Pop Quiz: How Good Is Your Painting Memory?

Squall Line by John Hulsey (30 x 40, oil painting).
Squall Line by John Hulsey (30 x 40, oil painting).

John Hulsey and Ann Trusty created their website, The Artist’s Road, to inspire their readers and students with practical art tips and plein air painting techniques for the traveling artist. John and Ann have been blogging for us at Artist Daily for several months and I want to share one of their recent blogs because it really helps me focus when I step outside my studio for a painting session.


As plein air artists, Ann and I become very aware of our own visual filtering processes—our visual biases. We train ourselves to focus our eyes and our minds on the subject before us, but it is only when we quiet the mind from labeling and judging what we see that we really start to ‘wake up’ to the vision before us.  It’s not easy. This can take years of effort, but we’ve found it’s a skill more important than any technical ability. If we can’t see, what good is perfect technique?

Over the years, the focus of the instruction in our plein-air painting workshops has evolved into teaching students how to become more fully aware of their subject before they attempt to paint it. In fact, we came up with an exercise that helps all of us test our visual biases, in order to understand what we see and what we ignore. Here’s what to do:

1. Stand in front of your subject matter, and just sit quietly and study the subject for five minutes. No talking or sketching, just looking. This is a pretty long time to sit quietly for most of us, and after about three minutes, restlessness sets in and peoples’ concentration begins to wane—perfect!

2. After five minutes, turn your back on the subject and make an accurate drawing of the plein-air composition you were just looking at for another five-minute stretch. Almost every painter we’ve worked with on this tends to finish before the time is up.

El Capitan by John Hulsey (36 x 36, oil painting).
El Capitan by John Hulsey (36 x 36, oil painting).

3. When the time is up, turn around and compare your memory drawing to the actual scene. This is a moment of epiphany for most people. If you are in a group or workshop when you do this, you’ll find everyone leaves out something and puts lots of detail into the things that they are most interested in. Some students leave out entire buildings or other prominent and unavoidable objects in the foreground, while tightly rendering a lamppost or a fountain.

There is no right or wrong to this—everyone has these biases. The point of the pop quiz is to give you a clearer picture of how you see the world, and how you can take your own bias and improve your appreciation of it in your art. Try it and see what your memory zeroes in on!


The first time I did what John and Ann suggest I was astounded at what stood out in my mind—I’m much more likely to focus on trees, vegetation, and light on form rather than a wider vantage point of a landscape scene. Now I’m more aware of how and why I choose certain compositions over others and what my blind spots are. That has been a real asset when I gear up to do outdoor painting.

Concurrence by Ann Trusty (11 x 14, oil painting).
Concurrence by Ann Trusty (11 x 14, oil painting).

I’ve also been lucky to find really great instruction in our plein air magazines and DVDs. For me, I can’t always get away and attend workshops, but with Frank Serrano’s Plein Air in Oil DVD and all the great demos in the digital download of Plein Air Painting, I get the top instruction that I need to feel confident and make the most of the time I do get to devote to painting outside, and it may just be the same for you. Plus! There are tons of resources that go beyond these two for whatever you are looking to explore. Check out all of them, below.

And for more from John and Ann, check out the Artist Daily Plein Air Blog. Enjoy!

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Artist Daily Blog
Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

One thought on “Pop Quiz: How Good Is Your Painting Memory?

  1. This is a good idea. I’ll try it. I was wondering if the images shown here are plein air or studio paintings. I ask this because of the dynamic skies. I’m finding that I need to start doing more than my 3 hour plein air sessions. I enjoy the process of painting, but when I’m finished, it looks like I’ve only begun.