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.
The aphorism, “Always draw the longest line you can remember,” is usually attributed to John Singer Sargent. But regardless of who said it first, it brings together two essential concepts that representational artists need to understand: relational seeing and visual memory.
Our perception of nature is relative. That line is only at an angle when compared to another. This shape is larger than that shape. Etc. And if you want your drawing of the shape you see to in fact look like the shape you see, then you need to begin seeing, remembering, and drawing both sides now.
Artists such as Leonardo, Ingres, and Degas suggested making use of your visual memory to help you draw and paint what you observe. But an attempt at formalizing the practice did not occur until the middle of the nineteenth-century. In 1848, Père Lecoq, as he was affectionately referred to by his students, published a book titled The Training of the Memory in Art.
Around 30,000 years ago someone walked into the depths of a cave in southern France and drew a horse. They drew many horses. They also drew and painted depictions of mammoths, bison, bears, and other animals. Similar depictions exist around the world. These artists relied first on direct observation and then on their visual memory.
The most basic elements of visual memory are length and angle. Would you like to see how good your visual memory is? Shall we play a game?
There are two kinds of seeing: passive seeing and active seeing. Drawing accurately, whether directly or from your visual memory, requires active seeing.
Success at memory drawing requires more than just the simple habit of regular practice. It requires deliberate practice. Deliberately practicing memory drawing means incorporating a systems approach to your efforts. And that means conquering each discrete problem before moving onto the next.
Memory drawing is the regular practice of training your visual memory to retain what you see. The key words in the definition are ‘regular practice’, which effectively mean ‘habit’. Without that habit memory drawing is a waste of time.