Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Drawing from Memory, Part 1

N.C. Wyeth once said: “Every illustration or painting that I have made in the last thirty years has been done from the imagination or the memory.”

Wyeth quoted a teacher of his, Charles Reed of Boston in advising him: “the faculty of memory has become a lost function among American artists. He (Reed) blamed much of the lack of mood and imagination in their work to this fact.”

American illustrator John Gannam was also a great believer in memory training. He took six months off his busy illustration career to study from nature. But he preferred to observe a scene, jot down written notes or describe it to a friend, and then paint it back in the studio from memory. Gannam claimed “that observation is more searching when it is acting for the memory than when used for immediate transcription.”

In a sense, every observational drawing is a memory drawing. Even when you’re looking at a model, you have to look for some fact and remember it for a split second while you reconstruct that fact on the drawing.

Some subjects require that the observer hold an image a little longer in memory. Moving animals, ocean waves, or sporting events change so fast that you have to study the action in the fleeting moment. Moonlight scenes are usually painted from memory just because in such limited light, accurate color judgments are impossible.

Tomorrow I’ll give you a fun exercise to test your observational memory.

Memory Series
Part 1: Art and Memory
Part 2: Memory Game
Part 3: Remembering a Face


Super Villain said...

hey james,

i'm just curious if you got a chance to see this today?

Unknown said...

Good post. It is so true.

I read in Andrew Wyeth's biography that the drawing instruction he got from his father involved drawing a human skeleton from every angle. Then one day he took the skeleton out of the room and said, "Draw a skeleton".

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Super, I hadn't seen it, and I appreciate you letting me and the readers know.

Andy, drawing a skeleton from memory would be a great challenge (especially from a weird angle), and N.C. had a good way to teach it.

Jesse said...

I'm sure he worked at least part of each painting from memory, but he did do some creative work from life. From pictures of his studio, you can see things like a bust of George Washington with a hat on set up next to a large painting. Sort of how you do James, with models.

Victor said...

If you're interested in drawing from memory, read up on Lecoq de Boisbaudran, an influential art teacher from the nineteenth century who advocated memory training. He came up with a very systematic approach to cultivating visual memory. Rodin and Fantin-Letour were among his pupils. I've seen some of the drawings that his students did from memory and they're amazing.

nystudios said...

Here is a link to an American Artist article on Lecoq de Boisbaudran and Maroger medium. Having read the book by Lecoq de Boisbaudran, I can honestly say I am no better off for the effort.

For those who want to read it, you can order a copy from the same site.

Mark Vander Vinne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Vander Vinne said...

I follow George Carlson and his incredible book "Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting". I believe his final chapter is on memory work. Also, Scott Christensen, one of my favorite landscape painters, practices this. He is heavily influenced by Edgar Payne and his Guide to Composition. I do not have that book, yet, so can't comment on how much it talks about memory drawing. But I understand the philosophy is that practicing memory drawing creates more originality in the piece. And I do find that to be true.

You mentioned night scenes. While I do them mostly from memory, some I paint en plein air. It's a blast. If you haven't tried it, you should. A head lamp, or snake lamp around your neck is absolutely necessary. Though I've seen images of T. Allen Lawson with a couple of Ott Lites clamped to his easel.

My Pen Name said...

I read that american artist article on drawing from memory too. I think it is a vitally important skill that has been ignored - the same way the general 'art of memory' has been ignored. The problem is people assume because there are better mechanical recording devices (photo, digital audio) that we need not develop the facility in our own minds. The point of the exercises is not whether or not mechanical devices are better, but whether the exercises make our minds better.

Erik Bongers said...

My computer is a few meters away from my drawing table.
Typically I will not print my documentation but run back and forth between my two desks.
I feel that this way, I better memorise the information, so that I don't need to look at it again when I need to draw something similar later on.

I feel that when I would just have the picture taped to my drawing board, I would 'turn of my mind' and just 'blindly' copy the thing and thus not memorise it.

There is a second benefit. By not literally copying a source, the object or person will often fit better in the drawing thanks to slight (unconscious) adjustments.
Without the photo at your drawing board, the overall image that you are creating dominates rather than the photo reference.

Anonymous said...

I have found that I tend to study everything I walk past and process that info into thoughts of how it translates on paper. My wife and I were just talking about this the other day while walking at the park.
I think that the memory of the things I observe helps me to understand what to do with it once I sit down to draw.

kev ferrara said...

The thing about Wyeth for me is how great his landscape work is from his imagination. He's so fluent. He seems to have totally internalized 127 different species of tree and bush, hill and dale, rock, cliff, sky, bird, lake, river, coastline, beach, etc. Its astonishing and humbling.

I also bow before anybody who knows how to draw realistic horses from memory. Those horse kneecaps are just nutty. Not sure if Wyeth was a good as Remington or Frazetta at that, but he did some darn good horsies. I've heard that Fortuninio Matania did lots of work from imagination, even though his stuff has a very calm realism to it. He was also fluent in Horse.


Mario said...

According to his son Andrew, N.C. Wyeth did use some models (often his own children or relatives), but (if I understand well) only for difficult poses, as an aid or a check - the drawing was basically made from the imagination or the memory (by the way, I don't think Andrew did the same...).
So, the key point is not using some references (which almost everyone does), but the tendency to find your "inspiration" mainly from outside or from inside. Images from imagination are really a window to your mind - your fantasy, your feelings, and your
memory (which is more creative than your retina).
Also, when we draw from memory, we don't recall "an image" (a 2D projection), we recall "an object" (a 3D shape) - which we eventually project on the paper. This is different from "holding an image in mind" for some time, I think.

Pete said...

I think George Inness did the same thing...memorized a scene and then went back to the studio to paint it. I've always thought about trying that. Of course, having a lot of direct observation paintings under your belt must help a great deal. Looking forward to the exercise!

Ray Lederer said...

Sometimes my technique for memorizing an image or capturing a slice of action is to look at my subject and blink multiple times to feed my brain 'frames' of images. I'm sure this is nothing new but it seems to work for me. Holding that image in my mind is akin to repeating a phrase or number sequence. I think it's held more in short term memory as i find the faster I can get a blocked in sketch down the easier it is to work the rest of it later.