Drawing and Painting From Memory

Many of the greatest artists who ever lived were drawing and painting from memory. They didn’t have the convenience of photography during the time of Rembrandt.

If the model didn’t sit for them then they needed to complete the painting from memory to the best of their ability. It was by necessity that many of these artists cultivated a keen sense of visual memory.

“If you think about it, all life drawing and painting is at some point being done from the artist’s memory, even if that memory is only a few seconds old. Every time the artist takes their eyes off the model or scene and looks at their paper or canvas, their visual memory is involved.”

Darren R. Rousar from Memory Drawing, Perceptual Training and Recall

Watch Kim Jung Gi

Please watch any video by Kim Jung Gi. He as cultivated his memory his whole life and draws constantly. It’s almost as if the world is at his fingertips anytime he wants it. He has no issue drawing a detailed figure or scene with no reference at all.

Have the ability to work from memory and continuing to cultivate it throughout your life frees you from the need of a subject to draw from. If you had a vast visual memory you could think up any scene and render it fully. But, it’s a freedom only acquired through tons of work.

Besides, our memories of our past are usually more marvelous than the real subject. Memory is closer to feeling and it’s our feeling that we should communicate, not just an accurate surface.

Listen to Steve Huston

“When you work from your imagination what you’re doing is coming up with some lovely pieces of art. But, for me the real value of working from your imagination is not so you have to never look at life. But it’s to know what you don’t know.”

Steve Huston

The above quote was from this video where Steve Huston is answering questions from students. The student is asking about imagination but Mr Huston answers the question as it would relate to memory and is able to communicate what I have felt recently with many of the daily composition practices that I’ve created from memory.

Working from memory exposes all your weaknesses. I could draw anything well as long as I’m looking at it and copying it’s surface. But when I try to draw a figure from a memory that is less than 12 hours old I flounder horribly.

I thought I knew the structure of the human body and it’s anatomy but I have no idea how to draw a foot from that angle, or a head from this angle. Quickly I learned what I didn’t know and what I needed to work on.

Listen to Robert Henri

“I think it is safe to say that the kind of seeing and the kind of thinking done by one who works with the model always before him is entirely different from the kind of seeing and thinking done by one who is about to lose the presence of the model and will have to continue his work from the knowledge he gained in the intimate presence. 

The latter type of worker generally manifests a mental activity of much higher order than his apparently safe and secure confrère. He must know and he must know that he knows before the model is snatched away from him. He studies for information. “

Robert Henri from The Art Spirit

Copying what we see is a comfort zone that we need to step out of and into our greater potential through memory work. We are going to really suck at first, but the sooner we get through the first 5000 bad drawings the sooner we will be better artists.

Through failure we learn more. Love failure, see it as a challenge. Cultivate your feelings and emotions and communicate them through memory. This is how we can be truly authentic.

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