Visual Memory

Learning to do more than just see – to observe, study and remember one’s subject is essential to learning to draw and paint. We have discussed the sight-size method of learning to reproduce what is directly before us. Once the student has mastered this important skill, the next step is to develop and work from a strong visual memory. The development of a visual memory is the way to retain one’s observations and pull from them not only the essential visual elements of the moment, but also the emotion connected to them. After many years of practice, this process can happen almost unconsciously every time we pick up a brush, even when painting outdoors. Back in the studio, we rely even more heavily on our visual library to instill life and emotion in our work. It is no wonder, then, that art created in partnership with the visual memory has the ability to touch emotion and engage the viewer more than mere representation.

Sawtooth Sunflowers, Cottonwood River © Matthew Richter.
Sawtooth Sunflowers, Cottonwood River © Matthew Richter.

Working from life and painting en plein air provides that opportunity. A new book, Memory Drawing: Perceptual Training and Recall by Darren R. Rousar quotes from many artists of the past who championed and taught the subject. One of the most insightful quotes is from George Inness, who wrote that the artist’s work is,

“simply to reproduce in other minds the impression which a scene has made upon him . . . A work of art does not appeal to the intellect. It does not appeal to the moral sense. Its aim is not to instruct, not to edify, but to awaken an emotion . . . Details in the picture must be elaborated only enough [to] fully reproduce the impression that the artist wishes to reproduce. When more than this is done, the impression is weakened or lost, and we see simply an array of external things which may be very cleverly painted, and may look very real, but which do not make an artistic painting.” (Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, February 1878, “A Painter on Painting”, George Inness.)

The classic book on the subject was written in 1914 by Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran. Called The Training of the Memory in Art and the Education of the Artist, it is now available to download from archive.org. Lecoq de Boisbaudran and his students who went on to teach his method emphasized the importance of keen observation and the development of representational drawing and painting skills gained from working from life. However, they also understood the importance of visual memory and of being able to picture the subject in one’s mind. They believed that, by turning one’s back on the actual subject and painting one’s memory of it, the artist would be connecting with the viewer on a more emotional level.

Matthew Richter is an artist who is adept at observing the landscape he is going to paint. He returns to the studio to create his paintings from his on-site sketches and visual memory. He has developed keen skills of observation and visual memory. Learn more about him and his work on The Artist’s Road.

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John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.

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