Abstract Shapes

Article by Darren Rousar.

cloudClouds can make effective memory drawing subjects. However, checking the accuracy of your results is almost impossible without a photograph.

Recalling what you intellectually know about your subject is an enormous advantage when you’re trying to draw or paint it. But it’s a disadvantage when you’re training your visual memory. For that you’re better off using abstract shapes or those of which you have no foreknowledge.

Easy Does It

When you think your subject looks like something else your brain finds it much easier to simply go with that comparison. That’s because easy frees up other cognitive functions and so your brain automatically chooses it.

It’s no different for most of our daily functions. From the routines we follow after waking up to the route we take to work, ease is the subconscious goal. Ease is one result of forming a habit. But that’s another article.

The Problem with Ease

Ease is never the path to proper learning, regardless of the subject. Rather, ease is one of the goals, even though you might not recognize it as such.

The ease of intellectually knowing that a person’s head is shaped similar to that of an egg forces you to see the egg shape in a person’s head. That knowledge alone can cause you to overlook the many aspects of the head that do not look like an egg. And once you do that, you’ve lost their likeness – if you ever had it.

To get to ease you must first pass through unease.

Relative to memory drawing, you want to begin with subjects for which you have no or limited knowledge. That way you’re forcing your eye to do the hard work of directly observing as opposed to relying on the ease of going through the filing system in your mind looking for a visual match.

When a shape is unlike something you’ve seen before you’re forced to actively look at your subject. In fact, many of the problems people have recalling their subject stem from their inability to have truly seen it in the first place.

radius-ulnaSilhouettes of bones are good options.

Abstract Thoughts

Practically-speaking it can be difficult to find truly unrecognizable sources. One problem is inherent in the act of creating your own. The other issue is that your mind wants to see what it already knows and understands. It searches for it. That’s why you still remember the cloud you noticed days later. It ‘looked’ like Mickey Mouse.

A partial solution is abstract shapes.


To successfully recall something previously seen, you’re first step is to memorize the essential aspects of your subject. Abstract shapes force you to do that because you cannot easily relate them to something you already know.

Although always an important skill to make use of, this is vitally important when practicing in the beginning because you want to form the habit of active observation. Failure to learn that will limit your visual memory’s effectiveness.

Until you can accurately recall abstract shapes, you’ve no business attempting something more recognizable.


Useful Abstract Shapes

Abstract shapes are everywhere. The shapes of the sky holes between the leaves and branches of trees are normally abstract. The shapes of indistinct clouds are normally abstract. Believe it or not, so are the shapes on the hides of certain breeds of cows.

Some abstract art works well – especially cutouts by Matisse. So do silhouettes of bones.

If you live in snow country, the patterns snow makes on logs and other structures are often perfect.

More representational, and yet useful nevertheless, are many of the paintings done on Grecian Urns. They are silhouettes and are often primitive enough that your foreknowledge of the subject will not impact the exercises.

Regardless of your subject, always begin by actively observing the shapes in a visually abstract way. Determine to avoid the ease of foreknowledge so that you truly see what you’re looking at.

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

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