

What’s with the Red String?

Browse the site long enough and you’ll notice the main image is of a hand, holding a pencil and a red string tied around its index finger. Some from eastern cultures have wondered why.

In the west, a string tied around a finger is recognized as a symbol for memory. The idea is that you would tie a ribbon or string around your finger to help you remember something. Adding the pencil simply connected the symbol to memory drawing.

I use it throughout the site, book, and course as a convenient and unforgettable image.

Who am I?

My name is Darren Rousar. I am an atelier-trained artist and teacher who writes books, creates courses, and manages a few websites in order to teach you how to draw and paint. I have been teaching students how to see since 1988, both in the States and in Florence, Italy.

I am also the author of Memory Drawing: Perceptual Training and Recall, though I am mostly known for promoting the use of Sight-Size in arts instruction.

Are you interested in beginning the habit of memory drawing so that you can make the most of every glance? Get a free guide to the process by submitting the form below.

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