The Power of Memory

As artists, we’ve probably all wished for photographic memories. If only we could take a mental snapshot of whatever we choose then, later, in the comfort of our own studios, we could re-create the image with stunning clarity and realism. While you may not have been born that lucky, you can hone the memory skills you do have in order to better retain images from the world around you. And in doing so, you can bring the world into your studio.

Memory training was once an indispensable part of every artist’s discipline. During the last century, however, with the advent of photography and the lack of emphasis on drawing skills within the art industry, this part of an artist’s education virtually disappeared. In my workshops on sketching people, however, I include memory practice as a fundamental part of my instruction because image retention can be lengthened with exercise, much like exercising your muscles makes them stronger. And the longer you can retain an image, the less often you’ll have to interrupt the act of drawing to look back at your subject to refresh your mind’s eye. So here are a few ways to do some training at home.

Start Simple
Start by choosing an object from which you can do a simple line drawing, preferably one that has clear, distinct edges, such as a crumpled piece of drawing paper or a kitchen utensil. (I recommend you omit any shading at this point—stay strictly with edge lines.) Set yourself up to draw this prop just as you normally would: Pick a spot on the object where you wish to start drawing and hold your pencil tip to the paper, ready to draw. Observe the object, focusing your attention on that spot. Then close your eyes and draw the object from the image you see in your mind, but your eyes must remain shut while you’re rendering the lines. This is important—really push yourself to keep drawing from that mental image as long as possible before you take another look.

When you can no longer see the shapes in your mind, open your eyes for an accuracy check. If you find that your line has gone astray, don’t bother erasing it—that’s not what matters right now. Just go back to the place where you began to go wrong and start again from that point. Finish the entire drawing in this manner, looking at the object and then closing your eyes while you draw it. The procedure may be a little awkward at first, and you may not do your best drawing this way, but it will prove to be valuable training for your visual memory.

Push Your Limits
After repeating this procedure with several objects, you can reuse them for the second exercise, and you don’t have to close your eyes anymore. You must, however, set up each prop so that some time passes between your looking at it and drawing it. Try placing your prop behind you, forcing yourself to turn around to look at it and then turn back around to draw it.

As you get better at this, try to stretch yourself even more by placing the object in another part of the house, for example. This will oblige you to leave your drawing behind while you go into the other room to look at the prop. The trek between object and sketch will also force you to retain that mental picture longer. Eventually, you should get comfortable adding a variety of shadings to your drawings as well.

Go For Detail
Next, to really take your memory sketches to a higher level, try the more detailed observation of portraits. Begin with someone in close proximity so you can return to the face as a reference point, as you did in the first exercise. Retaining the shapes of such things as hats and hairdos is often a difficult task, one that demands extra attention, so take the time to examine your subject very carefully. Also be sure to note the type and angle of the main light source. Once you’ve turned your eyes from your subject, begin the sketch.

Block out the major shapes in the face and head, looking back at your subject only when it’s absolutely necessary, then fill in the more minor details and decide where the shadows should fall. Lastly, fine-tune your shading and add the finishing touches. With practice, you’ll be able to allow more and more time between viewing and drawing.

All this training will prepare you for one of the best artistic experiences available, which is to take your skills out of the studio and onto the streets. You’ll be ready for any enticing subject you encounter, either sketching passersby on the spot or mentally taking their images back with you to your studio. Once you learn to commit details to memory and begin to push your memory to its limits, you’ll find that drawing has become more fun than ever.

Catherine Anderson is a signature member of the National Watercolor Society, Watercolor West and the Rocky Mountain National Watermedia Society. Visit her Web site at

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