Thursday, May 21, 2009

Memory Game

Are you ready for a visual memory game? Please stop what you’re doing and grab a pencil and paper, and try not to scroll down to the pictures yet.

Without looking at a map or searching on the computer, draw from memory the shape of your state or province. People from Wyoming or Colorado can draw Texas.

When you’ve finished that, draw the outside shape of the continental United States—or of your country, wherever you live.

It doesn’t have to be too detailed, and don’t worry if you’re not sure, just give it a try.

On the left, below, is what Jeanette came up with for New York state. Mine is in the middle. I’m a little embarrassed of mine! I’ve driven all over the state, and I mistakenly thought the western end was squared off. But both of us got Long Island at least.

On the right is my memory drawing of the continental US. It’s got quite a few mistakes, especially around the Great Lakes, but it’s not too bad. The only reason it’s OK is that I’ve played this game before.

Now the next step is to find a map and look at it as long as you want: two minutes, five minutes, or longer. But only look one time! When you’re done looking, go somewhere and draw the shape again.

My second pass at New York State is better, but still has a lot of things wrong. I tried to conceptualize the shape as I observed it by thinking of two overlapping shapes, or of the metaphor of a hammer hitting a bent nail.

Here’s what I learned:
1. I tended to enlarge areas that I’m familiar with.
2. It helps to have a metaphorical symbol of something you need to remember.
3. When observing to remember, as Gannam said yesterday, the eye is much more searching, and takes a greater interest in the relationship of large and small shapes.

Thanks for all the great comments yesterday, everybody. Tomorrow's topic: Remembering a face
Memory Series
Part 1: Art and Memory
Part 2: Memory Game
Part 3: Remembering a Face

16 comments:

Steve said...

Ah, James, I'll need another test. I'm a retired fourth grade teacher, living in Michigan (surrounded by Great Lakes!) and I used to have my kids do this! We'd draw the United States from memory, I'd draw along with them. Good way to remember that Virginia stretches further west than West Virginia...

Victor said...

Another valuable tool is remembering the negative shapes.

For New York, the bottom contour forms the silhouette of a steam locomotive complete with cow- catcher. The top contour is sort of the bow of a ship. The locomotive is winning the race by a hair.

The left and right contours are simple enough to memorize them without conceptualizing them.

Richard said...

The real test of short-term visual memory is to have a detailed map always available in front of you and draw it accurately, including the creases in the seems, learning to hold onto bigger and bigger pieces as you shift your eye from the object (map) to the paper.

What you are proposing, I think, is like learning artistic anatomy. It improves your visual memory, perhaps, but doesn't help to draw a real likeness. Your cliches become better, but your likenesses don't

Susan Adsett said...

I gave it a try... I'm not sure my second effort was much better than my first, although I did manage to get a few more details in.

Richard, I think both approaches are necessary if one is trying to capture a likeness. While drawing through careful observation is ideal for developing detail, many (most!) things I'm interested in drawing move around. I have to rely on my visual memory if I'm to have any chance of capturing a fleeting expression or dynamic gesture.

And after completing this exercise, it's clear I need to work on my visual memory a bit more.

Of course, one could always capture the changing pose, like James Jean: http://www.jamesjean.com/ The man is freakin' brilliant.

Jean Spitzer said...

I get cranky when asked to draw from memory. Like Richard, I worry about drawing an average or approximation, rather than the specific thing. Nonetheless, it's important to develop the skill. (And my first set of drawings were pathetic.)

Jim said...

Drawing maps from memory - and the differences among different people's mental maps - is a fascinating topic to me. I studied cartography as an undergraduate, and one of the most memorable lessons was this:

As soon as class began, our professor handed out pencils and blank sheets of paper, and asked everyone to draw a map of our college campus. After ten minutes, he collected them and then we viewed and discussed them as a group.

A key observation was that people could generally recall familiar areas - areas important to their interests - in great detail, but unfamiliar areas would be shrunken, distorted, or eliminated altogether. Each map could almost be read as a homunculus of that individual's activities! It was interesting insight into the power of experience and everyday observation - as well as the blindness to the actual shape of things that results from our assumptions and routines.

Incidentally, as with your books, your web site is among my favorites, James!

- Jim in Binghamton

dzart said...

Great exercise!
Must harder than it looks, hehe.

Tidah said...

Oh no, I can't do this either! I was designated map drawer in school projects D:

*waits for tomorrow*

JohnB said...

I live in New York too and I must say my first try at the state was pretty ok, much like Jeanette's actually. I did about as well with the US.

I used to beg my parents to take me to the zoo when I was just a little kid and would force myself to take in as much as I could visually of my favorite animals and then spend weeks at home afterward drawing what I remember. I always knew when I had drawn something that was NOT correct so my method was to refine my drawings until they looked like what I had absorbed. It was good training (although I didn't think of it at the time as anything but compulsive fun)and I remember things even now, visual and otherwise, very well. Which is sometimes a curse...

senami said...

Wow! This was really great! A lot of fun too. I did Japan, the USA and Tennessee. They all came out a bit squiggly, and the great lakes failed to make any apearence. haha!

Can't wait for the next installment!
Also, I'm going to be at RISD'S pre-college program this summer and I can't wait to check out the Nature Lab you've posted about in the past. Yay!

Stephanie said...

I am offended at your lack of a Michigan Upper Peninsula. For all your memory cares, I don't exist right now! ;)

However, the rest looks excellent. I couldn't do that well!

Charles said...

James, eons ago while studying art at Murray State University in KY, a professor had the drawing class go into another studio and view, and memorize, a gray folding chair sitting up on a table. We had one shot at it, and could not return. Then we went back into the drawing studio and did our drawings of the chair. We did this off and on for several months, sometimes with the chair upside down, or on it's side, or folded up. Over the course of that class we all improved our memory drawing skills a great deal, and it has served me well over the years. I still do that occasionally, as well as drawing an object without lifting the pencil or looking at the drawing, which the prof also had us do. A good practice I think.

Tom said...

Hi James

Great topic I think the better you can draw from your imagination the better you draw from reality because one addresses more profound drawing concepts when working from your meomery, like gravity, weight, thrust and direction and the floor plane. You start to sense an underlying geometry controls all forms. When working only from life there is a tendency to just copy.

It is also interesting that the Chinese artist never work from nature but only work from there imagnation after spending time in nature. And of course the list goes on Bonnard never work before the motif because he said it destoryed his visual idea he would forget why he was making the painting if he stayed in front of the subject to long. Renoir use to have models in the studio but he would not paint from them, they were there simply to stimulate his imagnation. And I think Degas said look at the model on the first floor and go up to the fourth floor to make your drawing. He also said that the artwork is first and foremost a product of imagnation.

I do think the state test is a little to abstract. People do not see an image of their state daily, but we do see hands, feet, forearms and heads almost constantly and it is amazing how diffcult it is to draw those forms from memoery. It really makes you appericate the wonder beauty and depth of nature.

Pete said...

Granted I should have spent more time observing, but my second attempt at New Jersey was much more accurate. I was not quite as successful with the USA though. My visual metaphor of a whale was, apparently, a little of base!

jeff jordan said...

In 1997 my friend and I were painting a mural on a wall in Indio, Ca. A guy stole a pickup pretty much right in front of us, and led several police cars on a merry chase around town, they came back by a few times, pickup and 6-7 police cars in hot pursuit, just like several movies I can't remember the name of.
Anyway, the next day, after the guy had been caught, a couple Officers came by with mug shots, like they were testing our visual memories. Well, my friend picked one guy, I picked another, and we were BOTH wrong.
So much for being an eyewitness to a crime. It was an interesting lesson.

Olaf said...

Tom – your words were very helpful to me - thanks!