While I was teaching myself to paint last year I stumbled on this concept of training your visual memory to learn to draw. It started with a reference in an obscure book to a man named Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran who was an artist and teacher in France in 1848. Lecoq had devised a method of teaching students by creating progressively more difficult visual memorization puzzles. Lecoq’s idea was that if a artist could hold images and visual facts in their memory more easily then they could render what they see better. He also suspected that students struggled with problems of value, form, and perspective because they hadn’t trained their ability to remember exactly what they see vs. what they thought they saw.
Lecoq wrote a small couple essays that are collected in the book The Training of the Memory in Art and Education of the Artist which I read and tried out some of his ideas, but the book suffers from his attempts to convince you that the training works rather than simply describing it and crafting a set of exercises you can do. The reason for this is shortly after Lecoq began teaching his course he was ousted or left the academy and seems to have become bitter about it.
Curious about whether you can train something like this, I kept searching and I found another book by Darren Rousar called Memory Drawing. This book is based on Darren’s training that followed a similar style as Lecoq described, but his book actually expands on it, explains it better, and then includes many exercises that I was able to do. The book is very small but it doesn’t take much to explain the concept and it was easy to do the exercises, although actually getting them right was very difficult. They’re simple things like copying lines of various length, or getting random shapes right, or curves, then progressing farther. To do each exercise I would stare at the challenge for 2-3 minutes, then turn around to try to draw the shape on a piece of tracing paper. Once I felt I had it right, I would turn back around and lay the tracing paper on the challenge to see what I got right or wrong. Then I would draw red lines where I made mistakes and try it again until I got as close as possible.
And I loved it. This was a very satisfying challenge that seemed to really click with my brain. It was meditative and difficult but I could still progress with it. At a certain point I stopped doing the challenges and started attempting small objects on my apartment floor in watercolor. Simple things like this:
This is nothing spectacular as a painting, but the important part is I did it without looking directly at the objects. I would stare at it for 3 minutes, then turn my back to it and try to paint what I remember. While I did this I would feel really great. It made me ecstatically happy to attempt this, even if I got it wrong and had to keep trying, I still felt great trying to memorize what I saw. The act of memorization was almost like a meditation. It’s just hard to explain, so let’s just say I liked it a lot.
The Old Reno Project
I did this for a few months and feel the memory practice vastly improved my perceptual memory skills and how I process visual information, but I didn’t do it consistently. I got to a point, then got excited about it and started just painting like normal and working from there. After a while of study with normal painting practice, I really want to get back into memory practice. Both for the training and because it’s enjoyable.
However, I have also wanted to do an insanely large painting. I’ve done a lot of small paintings, and I personally think doing a lot of small faster paintings is better training. What I want to try then is something a few artists have mentioned in books I’ve read where you attempt to paint a large painting, from memory, by repeatedly going back to a specific place to study it. I’ve wanted to try it for a while, but tonight I finally bought the canvas to start it.
Rather than go to a specific place repeatedly, what I’ll do is use this photo I took of a rundown casino in Reno that I liked:
I recently purchased a Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2 which is this weird Android tablet with a projector in the side of it. The projector addition is actually awesome because I can use it for all kinds of art experiments like playing with projection and painting from large photos. For this project, I’ll use the projector to project the photo in one room of my apartment, then paint it from memory in another room.
How I’ll try to do this is this:
- Spend about 30 minutes in the projection room (my bedroom) studying the projection, taking notes, measurements, sketching quickly from memory right there, and generally memorizing the image.
- Leaving any notes or anything I’ve made behind, I go into the painting room (my studio) and try to paint what I remember for as long as I can.
- Spend a few minutes memorizing the painting, then go back into the projection room to see what is different.
In theory this should take a while, which is what I want. I’m curious to see how a painting, done from memory, in this way, over a long period of time, feels and what the results are. I’m also curious to find out what it’s like painting a large painting. What are the problems and technical issues?