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.
Memory Drawing History
The practice of memory drawing was not formalized until the mid-nineteenth century. Nevertheless, memory drawing does have a history and these articles record some of it.
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.
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.
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.