Draw What You Have Seen

Article by Darren Rousar.


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.

Initially the process is not difficult. In fact, it’s a part of how you learned your letters. You did that by viewing and then immediately copying what you saw. But the alphabet is not nature, which has infinite variety and motion. While a millisecond’s view of the letter ‘C’ can be quickly translated into a recognizable shape, it’s not so simple with nature.


The Short of It

You memory has many parts: working, short term, and long term. To fully explain those parts is quite complicated. Furthermore, the subject is still being studied by cognitive scientists and therefore many questions remain. Relative to our topic, I’ll keep it simple.

Both working memory and short term memory are involved when you’re drawing from a subject that’s in front of you. The difference is a bit theoretical and so some of this is simply my opinion based upon experience. In general, working memory is something you tend to mentally manipulate while it’s being used. Short term memory, which is a part of working memory, is not manipulated.

For example, when you notice an error while you’re drawing and make the correction without resorting to another look at the model, you’re using your working memory. The same thing may apply to any aspect of the drawing that takes more than a few seconds to create.

Short term memory is that which is used within a few seconds. It is also not manipulated in your mind before it is used. So, if you’re in Sight-Size and you make a subtle change based upon flicking your eye, you’re using your short term memory.

In either case, the usefulness of the memory will fade at around 30 seconds.

The Long of It

Most things that you can recall after more than a 30 seconds are likely stored in your long term memory. That is what makes it available to be recalled at a later time. To get it there, you generally need to rehearse it. An example when drawing might be tracing the shape in the air over and over again before you actually draw the line (an act some call, ‘ghosting’).

Surprisingly, once you draw the line you are also moving aspects of the memory of drawing it into your long term memory. At that point you have a combined memory of both your vision of the object and your drawing attempt. Odds are that separating the two is impossible.


Draw What You Have Seen

You can easily prove the differences between working and long term memory to yourself with a little three-part experiment. You’ll need 3 sheets of paper, a pencil, an eraser, a hat, and an object to draw. Let’s use a banana, for which you can use your own or the two shown in this article.

First you’ll do a memory drawing. To do so, stare at the banana for around twenty seconds. Use the timer on your cell phone, or a kitchen timer. Once the time is up, put the hat over the banana (or turn off your computer screen) so that you can no longer see it. Then, try to do an accurate drawing of it.

When you’re finished, remove the hat (or turn on the screen) and compare your drawing to the real banana. That’s the end of part 1.

Part 2 begins by repositioning the banana into a different ‘pose’ (or using the other banana image in this article). This time do your drawing of it while looking at it as often as needed. Understand that this is normal drawing from a visible subject, not a memory drawing. Once you’re done, go do something else for ten minutes. Before you go, put the hat back over the banana and put your drawing out of view.

Part 3 begins after that ten minute break. Use the remaining sheet of paper and try to draw the banana again, just like you drew in part 2, only this time draw it from memory. Do not remove the hat or look at your previous drawing until you’re done.

Once you are done, go ahead and remove the hat so that you can compare this memory drawing with the banana itself. Most who do this notice that the result is far more accurate than what happened from memory in part 1.

To see the object, when absent, is then the real goal to which all these exercises should lead.

Lecoq de Boisbaudran (1911)

Seeing After the Fact

The goal of memory drawing training is to improve whatever skill you have demonstrated in part 1, above. There are many routes to this, but you’ll have better success if you’re consistent and deliberate.

A common approach is to follow the plan for parts 2 and 3, above. In practice this means that you would redraw from memory and in the evening whatever you drew from life during the day. It’s not a bad approach and I do recommend it. However, it’s a bit like using training wheels after you already know how to ride a bicycle.

Better is to regularly engage in a series of progressive exercises that provide standards to which you can compare your attempts. And that’s in addition to the training wheels suggestion above.

How might doing something like that look?

I’m glad you asked. As you may know, I have a course book that walks you through the entire process.

Making the Most of Every Glance - An Introduction to Memory Drawing - Cover

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