Stop! And Take a Better Look

Article by Darren Rousar.


On the front page of this site I make the following statement: “Every time you look at your drawing you must remember your subject.” It’s not a new revelation, but one that representational artists have understood for centuries. To be of good use the memories must be accurate, all the more when the view is brief. So stop, and take a better look.

Every look you take at your sitter has to be held by your memory till it is recorded on the canvas. The shorter the lapse of time you employ, the more vital is your impression.1

Harrington Mann (1933)

A Vital Impression

The quote above is straightforward. The more limited your time is for looking at your subject, the better your memory of it must be. That’s inherently true. This article expands on Mann’s statement by looking more carefully at the concept of a vital impression which means taking a better look.

A vital impression is a quality impression. It contains enough visual information to allow you to make use of it directly without having to delve into your knowledge of construction, formula, etc.

Let me explain.

The Normal Routine

Most who give no thought to their visual memory approach their subject in the following way. They proceed around the image by looking variously at individual aspects on their subject and then to their drawing. The process relies entirely on taking numerous glances at the subject which are followed by attempting to draw the incomplete, fleeting memories of it.

If you’re in Sight-Size, as the author of the above quote recommends, your task is a bit easier because the distance between your subject and artwork is minimal. This, of course, is the point of Mann’s statement excerpted above and quoted in full down in the footnotes below.

If you are not in Sight-Size then your task is more difficult. Why? Because before you can make use of the visual memory from your glances, your mind needs to scale it to the size of your drawing.

The normal routine results in making multiple attempts at observing limited aspects of your subject. Doing this can cause two problems:

  • You’re likely to fall into the trap of piecemeal seeing.
  • You’ll take more time than might otherwise be necessary to achieve a likeness.

Take A Better Look

A better way, whether in Sight-Size or not, is to set your mind on perceiving vital impressions every time you take a glance. Doing so requires some forethought and a change in the routine.

As an example, let’s consider the humble stop sign. You already know a few things about it: it’s an octagon, it has white letters on a red background, in english it reads STOP, and so on.

That information alone is enough for you to accurately draw one in the front-facing orientation as is shown at the top of this article. At other angles you might even come fairly close to succeeding as well. However, fairly close does not a likeness make.

Most subjects are neither manmade nor mechanically symmetrical. Foreknowledge therefore, whether through construction or perspective, can only take you so far along the road of vital impressions. A vital impression is an empirically observed impression. That’s true, be it helped by logic or not.

Making a vital impression depends entirely upon relationships.

Let’s go back to that stop sign, only this time its front face is rotated slightly away from our view. Since it’s such a simplistic shape, your task is to perceive the entirety of it in one informative look. How long is the look? For our purposes here, I’ll leave it up to you. As your visual memory becomes stronger, effective glances become shorter and/or bring in more information about the subject.


As you look at the image above:

  1. Visually note the relationships between the lengths of the top and bottom of the hexagon. A hint is that they are identical in this image.
  2. Next, at what angle are they to each other, and to the horizontal?
  3. How far apart are they from each other?
  4. Then, observe how the length of the closest side compares to the lengths of the top and bottom. It’s a little longer, but by how much?
  5. Now compare the length of the closest side to that of the farthest side, which is shorter. But by how much?
  6. Next, compare how far apart those sides are relative to the distance between the top and bottom edges.
  7. Finally, since you know the shape is a rotated hexagon you have no need to remember information about the remaining facets. If you get the top, bottom, and sides correct, those facets almost connect themselves.

The result achieved by following that list of observations (taking a better look) is a vital impression.

And yes, that’s a whole lot to think about during a single glance! The list grows ever longer when value, color, and edge are added to it. But you know what? Many people do it all the time. You can as well, as long as you set your mind to doing it and practice.

Every time you glance at your subject, try to focus on how the part you’re drawing at the moment relates to all the other parts. Then try to draw all the parts at once, so to speak, by not fixing anything in place on it’s own.

If you simply stop and take a better look you will have a better chance at giving your visual memory a more vital impression.

1 The full quote in context is: “I like to have my canvas as close to my sitter as possible, on the same plane, and the head of the sitter and of the portrait at the same height. The shorter the distance your memory has to carry your impression the better. You are after all painting from memory. Every look you take at your sitter has to be held by your memory till it is recorded on the canvas. The shorter the lapse of time you employ, the more vital is your impression. Therefore your canvas should be as close to your sitter as possible.” From The Technique of Portrait Painting by Harrington Mann, 1933.

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

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