When I first moved to New York City about a dozen years ago, I drew my father's face from memory quite a lot. It usually wasn't a good depiction at all, but occasionally it resulted in a decent drawing of a handsome man—which reminds me of a tip my friend Dan Gheno once gave me about painting or drawing your family. "Just say it's a drawing of a movie star," he laughed. Then, when they detect a slight resemblance, they feel flattered somehow.
I was not using the drawings of my father primarily as a way to improve my drawing skills, although that was certainly a secondary reason. I was missing my dad. I thought about these memory drawings the other day when I came across an article by Joe Skrapits in an early issue of Drawing magazine. Skrapits talks a lot about Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran, a drawing instructor who published a book in 1847 titled The Training of the Memory in Art. One of Lecoq's exercises involved imagining the drawing one would do of a memorized scene, tracing the drawing with one's finger, in the air, with the eyes closed.
"In the execution of such drawings and paintings in our heads, our ideas and feelings are unhampered by material difficulties and have free play to follow their natural inclination," Lecoq wrote. "They need not be slavishly bound by the exact appearance of things, which they may modify at pleasure by selection, by abstraction, by adding to them or taking away from them, by emphasis or embellishment, in short, by grafting, as it were, the ideal upon the real. ... Is not that truly an act of assimilation, whereby an artist, once he has made nature his own, is able so to speak, to infuse her with his own personal sentiment?"
Drawing from memory, it seems, is a skill that transcends the learning of simple rendering or drawing basics. It trains the whole person to think visually and confront one's artistic vision.
Another section from that article caught my eye—Skrapits' arresting assertion that even the person who steadfastly draws from life is actually drawing from memory. He quoted Kimon Nicolaïdes from his book The Natural Way to Draw: "With the exception of the [blind] contour study, there is no drawing that is not a memory drawing because, no matter how slight the interval is from the time you look at the model until you look at your drawing or painting, you are memorizing what you have just seen."
Dancers at the Barre
by Edgar Degas, ca. 1900, oil on canvas, 51 1/4 x 38 1/4.
The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
From Skrapits' article:
Although Degas used models throughout his career,
his eyesight was sufficiently weak at the time of this painting
to make it, most likely, awork from memory. The somewhat
awkward placement of the figures in relation to each other
also implies that the work was done from memory.