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  • Writer's pictureLucy

What is Memory Drawing?

Durning the recent studio tour by the Contemporary Art Society of New Mexico I got asked about my studio set up.

It looks cumbersome: I stand in the middle of the room and observe the subject of my painting. Then I take a few steps to my workbench and select the pastel I want to use and take a few more steps to my easel and make a mark on the paper. Then I step back to the observation point and compare my mark to the subject. If it's not right I correct and if it is OK then I move on.

The big question was why?

The answer is to strengthen my memory drawing skills.

Part of the training I received at The Masters' Atelier of Drawing and Painting in Port Townsend, WA was memory drawing. I was given a 2" x 2" photo of a human in a pose (standing or crouching) and would study it for 5 minutes. Then I'd put the photo away and draw what I could remember in a 2" x 2" square.

At first it was a disaster! My drawings looked little better than a blob.

But over time they got better and better to the point where they were getting very close to the original image. I was learning how to see large shapes, line up features, and visually measure space between the figure and the side of the square.

Again the question of why?? I asked my teacher that a lot. 😉

The answer is that no matter how an artist is drawing / painting they eventually take their eyes off of the subject matter and are working from their memory. The stronger your memory is the faster and more accurately you work.

I use this skill a lot when I paint portraits. When the model is sitting I spend a lot of time looking--comparing the eyebrows to the top of the ear, the sides of the mouth with the eyes and/or the nostrils, etc. I scribble colors and shapes on my paper and use them as a "map". Then when the model leaves I use my memory to blend and smooth and work the portrait.

Full disclosure, I also use some reference photos to check my memory and make progress when the model can't come back for some time. But these reference photos are NOT my main source of information--I do most of my seeing and mapping when the model is in front of me.

And my memory drawing skills keep getting better and better. Thankfully now it's not a conscious effort, instead something I do instinctively and subconsciously.

To quote Bruce Lee:

Practice makes perfect. After a long time of practicing, our work will become natural, skillful, swift and steady.

Until then I will keep practicing.

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