Portraits Of Alphonse Legros by Henri Fantin-Latour (1856 and 1858). Both artists were students of Père Lecoq.
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.
Père Lecoq’s full name was Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran. He was a French artist and teacher. Few now know his name, let alone his work, and yet Père Lecoq influenced some of his century’s best artists. The sculptors Carpeaux and Rodin, and painters Fantin-Latour and Alphonse Legros studied with him. Others, like Whistler, George Inness, and Thomas Eakins, were indirectly under his influence.
Portrait of Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran.
The Training of the Memory in Art
In the original French, his book is essentially a collection of three pamphlets. The relevant section, The Training of the Memory in Art, is a brief outline of his recommended visual memory-training process. A free online version, translated into English in 1911, is available here.
Unfortunately for us, the bulk of the text simply explains how he developed his system rather than providing detailed instructions for it. But that really wasn’t his goal. Rather, Père Lecoq was attempting to influence the way in which the French government conducted arts education.
Despite the lack of step-by-step instruction, there are a number of helpful points to be found.
The most important point is stated in the beginning of the book. He defines visual memory as ‘stored observation’, or ‘observation preserved’. By observation he means more than a perfunctory glance.
And I take this opportunity of insisting upon this essentially important point, that it is this absolute fidelity of likeness to the model, this exactness and simplicity, which must be demanded of the beginner; for it is the only way to cultivate accuracy and naiveté of memory.
Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran, from The Training of the Memory in Art
Truth to Nature
Selwyn Image, a designer whose family name befits that of an artist, wrote the introduction to the English translation of Boisbaudran’s book. He had this to say about fidelity to nature and memory training:
Objection is sometimes raised to memory work, on the ground that it teaches students to draw out of their heads . . . Of this danger Boisbaudran was well aware, and his teaching is carefully designed to combat it. In memory work, as in ordinary work, he tells us, the first step in training is the practice of literal imitation. For upon this alone is built up the power of expressing exactly and completely the profounder [sic] and less literal impressions, which an artist receives from nature later on, as his personality develops and matures.
Image goes on to comment on the fact that proving the student’s accuracy is difficult because the source has often been removed from view.
Seeing the Whole
Père Lecoq explained another benefit to memory drawing; that if studied properly it helps train the student to see the whole (also called the big-look or the unity of effect).
[Drawings] done from memory by young students, without the help of note or sketch of any kind, show a power of grasping a scene as a whole, of seizing its essential character and movement, rarely possessed even by mature artists. The weaknesses and faults in proportion or construction are just the things which are easily corrected from the model.
Do you want to avoid the errors of piecemeal seeing? Then engage in the regular practice of memory drawing.
Some fear that the pursuit of memory drawing is a sure path to neglecting direct study from life. But the truth is quite the opposite. Père Lecoq had his students do memory drawing exercises concurrent with their studies from life. He maintained that training the student’s visual memory was not only a supplement to the student’s main drawing lessons, it was to be an extension of them.
Memory drawing to a visual artist is like practicing scales to a musician.
In the Schools
By the late nineteenth-century, the benefits of memory drawing became so widely known that many state-run art schools in Britain and the U.S. incorporated it into their curriculum, at times directly following Boisbaudran’s teachings.
Then, as the twentieth-century began, memory drawing training all but disappeared along with representational art.
Fortunately, a few teachers kept the practice alive and some ateliers still make memory drawing a part of their instruction.
Planning to Fail?
Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” That sentiment can certainly be applied to memory drawing. You need a plan. And you need to stick with it indefinitely. Randomly attempting it, whether in frequency or content, is a sure road to failure.
Planning to Win!
Back in 2013 I wrote Memory Drawing: Perceptual Training and Recall to provide students with a more detailed curriculum than did Père Lecoq in his book.
But it was not possible to fully flesh out a complete course in a book alone. So in 2019 I created the Memory Drawing online course. The course guides you through the entire process of memory drawing.
One of the struggles many students have is finding exercise sources. Now you don’t have to invent your own because they are in the course. And, they are presented in progressive order so you don’t have to guess in which order to do them.
Also in the course are bespoke digital timers, created specifically to help you strengthen your visual memory.
If you’re interested in more accurately and quickly drawing what you see, then you need to be training your visual memory. And you can begin today, for free! Simply fill out the form below and you too can start making the most of every glance.