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.
Memory Drawing Instruction
While memory drawing should not supplant drawing directly from life, it is a necessary part of your education as an artist. This collection of articles provides a wealth of information on the subject. If you've not done so already, a perfect place to begin your journey is through a free guide to memory drawing.
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?
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.
Do you see what I see? Up to a point, yes. But after that, probably not. And the reverse is also true. Beyond the obvious aspects of a scene, I do not see what you do. In fact, you (and I) see, but do not observe. That’s a problem for representational artists. Memory drawing helps to correct it.
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.