Drawing Basics: Drawing Is Memorization?

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 manwhich 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 eyeSkrapits' 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
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.



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Bob Bahr

About Bob Bahr

Hi. I'm the managing editor of American Artist, Watercolor, Drawing, and Workshop magazines. Drawing magazine is primarily my responsibility so I spend a lot of time looking at drawings, talking with draftsmen, and drawing ... but I love to paint, too.

4 thoughts on “Drawing Basics: Drawing Is Memorization?

  1. Recently, I watched Donald Demers paint a sequence of waves from memory. I agree that memorization is a part of the painting process. With that said… some people seem to be better at it than others.

    I have to work at it… a lot!

  2. I read about Lecoq’s book in the magazine and bought it from Amazon and read it twice. They don’t write things like they used to. Lecoq was a genius and old-school teacher about art and learning. He developed a method of training artists to develop their memories of subjects to improve their drawing skills, but he had so much more to say about the overall training of artists! And it is all relevant today as much as it was in 1870! I recommend that all budding artists read the book.

  3. I love looking at it this way. I’ve been trying to train myself to draw from memory all year in my sketchbook, doing faster and faster cat gestures and other sketches, repeating the same subjects, sometimes working from my sketches instead of photos. Lately I’ve done some things from pure memory or imagination without even a glance at the subject.

    It’s true! The more life sketching I do, the more clearly I can remember beautiful places I’ve been even decades ago or back in childhood. I never managed to get film even when I had a camera or get it developed except once or twice in my life till my first digital camera – that solved the logistic problems of forgetting to buy film or forgetting to get it developed or losing the entire camera in a move.

    But I tried from the 1970s onward to draw or watercolor anytime I was on vacation or moved to a different part of the country. Those memories get clearer all the time. Someday I will be able to draw and paint the places I didn’t have a camera when I went. It’s coming closer all the time!