Slow and Steady

Article by Darren Rousar.


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?

Before we get to the question we need to take a closer look at our standards and the process. A solid understanding of those factors will help with the answer. Additionally, I’ve populated this article with exercise examples from one of my students. These examples provide visual answers.

001Example 1.
As per the course book’s instructions, the red line represents the target being memorized.
Notice how close the student came to matching it with his attempt (the black line). Not only is the ‘shape’ of the line fairly accurate, but its length and distance from the control* is good as well.


One of the reasons for the course book is that it gives you a standardized set of sources from which to study. Without the course book, you’re on your own when it comes to every factor: from finding your sources to how to progress through them.

The best sources are those that meet the following characteristics:

  • Something which you have not previously seen.
  • Something which is static.
  • Something to which you have frequent access.

Although it might not be obvious, your mind stores images and impressions of everything you see. There are two problems with that. The first is retrieval. Since there’s so much information going into your mind over the course of your life, intentionally retrieving an image is often difficult. All the more as time passes.

The second problem is specificity. Your mind instantaneously categorizes what you see into generalities. Unless the image is dramatic or otherwise remarkable, your recall will be more general than specific.

As an example, since you generally know what a car looks like, your mind will file away the mass of cars in the street scene in front of you with non-specific cars. Then, when you recall the scene at a later time, you’ll not remember specific cars. You’ll simply remember cars (unless one stood out).

Memory drawing practice helps you solve both problems because it forces you to learn how to really observe. That is one of the keys to the process of strengthening your brain’s visual memory.

002Example 2.
In this example the student’s attempt was not as successful. Although the general ‘shape’ of the line was somewhat accurate, it was both too long and too close to the control line.

The next requirement regarding the characteristics of your sources is motion. I think it obvious that if your subject is in motion your task will be much more difficult. Moving sources are not proper sources for memory drawing exercises, at least until you’re very advanced.

The final issue for sources of memory drawing is access. By that I mean one main thing: your ability to compare your attempt to your source. If your source is fleeting, like a sunset, you’ll be unable to compare your attempt to it. Therefore, you will have no feedback. Without feedback there is little likelihood of noticeable improvement.


There is a reason the course book begins with exercises using simple lines rather than asking you to memorize the face of someone sitting across from you. As with any learning endeavor you must progress from simple and easy to more complex and difficult. This progression must also occur in an organized way. Sporadic attempts with diverging sources is a sure route to failure.

To keep the course book’s content progressive (promoting gradual betterment), progress (forward movement) is regulated by the course book itself. Specifically, you’ll move onto different exercises each week.

003Example 3.
The student did a great job on this exercise. His attempt precisely matched the target line.

Confirmation Bias

In other skills, try and try again is the rule. For memory drawing, try and try anew would be better.

Every time you draw something, your mind not only remembers it, it also believes that the drawing is correct. And the more you draw the same subject, the more rote it becomes. As the additional drawings of the same subject pile up, what you see of the source tends to subconsciously switch from the actual, visible source to the results of your previous attempts. This is an aspect of confirmation bias and it is deadly to memory drawing.

Oftentimes this problem is solved in the course book by having you rotate the sources each time you use them. Therefore, the source is seen anew and your memory of previously drawing it is nonexistent.

004Example 4.
Here again the student got quite close to the target in this attempt.


Absolute accuracy is always the goal. However, understand that you’ll rarely achieve it with memory drawing. Rather, when you’re using the proper sources for the proper amount of time, you can expect to become consistently close.

Mentioned above is the concept of feedback. If you’re working through the exercises in the course book then you know that it takes you through weekly feedback sessions every Friday. Most of the time you’re asked to review your attempts every week, and again every month, looking for errors which you consistently make. You learn from these mistakes by thinking about them during the future exercises. As an example, if you tend to make the shapes too wide, on future exercises you would spend more time observing the width of the shapes and comparing them to the height.

Ideally your errors become more consistent. They should also become less dramatic over time. If you can see those things in your attempts, then you are making progress.

If you cannot see them, then numerous things might be happening. Perhaps you’re not as habitual as need be? Perhaps you’re not as focused as need be? While you may be able to control those issues, many other factors are less controllable.

005Example 5.
The student was a bit less successful with this attempt than for the previous two. Although the length and placement are good, the ‘shape’ is a little off.

Age is a definite factor that’s out of our control. Others issues may be physiological, and others may be psychological. I cannot, of course, comment on extreme cases. But most of these issues simply limit the degree of success you can achieve. And some success is better than not even trying.

For instance, I’m in my mid-fifties and will never run as fast as I did in my late teens. And, as I continue to age I’ll likely see my speed decrease! But that does not mean I gain no benefit from a regular running routine. Quite the contrary.

Now that the relevant factors have been discussed, let’s get to the question.

How Close is Close Enough?

I am always happy to answer this question, but because of the previously mentioned factors there is no definitive answer for everyone. Like physical exercise, one does not really ever finish with memory drawing. Rather, success is determined mostly by whether you’re keeping up with the habit.

Nevertheless, there are qualities to look for and foremost among them is consistency. I’d rather see errors that are consistent than see a few infrequent attempts that are 100% accurate.

Another common question is really two sides of the same coin. One side is, what evidence should you use to determine when to move on to the next step? And the other side is, when should you stop and repeat a lesson?

The answer for the former is provided in the course book: you move forward on a weekly basis. This holds true even if your results are similar to what you see in example 2, above.

The answer for the latter is less clear. If after a couple of weeks most of your attempts are worse than example 2 in ‘shape’, length, and position, then you might consider backing up a week and redoing it before you move forward.

Another way of checking your progress is also integral to the course book, just as the weekly reviews are. Every month or so during the beginning stages of the course book you’ll go through a review lesson where you’ll be asked to draw a given image from memory. How accurately you draw it is a way to tell whether you’re on track or not.

Finally, let me add that none of the examples in this article caused me any concern for the student’s abilities. Over the years I’ve received many like them from numerous students and only once did I suggest that the student repeat some lessons. In that case, the student had not been using the control lines as recommended.

* The shorter black lines beneath the targets and his attempts are called control lines. When doing the exercises you use the control as something to which to compare the target.

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