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.
How did you do? Great. Now resist the temptation to search the Internet for bicycle examples and then ask yourself whether your drawing (if you actually did one) looks like a bicycle? If so, does it appear as if it could function as such? Finally, does it look like the one you intended to draw?
Feel free to do that Internet search now if you want. If you did, are your answers still correct? I think that if you did do that search you quickly saw that your drawing was less than accurate, even if it did look like a bicycle.
Besides the first question above, the remaining three make important points about your visual memory and why you should properly train it.
Recognition is Not Recall
Point one is that recognition and recall are not the same thing. Even the most simplistic line drawing might look like a bicycle. However, odds are good that its appearance is far more symbolic than it is accurate. As such, your drawing is recognizable because you’ve likely seen thousands of bicycles over the course of your lifetime. Your brain simplifies that collection of images into the basic components of a bicycle and that’s what you’re drawing.
Success in drawing something that is merely recognizable is not a bad thing. In fact, real-world drawing (i.e., not memory drawing exercises) relies in part on your brain’s ability to easily recall objects stored in your long term memory. It was from those long term memories that you drew the bicycle.
However, I assume that you want a drawing that is more than just recognizable. That’s a reason to train your visual memory and to do so deliberately.
Form Over Function
Function has far less of an affect on your drawing’s likeness than you might at first assume. Unless your drawing is dramatically far from a likeness (square wheels anyone?), your mind will still see a bicycle. This is due to numerous visual clues that your brain uses for recognition – things like two wheels, a seat, and handlebars.
But a recognizable form that wouldn’t function is akin to an accidental optical illusion.
There are two ways to solve this:
- Study the form in question so deeply that you know it intimately.
- Improve your visual memory such that the specific form does not matter.
Many artists choose the former over the latter, if not instead of the latter. That choice can be concerning because if you’re not careful you’ll end up being a one trick pony (someone who can only draw their subject well if has first been studied well). For example, having an expert knowledge of the construction of the human body will not help you when you have to draw a tree.
Better is to do both: study many subjects thoroughly, and train your visual memory. That way you make good use of both skills without solely relying on either.
The final question was, did your drawing look like the bicycle you intended to draw? Though it is a complicated question the bottom line is likeness. Of course in this case we’re discussing a likeness to a memory. Nevertheless, doing a drawing that looks like a bicycle is not the same thing as doing one that looks like a specific bicycle, regardless of how long ago the actual bicycle was observed.
Why? because when it comes to drawing, likeness is critical to specific communication. And here again that’s a part of memory drawing – to improve your visual memory to such an extent that your artwork communicates specifics as well as generalities.
What’s with all the fish? Well, my main intent was to eliminate the possibility of cheating. If I had populated this article with images of bicycles it would be impossible to see them without gathering visual clues for your drawing assignment. Separately, whether we agree with the sentiment or not, those of us who are of a certain age have Irina Dunn to thank for the fish/bicycle connection. U2 only later reinforced it.