Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Training the visual memory

William Merritt Chase images from

A few weeks ago I was musing in this blog about how a student might improve their drawing skills. Almost without exception when people are struggling with landscape, or any other sort of painting for that matter, the problem is their drawing ability. I believe a painting is essentially a colored drawing, by that I don't mean a line drawing necessarily, but a mass drawing

Often when I say that, I get an annoyed look from the learning artist, they will say something, or at least think, something like "I can already draw, I want to learn how to paint!" But when I look at their art the errors in drawing are glaring. It is hard to see your own faults in a drawing. .
Learning to draw better is the route to better paintings.

My first suggestion remains, go attend one of the many fine ateliers that have sprung up around the nation that teach traditional painting here is a list from I don't know how they vet this list and I can't speak for the quality of most of them, as I have never personally checked them out. A few on the list I do know about, and I think they are very good. If you are interested in one, you will of course have to do your due diligence. When I went to Ives Gammell there were only two or three ateliers teaching traditional painting that I knew about, Today there has been explosion of interest in and a corresponding increase in the availability of the teaching of traditional painting. There is no way all of these schools can be good, neither can they all be bad.

The best way to study drawing is with a teacher who can point out your drawing errors. If you could see them yourself, you wouldn't have made them. They are invisible to you until a teacher points them out or makes a correction on your drawing. Access to someone with a well trained eye is the best way to learn to draw.

For most adults though it is simply not possible to walk away from the responsibilities of life and study full time in an atelier.There are some things that you can do though. Memory drawing is one. Ives Gammell, my teacher, really pushed memory drawing. His students did a lot of it. The idea is this, that the memory is a trainable ability. The original idea for memory drawing came from a man named Lecocq de- Boisbaudran a 19th century French architect turned painter.

Lecoq developed a system for training the visual memory and wrote a book that has been reprinted. It is pretty old timey, and not an easy read, but if you want it, there is a link below.
Degas said that if he ever opened an art school he would put the students and their easels on the first floor and the model on the fourth floor. That way the students would be forced to run up the stairs, observe the model, and then run back downstairs to draw her. The second year students would be on the second floor etc. He felt that that drawing from memory eliminated the superfluous and allowed only the essentials to get into the art. Carlson talks extensively about working from the memory in his excellent book. A highly respected artist once told me that was the most important chapter in Carlsons book.

I used to make memory versions of figure drawings I had worked on during the day, and I still sometimes put a painting face to the wall after studying it, and make a memory version of it. Frequently it is better, and simpler than the original.

There are several other reasons why memory training is useful, for the landscape painter outside where things are constantly changing, a memory of the way it looked before is very useful. But the subtler and most important reason in my estimation is this. When you are working from life, you make an observation from nature, when you then look away from nature and look at your canvas or paper, you must recall what you just saw. The quality of the memory you formed a second or two before is extremely important. It is not so much that you will have forgotten what you saw, but the ability of your mind to store it in the first place. Imagine a recording made on fine studio recording equipment, a lot of good information is there. But if recording is done on poor quality equipment, the information is muddled, incomplete or unclear.

Tomorrow I will explain an updated and simplified version of the Boisbaudran system of memory training.


Philip Koch said...

Excellent post!

To remember something is to make a decision as which aspects of what one has seen are key. It implies a higher level of activism for the artist than simply becoming as receptive as possible. Stape's point as I read it is sharpening our visual memory means sharpening our engagement with the way we see. Beginning students sometimes confuse becoming open to noticing details with active seeing.

willek said...

Well, I guess this shows me where I have gone wrong. I spent a good amount of time doing the exact opposite: drawing the model without looking at the paper! Making the escribier (a foreign word I made up) follow the line that the eye traced along the contours. I do that a lot on quick poses, still.

But after reading this, I got up and did a pen sketch of the long pose we had the other night. That was not too hard to remember. But I don't think I could do any of the shorter poses. I suppose what you are talking about is different, yet, from this kind of remembering. You are talking about looking for a relatively short time, then putting it all down. I do not know if I can do that reliably. What I am doing is learning it and putting it down again. Hmmm. Food for thought here. Good post.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks,are all students into the details at the expense of the whole? It seems like that must be the default setting for mhuman beings.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I guess I again have not written clearly. I did not mean that you observe once and then draw the whole thing, but thatthe normal look,draw, look,draw process involves a quality of memory issue that goes often

Marian Fortunati said...

This is a fabulous post.
Really hits the mark and makes one think about how to improve a crucial skill...

Jeremy Elder said...

You can also get the original book f free on google:,+And+The+Education+Of+The+Artist&printsec=frontcover&source=bl&ots=CtBFOn3eEm&sig=yQmL-pjMV0q9vDBW08JwGafTtkk&hl=en&ei=RyDNStHaFoT0sQPVn-G5Dg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1#v=onepage&q=&f=false

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks,I am going to write more about that tonight

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks I think I will paste that into tonight's post.

jase21 said...

Visual memory is very important to an artist. Is it photographic memory? Or do artists have photographic memory?
I found a free version of the book here :