Visual Memory

23 Dec 2013

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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