On the front page of this site I make the following statement: “Every time you look at your drawing you must remember your subject.” It’s not a new revelation, but one that representational artists have understood for centuries. To be of good use the memories must be accurate, all the more when the view is brief. So stop, and take a better look.
Articles about Memory Drawing
Here is an ever-growing collection of articles related to the practice of memory drawing. Many of these articles expand on the lessons I teach my own students. Others are of more historical interest.
Humans reflexively resist failure every time it presents itself. But when it comes to training your visual memory, you should embrace it wholeheartedly. Why? Because that’s how your visual memory learns, through failure after failure. It’s how you fail forward.
Did you know that every time you draw something you are actually drawing from your visual memory? This is true no matter what your source is: from life, a photograph, even out of your head through a formula. The reason for this is that you cannot look at your subject and draw it at the same time. At some point you must take your eyes (or mind) off of your subject and focus on your drawing. And when you do, you draw what you have seen.
Before you read through this article I want you to stop right now and spend the next five to ten minutes drawing a bicycle from memory. It need not be complex, and yet you should do your best to make it look realistic and functional. To get you started, close your eyes and try to imagine a bicycle you own or have owned. Go ahead. I’ll wait while you draw.
Does your mind’s eye see? If I asked you to close your eyes and visualize your kitchen, would you see anything in your mind’s eye? Although most people do, some may not. And if you who do, what you are ‘seeing’ is not actually a sensation on your retina. Rather, what you’re visualizing is more akin to guided imagination.
Progress in memory drawing is often slow, at times excruciatingly so. It can make one wonder whether they’re improving at all. But if you stick with it you will improve. For as the saying goes, slow and steady wins the race. The question is, what evidence should you use to determine when to move on to the next step?
There was a time not long ago when taking a photograph required waiting to see the results. After you took the picture you had to take the film to a store that offered development services. By the time that technology was surpassed by digital, developing film took less than an hour at some places. Nevertheless, between click and squint you still had to wait. Nowadays, all that’s ancient. But is that a good thing?
There is always a span of time between looking at your subject and placing pencil to paper or brush to canvas. Perhaps it’s brief, as in a few milliseconds. Or maybe it’s a bit longer. And maybe it’s a lot longer – like the following day. Regardless of its length, what’s required during the interval between observation and execution is a good visual memory. One artist who trained his quite well was James McNeill Whistler.
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.
Two hundred and five years ago the largest volcanic eruption ever recorded occurred. On that day, Mount Tambora in southern Indonesia blew its top. So much ash was thrown into the atmosphere that global temperatures dropped dramatically. Due in part to that, the following year became known as the year without a summer. Many thousands died as a result. A happier result was some great art.