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.
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.
One of the tasks Père Lecoq set before his students was the learning of pictures by heart. It was an intermediate exercise for learning how to seize upon the fleeting images in nature. Why? Because pictures are the same tomorrow as today and can be learned at leisure. They can then be easily compared with the drawings and paintings done from them. It is not so with nature.
If you were asked to draw a picture of the sculpture shown above, could you do it? What if I told you that you could only look at it for awhile, and then you had to draw it from memory – could you still do it? A contest set up by Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1852 proved that it was possible, “with an astonishing exactness of imitation.”
Imagine the following scene. You’re a 3rd or 4th year student at an atelier. Upon entering the figure-room one day your teacher tells you to take your easel and materials to another room. You’ll be working from there, but still using the model posing in the figure-room. Could you do it? Degas thought so, and he imagined such an atelier.
As the old year draws to a close it’s only natural to review it and to begin thinking about the new one. Relative to memory drawing, did you do any last year? And if you did, were you consistent about it? Whether you answered yes or no, resolve now to make 2020 your year of memory drawing.
The process of memory drawing involves much more than just blankly staring at your source. It requires many analytical activities that are as useful when drawing and painting directly from it. Among them are: comparison, learning to see the whole (also known as the big-look), and selectivity. Relative to the shape aspects of memory drawing, imagery rehearsal will be your greatest help.
Until a few years ago, if you were interested in systematically training your visual memory you had to create your own exercise sources. Alternatively, you would have simply used whatever image struck your fancy and gone about the memory drawing process in a haphazard way. For all but the most dedicated, the results would not have been promising.
What happens when you look at your subject? Maybe you’re looking at placements and orientations. Or you’re comparing shapes, values, or colors. And while all that may be true during any given glance, in reality you are recording mentally what you are going to draw or paint when you look over to your artwork.
Persistence is paramount. Why? Because learning a skill takes time, sometimes a very long time. Memory drawing is no different. It takes time and concerted effort to succeed, especially when the evidence of progress is not often apparent. Therefore, don’t resist building a memory drawing habit. Instead, persist.