Painting From Memory Experiment

When most people learn to draw it follows one of a few different styles:

  1. Sight-sized where you place the paper (picture plane) next to the subject, then stand far away such that you can view the subject and paper as if they’re next to each other.  You then basically plot out copying points from the subject to the paper, and since they’re at the same orientation and layout, you can see your mistakes easily.  This method does a good job of making an accurate drawing, but is tedious and requires a lot of space.  It does work very well for landscape painting though, since the scene is always so far away in a landscape you don’t really have to walk back to do sight-sized.
  2. Relative measurement or “measuring” where you pick a part of your subject to be the “unit of measure”, then use that unit to measure the location and size of other objects in the scene.  If you were doing a room, you might pick the width of a door as your “one” (aka unit of measure).  Then you’d use that “one” to find out how wide or tall other objects in the room were, and where they were located.  This method works well and also lets you hold your paper or painting next to you or in your hands.  You can also just use a pencil and some paper and that’s it.  With sight-sized you need an easel and some other things since you have to walk away from it over and over again.  The down side is this method isn’t as accurate as the others.
  3. Relative angle or “block-in”  This is where you use the relationship of angles to other angles in big chunky blocks to locate and size objects in the scene.  Rather than picking the width of a door to find the width of a wall, you’d make a big loose line, then use that line to locate another angle, then that angle to find the edge of a wall, and eventually you’ve got the general location of the big shapes because you’ve lined up their angles to each other.  This creates an integrated drawing, but it has problems when you want to paint because you have to do a lot of erasing and refining.  You can’t just draw the 4 things in the scene.  You draw 4 big shapes, then “carve” into those shapes, and then erase, and then carve more, then find inside shapes, and carve those, etc.
  4. Shapes or “painterly” This is where, rather than find the outlines of objects in a scene, you just paint their shapes.  It works more with paint than with pencil, but you start with painting about 3-6 big shapes, then you refine those shapes down with more shapes inside.  It’s called “painterly” because it produces an image that doesn’t look obviously drawn, and more direct.  Down side is it’s pretty difficult to get right in the beginning, and definitely hard to get super realistic with this style.

I actually use all three of these depending on what I’m trying to paint or draw.  I find sight-sized is awesome for landscape painting when you need to be accurate.  I find I mix measuring and block-in styles when I paint.  I’ll use angles and measurement to locate edges and objects, then shapes.  Many times I also just like to use a painterly approach, but I’ll still lay down some guide lines to figure out where things are in a scene.  One trick to make a painting look “painterly” but still do drawing is to draw the scene, but then use giant shapes that wipe out the lines, then paint into those shapes.  When I use a palette knife I’m almost exclusively using the painterly style, and actually I enjoy that style the most.

Memory Drawing

While investigating these different methods I stumbled on a French guy named Père Lecoq from the 1848 who taught people to paint and draw from memory.  He did this as an experiment with children going to the French Academic painting system to see if having them memorize the elements of drawing and painting would make them as accurate as other methods of teaching.  At the end of the experiment, several students were evaluated and determined that they did in fact draw as well as other students.

Lecoq eventually got fired or quit from the Academy and went on to simply teach on his own, but he did write a small book on how he taught.  I read it, and it was a little confusing, so I found this other book by Darren R. Rousar called Memory Drawing: Perceptual Training and Recall. In Darren’s book, he goes through the history of memory drawing, and then has a bunch of exercises that attempt to teach it.  I read  his book, and did about 20% of the exercises and loved how it felt.  It was so weird and different from other ways of drawing.

It seems impossible, but you can actually stare at a scene or a photo, and after about 2-3 minutes of staring at it, do a fairly close approximation of it.  There’s really no way to describe what is happening, but, when I do it I’m not really ticking off a list of points and measurements.  I’m staring at what I want to memorize, and periodically closing my eyes, or drawing in the air over it with my pinky, and then staring with “loose” eyes over the whole scene, and then…I can remember what is where and draw it.  I really can’t explain it.

And, you’d think I’d be way off on my first try, but not really.  I’m fairly close on most of the basic shapes I’ll show you here.  More complex things obviously will be less accurate, but in general I’d say I’m not any more or less accurate in my first to fourth basic blockins than with any of the other methods I listed above.  Eventually I’ll obviously be more accurate with those methods over the long run, but I’m actually not so sure about that.

You see, the process of drawing is actually one of refinement from a gross mistake.  You start off with a guess that’s unrefined and messy or bulky.  Then you correct that and refine it, and repeat this refinement until you have the level of accuracy you want. After years of studying what I found is that accuracy is more a product of time spent refining than any sort of immediate magical accuracy.  99.9% of all artists who paint or draw very accurately either copy photos, start of with fairly messy guesses that become accurate, or don’t actually draw as accurately as you think they do.

Gross Refinement

This got me thinking:  What if I could adjust the Lecoq/Rouser memory drawing style to instead use this gradual refinement process.  In Rouser’s and Lecoq’s book the flaw I saw is that they expected me to be able to memory an entire human head with fine gradations of tone and draw it in a few attempts.  However, that’s completely unrealistic and not how most artists work.

This week I decided to try an experiment where I used my memory to draw some simple geometric foam shapes in different orientations.  I was going to try each of the above processes to see what worked, and also try a few different mediums (charcoal, pastel, oil paint).  My goal was to see, could I use my memory only to get a basic drawing, but use the block-in and refinement process that seems to work best.

When you see these though, keep in mind that I’ve been practicing and training in drawing and painting for a while.  Don’t think that I’m saying someone with zero art experience could plunk down these shapes and bang out these paintings from memory.  There is something strange going on that I can’t quite explain, but rather than explain it I’m just going to try to figure out how to do it by doing it a whole lot.

The process I used is basically this:

  1. Stare at the scene or the photo for 2 minutes.
  2. Cover the scene or photo and then, looking only at the painting, put down the big shapes I remember.
  3. Remove the cover and then check how accurate I am.  Anything that I get wrong, either I’ll erase/wipe it for the next round, or if it’s tiny and a small fix will help, just do that small correction.
  4. Now cover the drawing or painting and repeat #1, but memorizing a smaller part for refinement, or some area I got very wrong.

The idea is I’m attempting to utilize “memory chunking” where, rather than magically memorize an entire photo, I’m memorizing big chunks of the scene.  Then, once I have those drawn I dive into the shapes to memorize smaller aspects of it.

The Results

My first experiment was with an actual object in a dark box I use for cast studies (it’s actually just a black bookshelf).  I did this one in charcoal and white chalk, and used more of a relative measure style of drawing it.  I memorized some of the basic measurements of the big shapes using the width of the right side of the block, and also memorized the general shape of the whole scene.  This took me about 6 rounds to get to here.  One problem though is using a actual object rather than a photo makes it difficult to check my accuracy.  I mean, sure, that looks like a rectangle block, but it’s difficult to really see if I was dead accurate with it.

My next attempt I switched to using a monochrome photo printed out, and using pastels. The photo makes it much easier to tell if I’m being accurate or not, and the pastels makes it much quicker to lay down the shapes I’m attempting to hold in my head.  Pastels also have the advantage that I have to grab actual values of black vs. white.  With charcoal I’m using the paper is a white, and then different amounts of charcoal to get different values.  Pastel I grab a white, or a gray, or an almost black, and when I put it down, that’s the actual thing I see.  This makes it much easier to paint what’s in my memory since it’s more direct.

I did this in about another 7 rounds, and I used the block-in style of drawing then painting it.  First I remembered relatively what the angles of the scene were, drew them from memory, then I memorized what values (white vs. black) when where.  This worked pretty well and the pastels definitely are better than charcoal.

Next I used oil paint, and still from photos, plus stayed with he block-in style of drawing. The oil paint was definitely quicker, and I think I did this in maybe 4 rounds?  Next time I’ll track how many rounds and how many corrections I made.  With the oil paint it was very important to pre-mix the colors so I could work with them like I did the pastels.  I think having to mix would take up too much time and wash out any memory of the scene I had.  The oil paint definitely went faster, but I could see that for the purpose of checking accuracy it might not be as good as pastels.  I will say that I did this very fast before going out to eat, so I’m surprised it was as close as it is.

My final test was again with oil paint, but using the painterly method.  This shape is challenging because of the ellipses involved, but the painterly approach worked in general.  I first memorized the big shape of the dark background and the ellipse.  That basically leaves the front of the cylinder so no need to memorize that.  I then painted that in really sloppy to get a general idea of where it all goes and the shape.  Surprisingly I was pretty close, and on the next round had the cylinder close enough to refine it and render it better on each round.  I’d say it’s not quite as accurate as the oil painting above, so I’m leaning toward using the block-in method to get a general idea of the drawing, then painterly to block it in and refine it.


I’d say the most surprising thing is that it works at all and that I was fairly accurate on the first and second round.  In the case of the pastel painting my drawing was pretty close on the first round.  These are simple geometric shapes, but keep in mind I’m copying them from a strange angle with perspective and comparing it to a photo.  If most things are based on these basic geometric shapes then I’m thinking I could keep practicing this and eventually get to combining them in more complex ways.

The other thing that is surprising is how easy it was compared to constantly looking and measuring.  There was some measuring and comparing when I made little adjustments, but overall I just stared at the photo, covered it, and got pretty close.  With regular drawing it’s a constant battle of bouncing back and forth to get the drawing right and I might get a more accurate results eventually, but I’m also doing hundreds of “rounds” in that case.

The ellipse in the last painting is a good example of this difference.  Normally doing an ellipse is difficult, but in this I kind of just whipped that out with a couple brush strokes, then on the next round altered its value some or refined it a bit.  It’s obviously not perfect, but pretty good for just a couple of attempts at it.  I think with normal drawing I’d work on that for quite a while.

The final surprise so far is how it felt.  Doing it this way felt…meditative.  I had to stop and slow down and stare at this photo or object until it melted away and turned into a group of shapes.  I had to focus my attention, but also not really focus at all and just let it come into my mind’s eye.  It was nearly the same sensation as meditation, and then when I went to paint it was like releasing a breath.  As if what I memorized had to come out now.  When I paint or draw other ways it’s more like I’m pulling and working a large rope to pull the drawing onto the canvas.

I’ll continue this experiment with more complex topics and see how this goes.  I’m going to narrow down on the block-in/painterly method, but I’ll still bounce between pastels and oil until I’m more confident which one is easier to work with doing this.

Vignettes Of Terrible Art Teachers 2

She’s standing in front a TV playing a creepy video of a gender neutral hair model with a dinosaur bone in front of it wrapped in birthday present wrapping paper.  “What do you think of this piece?”  Art is always a piece.  Artists are never “popular”, they’re always “important”.  Every piece by anyone moderately popular is important and must be taken seriously.  This piece is by a student, so I’m not sure what the rules are here.  Will I still be required to prostrate myself at the altar of artistic expression, or can I say what everyone is thinking?

I go for the latter, “It seems like the artist is just doing things at random and is making fun of video installation art.”  Immediately the teacher gets visibly upset.  I’m being cynical. I have no idea what I’m talking about.  All the other true believers attack my statement.  I have no right to be so cynical.  I don’t know why this artist made this so I could be criticizing someone who was raped and this is their expression of their past experiences.  I just stand there and take it, since I’m outnumbered 1 cynic to 12 true believers.

The teacher is looking at our paintings in a critique class and praising everyone.  She’ll ask them why they painted this road, or that building, or their face, and the experienced students know the game.  They effuse wildly about their personal connection to the subject.  How deeply the construction cranes in the Dogpatch move them to tears and impact their life in deep meaningful ways.  Before that this student was into a ceramic bird that changed her life forever.  Another had pasted some flowers onto a photo of herself, but the real meaning was her ever changing views on feminism.  Another talked for 20 minutes about how this trip to Muir woods changed her life in profound spiritual ways so her paintings of roads are an expression of her deeply moving experience.

The teacher comes to my paintings and asks me why I painted them.  I say, “I wanted to practice noses.”  She scowls at me and says, “It seems like you aren’t personally attached to your subject.”  I confusedly pause then ask, “I’m not personally attached to my face?” She completely misses the absurdity in this question and fires back, “Yes, it seems you’re just painting it because it is there, not because you truly love it.”  I look around all the other true believers are staring at me with a mixture of sadness and incredulity, except one.  She’s rolling her eyes with a look of, “Sorry dude, she’s an idiot.”

I’m in a class billed as a figure class that will make me more expressive and find my “true” artist inside.  I actually don’t care finding my true artistic expression.  I just want to get more figure classes in, and this sounded like a lot of fun.  The class would teach us to apply different techniques in a situation where a nude model would pose while different color lights are cast on them with music playing to set a mood.  The teacher was also really nice and a very good painter so I figured I’d learn something.

During the class I’m just sucking ass and can’t figure out why.  I’m trying to paint the figures but the music is distracting, the lights make no sense, and the teacher is constantly waffling between “be loose, don’t think” and “why isn’t that drawn correctly?” I try as hard as I can to satisfy both goals of not being accurate and also being accurate but it’s impossible.  On the final day I realize that, given the models are all white skinned, then the crazy color lights mean there is zero flesh tones.  Aha! Why the hell didn’t the teacher just tell me this?  “Because you have to discover that for yourself.”  Well then why am I paying you money?

About half way through the course I ask why we’re doing the lights and the sound.  She says so we can’t think about what we’re doing.  So I ask then why are we expected to be accurate in these conditions?  She says if you’re really an artist it’ll be accurate.  I ask if she does this with her paintings and she says, “Oh no, not at all.”


Vignettes of Terrible Art Teachers

I sit down in the class and start setting up my gear.  Brushes, paint, palette, all pulled out from my bag.  I forgot to bring brushes on the trip from San Francisco to New York so I ran to a Blick the day before and bought the cheapest ones I could use for the class.  Some simple synthetic brushes that would work.  The teacher walks over, picks a brush up, and goes, “Oooooooh look at your fancy brushes.”  I have literally met the man for an hour and he’s already insulting my gear.  I laugh and say they’re just cheap ones from Blick and he scrutinizes them, eyes scrunched up, like I’m lying, before putting them down.

He instructs us to make a grisaille of our still life setup, copying from a photo we found online.  I copy it, matching the values and he observes me do this the entire time.  I used alkyd paints so they would be dry the next day.  The next day he comes in and he gives everyone a long lecture on how we have to make our underpainting a lot lighter or else his method won’t work.  I look around the room.  I’m the only one with a dark grisaille.  Why didn’t he tell me that before the paint dried?

The second day I talk to a student from the school that’s hosting us and show her my funky Bob Ross paintings as a joke.  She immediately points to the middle of the painting and say, “What?! You can’t do that!”  I say something like they’re just a joke but I can kind of do whatever I want.  “I’m going to tell your teacher.  He needs to talk to you about this.”  She storms away angry.  I’m dumbfounded anyone would have this reaction at an art school, but shrug it off thinking, “Nah she’s not going to do anything.”

The next day she takes the teacher to lunch.  The day after that, he takes me to lunch.  He spends the entire lunch trying to convince me to not attend this school or study their methods because of my Bob Ross paintings.  He said I wouldn’t fit in at that school, and that my views on art are different from everyone else’s.  I just flat out told him, “You’re right.  This place is a damn cult.  There’s no way I’d study here if people react this way to a joke Bob Ross painting.”

It took him an hour to gradually crush my aspirations to be an artist, and it almost worked.  Thankfully, I have a high dose of “Fuck You” in my blood to counteract people like that.  I shrugged it off a week later and went back to studying anyway.  But, I can’t imagine how someone else would have taken it.  That kind of interaction would have derailed many students permanently.

Today’s Portrait Painting Class

Portraits are definitely my most difficult subject so I attend as many painting classes as I can. Here’s today’s class progress shots:

Just a simple drawing and then basic painting of the head, did this in the first two settings. Next shot:

Color and exposure isn’t very good on that but shows the progress.

The final painting at the end of class. Actually I was done last session but then decided to goof off with the tattoos and background for no real reason.

A Day at The SF MOMA

I’ve been into using the features in my camera to take photos and directly post them to the internet. To do this I set up the buttons to make transferring easier. Then I made it easy to access all the buitl-in effects.  I have a Sony camera so it comes with most of the Instagram effects.

This is with B&W but allowing green through. 

While doing this I found I can use a couple settings to take better photos for paintings.  I can use the High Contrast B&W filter to look for interesting high contrast shapes and composition, then take a RAW image with high vibrance to get color and detail reference.

I can then load it into Lightroom Mobile or one of the Photoshop apps to alter it real quick if I want. 

I decided I wanted to use the HCB&W filter to practice composing shapes. I went to the SF MOMA to take photos. 

All I’m doing is finding interesting shapes. The high contrast makes it easier to see them.

Modern art museums are great for this.

People standing around mixed with art sculptures and piles of garbage have great shapes.

No idea if I’m violating copyright but whatever.

I was actually suffering from a throat infection that kept me from talking so I got tired.

I try to make it difficult to identify the object I’m photographing. When it’s a random metal wall that’s not hard.

Playing with depth of field.

The time of day was perfect for contrasting shapes on buildings.

I used people to alter the shapes in the scene.

Love Chuck Close.

Neon looks great in B&W.

The shapes can come from anywhere:

Neon tends to just be pure white.

Done at the Museum.

Morning Foggy Pastels

I haven’t been able to paint outside in a while, and the fog was looking great this morning, so I decided to go do something small and quick. I hit Fort Mason and took some photos:

And the same guy in color:

I need to get my sensor cleaned I guess. 

I settled on this little scene to practixe things fading into the fog. In pastels this is a little hard.

First I did a little valur study to figure out what I wanted.

Then this tiny little pastel. I didn’t want to be out there forever so kept it tiny. Here it is up close:

Just a simple impressionist study.

Watercolor Creme Brulee

I was doing more watercolor practice copying paintings out of books and I burned this one:

Burned it?! That’s right. Rather than use a hair dryer to dry watercolor I use a creme brulee torch. Since the paper is wet you can run a torch over it rapidly and it’ll dry really quick. But, obviously if you don’t pay attention or do it for too long or get too close, well, you burn the paper.

Here’s one I didn’t burn, but it had too much sizing so the color wouldn’t stick:

Sizing is a glue or sealer on the paper that lets the color soak in some, but not too much, preventing the paper from buckling. Here’s my final one for the night:

Just a simple painting with not too much color.

Practicing Watercolor and Ink

I really like sketching with watercolor but damn is it hard. Watercolor is the inverse of other paints because it’s transparent so you build paintings from light to dark, using the paper as your white “pigment”. In other paint it’s easier to go from dark to light because the pigment is opaque.  The other thing making watercolor difficult is you have to controp the amount of water on thr paper vs. in your brush. If you don’t it will run and bleed around.

The easiest way to get used to this is to paint with just ink and water or any transparent black paint. To get back into it I did a copy of a painting from a watercolor book:

I just used an ink that’s fairly transparent and water soluble. I have a brush pen that makes it easy to paint, and then some little water brushes to change edges.

The way to think about these paintings is like this:

  1. Identify every shape that’s whitest white. Paint everything else with a very wash of light gray.
  2. Identify the shapes that stay lighy gray, paint everything else mid gray. Now you have your whites, light gray, mid-gray. It might be done here.
  3. Now identify all the dark shapes, paint those in. You should be done at this point.

The advantage of watercolor is you can control the edges on these shapes if you dry the paper or not between each layer of paint. If you have more water then the edges will be soft and out of focus. If you dry it then the edges will be hard and in focus.

Do these kind of monochrome paintings for a while and you’ll get the hang of water as an edge control and using layers of watercolor to build the painting. 

Next I tried a few with color, using mostly the same process. But, one thing I always never really figured out how work pen and ink into my watercolors so I tried that too. First try:

It’s like, some rocks and stuff. I don’t know.  Let’s try that again:

It’s some more rocks and an orange bush. Sure. That’s…close enough. Ok something with dark black so I can use the pen and ink without it being weird:

Nothing beats backlight on trees for dark silhouette shapes. Those are birds or mosquitos or something annoying and tiny.

I really like ink for drawing and a brush pen to do monochrome paintings, but still not sure about it in watercolors.

Bob Ross Light at The Summit

Painting along with Bob Ross again I did this:

When you see the progress shots you’ll notice I added that one tree right over the top of the best part. I knew I should have stopped but like Bob I love doing the trees. I started off with a silhouette of sky and mountains.

This time I used water soluble oil paints. These work mostly like oil paint but you clean up using water instead of solvents. The reason I used them is I wanted to speed up my painting the way he does with big buckets to clean the brush and then banging it on another bucket to dry it. If you watch Bob’s painting, he does this many times, laughing about coating the studio with paint thinner and wiping it on his pants.

During his life he probably washed brushes like this hundreds of thousands of times. No gloves, solvent everywhere, soaking his skin, clothes, and studio with dangerous chemicals. People scoff at this, but he was using massive amounts of solvent and spraying it everywhere. This is different from a painter with a tiny jar and drying a small brush with a paper towel.

I believe Bob Ross died of lymphoma at 52 because of repeated and prolonged exposure to large amounts of solvents. Others will point at painters who don’t get cancer and say it’s not possible, but again Bob was exposed to crazy amounts of it, and early solvents that were not very refined.

When I try his methods even with just water it’s a mess. I’m trying to be careful too so I don’t have to clean paint off my floor. I have two buckets with water and another plastic can for banging. The water still gets on my gloves, floor, and legs in small quantities.  Just based on my experience painting like him with water and being careful I can see he was soaked in it.

It’s too bad that painters are told these solvents are as harmless as water. They are definitely not, and there’s nothing macho or painterly about soaking your skin with toxic chemicals. Numerous painters eventually have to stop because constant exposure gives them rashes, allergic reactions, and breathing problems. The few who say they’re fine after 30 years are just falling for survivor bias.

I try to always wear gloves. It makes cleanup easier and protects my skin. Other painters make fun of me, but then I just grab my paper towels, invert my gloves over the garbage like bags, and walk away all cleaned up while they’re washing their hands and dealing with irritated skin or worse. It’s even more important with pastels as the binder and pigments are an irritant too.

Sometimes painters will claim gloves ruin their sensitivity but I just point out how doctors all wear gloves and operate on delicate organs. I’m pretty sure if a doctor can operate on an eye or a heart while wearing gloves you can fling your shoulder around a shitty oil landscape.

Bob Ross’s Misty Foothills

I did another Bob Ross last night, mistly using the knife but not entirely:

I love using the palette knife to paint like this but I don’t get much opportunity to use it with the classical realism I do. I think my next Ross will be all knife.

Here’s the progression: