shell one

Lately I’ve been reading a book on memory.  Can’t recall the title ….

The author takes the reader through a series of exercises and explanations designed to improve short and long term memory.  Many of the memory tasks are odd.  You’re supposed to memorize lists of random numbers and other randomly generated things, like names.  I couldn’t bring myself to try any of those experiments, given my general habits of innumeracy, as well as a certain distain I feel for the rote element of memorizing items as an end in itself.  That  just doesn’t appeal to me.  Otherwise, though, I’d say I probably have  a good memory.  Most of the time.   Nonetheless  the book — I’d recommend it if I could just recall the title — has many good bits of advice, some of which I already pursue.  For instance, his first bit of advice is that you keep a journal.  And what is a blog, if not a bit of a journal?

All of my reading about memory set me thinking again about memory in art — about drawing from memory, about the difficulties — for most people — of forming a steady memory of visual things.  We’ve all heard about some people possessing a photographic memory, and some savants like Stephen Wiltshire have unexplained and exceptional ability to remember visual things.  But whether we realize it or not, our visual memory is quite fungible.  We remember very selectively, and people subconsciously make all kinds of substitutions for the sake of meaning that differ significantly from the original perception.

shell two

Maybe it’s just me.  But I am amazed by my relative inability to draw a convincing conch shell from memory.  I have drawn the subject many times.  Looking through some notebooks today, I found a few of the drawings I’ve made in years past.  Regular readers may recall that I also posted some new ones not too long ago.  Yet every drawing of shells I make is drawn from life. 

shell three

And I have tried drawing the shell from many angles over the years.  The words of the famous French painter Edgar Degas come back to my memory:  “il faut refaire la même chose dix fois, cent fois,”  (you must redraw the same thing ten times, a hundred times).  Moreover Degas advised artists to draw a subject from every angle.  Certainly the sea shell lends itself to such intense and loving scrutiny.  It is an amazingly beautiful and complex object, a labyrinth of visual delights.

shell four

As much as I’ve looked at the shell, and as many times as my pencil has followed it’s meandering lines, complex though it is, I ought to be able to remember something. 

shell five

I have been diligent.  These drawings posted here are a mere tip of the ice berg.

shell six

When Degas said, “draw” I took the admonition very much to heart.  I have drawn my shell more times than I can remember.  And yet, I can not draw it par coeur.  Been thinking I should set myself the task one day of drawing the shell from memory.  First draw it from life, and immediately afterwards draw it again from memory — remembering the drawing, you see, more than the shell itself.  I need what so many memory systems utilize — I need a meta-step — an intermediate image that I can commit to memory.  The shell itself is far too complex — for it contains more qualities than I can capture in my drawings even when I am looking!  Of course!

So, there’s another item for my “to do” list.  Maybe I will try it sometime.  We know I have made these affirmations before.  I’m still trying to find some cloud time.  Well, it’s noble to aim at a noble goal.  I may take a while to get around to it, but I like my idea nonetheless.  Nothing wrong with stocking up for a rainy day!

shell seven

10 thoughts on “Memory’s labyrinth

  1. Screw drawing from memory. Some people like Steven have fantastic memories. Most do not. What is the point of it anyway. Yes there can be occasion or a job where it is handy or necessary. But the vast majority of the time it is not necessary. The more important skill is to make a GOOD drawing however the hell you get there.

    Like your shell drawings Ralph, er Aletha.

  2. Thanks for the link – that is so amazing the youtube video of Stephen Wiltshire. They have like a gestalt memory – instant and total capture. Before Michael could communicate meaningfully he would recite entire story books from memory after 1 or 2 readings by me (without understanding what the words meant) and would turn the page exactly where he should. It was rote memory and that was how he talked – echolalia. Your shells are lovely.

  3. Bill, you can always be counted on to express opinions succinctly! Got to differ, though, visual memory must be very crucial because Mother Nature has made it so hard to achieve (like money) — for most folks anyway. But you’re right, a good drawing beats all (after money). Yours, Ralph, er Aletha

  4. Gabrielle, glad you enjoyed the link to Stephen Wiltshire whose drawings are mysterious and amazing. Does Michael continue to possess any uncanny memory now? Thank you for your kind words regarding the shells. Aletha

  5. Memory is one of the great mysteries of the world. There is no explanation of how it works that encompasses all of its facets and yet it somehow forms the very basis of our existence. I suppose those kind of those kind of things will always be mysteries. Your writing is delightful as your drawing, Aletha.

  6. Aletha – the strange thing is that as Michael improves his instant learning ability decreases – he couldn’t memorise the books now at all. He used to draw hundreds of pictures – the same thing, over and over – 10 pictures a day at least – but now he draws about the same amount as most kids.

  7. Gabrielle, I’m glad to hear that he is getting better steadily, and these mysterious abilities will, evidently, always be mysterious, as Paul says above. Really it’s all mystery, life, I mean. ak

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