tattered images from memory

memory drawing of view from Sousa Bridge july 31 (2)

In other news, my daughter and I took a trip into town for coffee and contemplation on a beautifully mild and cloudy last day of July.  Driving back across the Sousa Bridge on our return, I was noticing the tree line and the big grey clouds  and wondering how much of the aspect I could retain in memory.

It turns out that the answer to my mental question is “not very much”!  I would love to draw the view from life (which I’ve seen more times than I can number), but I’m always in my car.  This is the first time I’ve ever even tried to draw it.

Call this the dream version.  But it’s a fun drawing to make.  I should draw from memory more often.


Simonides’ fishes

notebook koi

Simonides of Cleos is reputed to be the first to discover that a seating pattern helps you remember things.  I was using his method to remember where my koi were in the latest koi picture.  I was making an idle drawing while sitting through a slightly tedious lecture and used the time to review the painting I had been working on the night prior.

Strangely enough I had quite a difficult time accounting for all the fish graphically, by remembering their shapes.  And so it was the “seating pattern” at last the filled in some of the blanks.  I didn’t get them all, but I got most.



Advanced Drawing Challenge

the shell motif (2)There are many wonderful drawing challenges on the internet that give people ideas. Many drawing challenges serve to inspire.  They may prompt you to draw things you never thought of drawing.

I have thought that — from time to time — I’d like to post some drawing challenges of my own.  Some are kind of advanced challenges.  But they are fun. They are tasks I give to myself to stretch my skill level.  Yet I hope that artists working at all levels of drawing skill will consider giving them a try because …  because you just never know what will happen.  There’s always a potential for invention in trying new things.  And in any case, drawing isn’t dangerous.  How can you possibly go wrong?

The purpose of this particular advanced drawing challenge is not to produce a drawing to hang in a frame, though that outcome may arrive, but instead to devise ways to stretch your visual skills.  It’s really more about process than product.

This challenge has two parts.  Each can be fairly difficult, but for sure the difficulty of the second part depends upon the difficulty of the first part.

several shells drawing in notebook
drawing from the motif


For the first part, you simply draw something.  What do you usually draw, or often draw? Choose something familiar — or something that you can observe keenly, intensely.   What you’ll do is to draw the thing or the scene very carefully and fastidiously, observing as much information as you can and recording it in whatever way you approve.  You may find it helpful to use lots of contours, lots of linear elements to describe forms, but it isn’t strictly necessary.  So just do whatever you do. And you  might also want to redraw this motif you’ve selected a few times, two or three times perhaps.  For this challenge repetitions are good.

Anyone who has learned to play a musical instrument will know what I mean.

For the second part, you go away from your motif and redraw it from memory.  The goal is to capture as much information as you possibly can based on everything you know and remember about the subject.  One way to help this along is to remember how you drew and remind yourself what you drew. Counting may help if there are a certain number of somethings that apply.  Remembering a “seating arrangement” may help.  What was here?  What was over there?  What was sitting next to the such-n-such?

You can prod yourself to recall not merely the details of the scene you observed but the kinetic, physical memory associated with the act of drawing, remembering both what you drew, and how you drew, and the order in which you drew it.

Some artists say that memory drawing is really difficult for them.  I met one very astonishingly skillful artist who said she only drew from the motif, never from memory, that she “didn’t know how to draw from memory.”  I suspect she was being too modest.  But memory drawing is a skill to possess like any other skill in art.  One way to develop it is to remember your previous drawings which is very different from remembering the appearance of the things themselves.  Sometimes the memory of the things is fugitive but the physical memory of your hands will often be much more sure.

shells memory drawing
memory drawing


This is a very generalized description of a potentially very amorphous, imaginative, flexible and possibly also very complicated task.  The latter quality is good if you like complication (I do) but not essential.  Tailor things to suit your own preferences.  I offer it — such as it is — as a challenge to try.  I’ve used it drawing seashells and a few other things. You can apply it to any subject. It can, for instance, be a good way to study old masters: first copy the image, once or twice (or more) and then draw the memory of the copying.

It’s like drawing a map of part of your interior mind.  What better typography to travel through ….


Comment to an artist friend

” I am playing with the idea of letting a painting dictate

little landscape from memory of photo

its own direction…,” said my artist friend Fritz at his blog Fruitful Dark.

Those words describe the way that I try to relate to perception. I am always striving to be more connected to the motif, to discover things about it, even in random ways. I want something that is opposite of technique (as usually understood) — instead to have a direct line of thought between what I’m seeing and what gesture I make on the painting or drawing. What if the most notable thing in a certain motif is, say, the reflection on a vase? The usual advice (and I’m not knocking it) is to start with the big shapes first and go toward details — for this approach is a way of organizing the picture to get at a kind of realism or even just the awareness of the whole. And I have worked on my drawing chops for years to learn about proportion and the big sense of the image, and so on. But sometimes now I go the opposite direction — I let my mind work with the first thing that really pulls me, no matter what it is or how illogical a process it might invoke. Because one interesting idea is not something that just sits in isolation — it leads to other ideas, places and feelings.

The odd detail will help you notice some other feature that maybe you hadn’t seen. I am not fastened to one picture even — though certain pictures become ones where the aim is completeness. Those I will wrestle with over whatever time span is necessary. But other works are passages of travel through various ideas. They don’t have to be finished. They can proceed willy nilly.

Of course none other than Corot said to continually attempt to get back to the first impression — that first sense of “ah!” — and you might not even know what provoked THAT feeling. It is somehow mixed in with everything all at once. And it’s hidden inside lots of separate items. It stands behind the details like a gravitational force.

But horses for courses. I don’t have to do the motif the same way every time. I can go totally illogical with it. I can fasten down a detail if it suits me, why not? And I can leave details hanging suspended in chaos for the sake of experiencing a passage of thoughts. The things learned will accumulate. They’ll go somewhere more connected in time.

Seeing is a dream memory

I try to be often busy. It’s a way of making many drawings. Yesterday I had plans to draw while sitting in my car as I waited for my kid during her violin lesson. Other conditions were perfect. It was, for instance, brutally hot outdoors — and since I was painting in watercolor I anticipated having the pigments dry rapidly as I applied layer after layer of color.

Unfortunately, the heat seemed to have already affected my thinking for I neglected to bring my reference photo with me. Thus I found myself in the car amid the intense heat having water, colors, paper and fortitude but no motif. Since I had been already drawing the koi all morning long, I decided to make a virtue of necessity and draw one of the earlier images from memory.

It was then I hit that solid wall.

I found that I had already forgotten so many of the details of the picture that I had just drawn only a half hour previous! I wasn’t even sure about the relationship of the two principal actors. I tried everything I could to hammer my brain into recall mode. But it was like trying to remember a dream that unravels before one’s eyes upon waking.

Visual memory in most people is very fugitive. So are dreams. Do you suppose that the same areas of the brain are doing the forgetting? And possibly for the same reasons?

Night Moon’s Gleam

Night moon’s gleam lit the yard, glowed the house, shook the trees.  Against inky darkness golden, comforting windows warmed the night with fire-fly-like delight.

Mom and Dad inside, someone always there to call you in when it gets too dark outside. 

Night moon’s gleam lit my big night’s space, and silvery pale echo reflecting from the white house answering.  So much space, so much flight, so wide a night, so broad and endless sky.

Night moon’s gleam lit, but not so bright to extinguish distinguished firefly’s flights glowing, and then others, and hundreds of answering waves of firefly lights, wafting along bug flight-path sines and cosines.

Far away moon now from grand aged adulthood recalled, but still night moon’s gleam lit my dreams and got me back bright firefly night.

You see the dog that is running, not the perception

Delacroix wanted in his work to “prolong the sensation” –  “The arts are not algebra, where abbreviation of the figures contributes to the success of the problem. To be successful in the arts is not a matter of summarizing but of amplifying where it is possible, and of prolonging the sensation by every means”. [Journal, October 20, 1853]  But what sensation are you prolonging, you might well ask?  What sight is is not obvious. It consists of many more perceptual aspects than we typically acknowledge. 

In fact, I believe we tend to understand vision more in terms of concepts than by sensation.  The average man sees the thing.  That’s what he’s aware of – not the appearance of the thing.  Artists are more attuned to the appearance, but artists too understand vision categorically.  Technique breaks perception down into different sorts of concepts – line, tone, color, form, texture, size, scale, proportion….  And the sensation is something else altogether. 

“…le succès dans les arts n’est point d’abréger, mais d’amplifier, s’il se peut, de prolonger la sensation, et par tous les moyens.”

An Intelligent Not-knowing

Some things in painting happen unconsciously.  “I copy the reality, but I also change and compose it,” he said.  I make decisions of which I’m aware, but I also do many things without knowing I do them.  You learn after a while to let go and not insist too much on understanding every move.  There are too many variables.  Painting involves a leap of faith.

But many artists don’t know what they do, and their not-knowing is ignorance rather than unconscious thinking.  

“How do we discern the difference?” I asked.

When the results are disappointing we say the artist is ignorant, and with a happy result we credit the artist with an unusual visual intelligence!  Ah ha.   All I say is that you don’t fight what you are doing, that sometimes the answer is just to work.

The same is undoubtedly true in real life, where the motives of actions are likewise very elusive and complicated.

Wild flowers growing indoors

I was going through a pile of drawings at the secret bunker when I rediscovered this one.  When my daughter was a crawler, she often scribbled over drawings as I was making them.  I drew on the floor so that we could work “together.”  Or else I taped my paper to the wall at a level she could reach.  Lots of drawings on the floor we made during that all to swift and brief season (she’s almost a teen now).  I think her scribbles always livened things up.  Sometimes it seems like they were the best part of the drawing.  And not in an “abstract” sense — not at all.  Her scribbles had the force of real ideas to them, which is very different from adults trying to be “random” or whatever.  It’s just that these were two-year-old’s pre-speech rigorous gestures and their meanings are rather opaque though forceful in grammar.

I was reading another of the late Paul Squires’s poems and it fits this picture so marvelously well that I republish it here, though you can find the original at Paul’s gingatao blog and get the total Paulesque experience.


Those who say that flowers have no sound have never heard the generousity of tulips in your smile nor watched the synchronicitous flight of gulls like white orchids at the whisper of your touch. They have not been released into the world of sunflower splendour or tiny blue delphinium delight nor set the direction of their dreams by the scent of apple blossom on a chilly night. They doubt the giggle of gardenias when I demonstrate my geranium brain again and are blind to that outrage of yellow hyacinth in the corner of your eye that warns of lightning strikes. I thought of them again this morning when I heard you laugh circus pink camellias into an azure sky and I hope that if they are reading this they experience now as I did then a truly gypsophila anticipation.

Paul was not afraid to depict beauty, as you can see.