On the left, Philip de László standing back to compare his subject to his artwork.
On the right, László working on the portrait.1
What happens when you look at your subject? Maybe you’re looking at placements and orientations. Or you’re comparing shapes, values, or colors. And while all that may be true during any given glance, in reality you are recording mentally what you are going to draw or paint when you look over to your artwork.
This is necessary because you cannot look at both your subject and artwork at the same time. That’s why I am adamant that art students train their visual memory – so they can make the most of every glance.
When I stand back I am recording mentally what I am going to put on my canvas when I walk up to it.2
Philip de László
That quote, by Hungarian artist Philip de László, was the caption for the pair of photographs shown at the top of this article.
Recording Mentally When in Sight-Size
A trained memory is of paramount importance to Sight-Size artists, in part because the span of time between looking at your subject and representing your memory of it is lengthy. This is all the more true when a heroic distance is involved.
It’s usefulness really shines when you consider the overall impression, or the big-look of the scene. Maintaining that in your artwork is difficult, unless you have been successfully recording it mentally from the start.
Fantin-Latour, The Study.
Recording Mentally When in Comparative Measurement
Sight-Size artists are not the only ones who benefit from recording mentally. Comparative measurers do as well. Yes, the instant between looking at your subject and then to your artwork may be shorter when comparative measuring. Nevertheless, your visual memory is still involved, all the more because you have to scale your vision.
There is no better exercise for eye and hand and brain than drawing from memory. It is to his control of his memory, quite as much as to the accuracy of his eye and hand, that the artist owes his success.
The Art Amateur (1885)
Anyone with children will tell you that they prefer running to walking. Quick, constant motion is the rule.3 But it’s the exact opposite with training your visual memory to mentally record. To quote Mr. Tortoise, “slow and steady wins the race.”
You can affect this in two ways: viewing time and waiting time.
Most visual memory training involves staring at an exercise source for x number of seconds or minutes. The correct amount of time is determined by the level of the student, the complexity of the source, and how effective the student is at keeping their mind focused.
Ideally, you would begin by using longer viewing times (between 30 seconds and 3 minutes, depending upon the source) and after some success reduce the times. This is training progressively.
Remember, when directly drawing there is a span of time between looking at your source and trying to draw it. Adding a wait time to your exercises mimics that and helps you practice retaining what you’re recording mentally.
Opposite the viewing timespans, wait times should begin short and progress to longer durations.
After doing an exercise with no wait time between viewing and your attempt, add 5 seconds in-between. Then, try 10 seconds. And then 15. This routine more effectively approximates the real-world conditions you experience when drawing directly.
1 Painting a Portrait, Philip de de László, by A. L. Baldry (1934)
3 What’s funny about that is very often the first word out of the mouths of my young students’ is the word ‘wait.’