Although I’ve written about how to draw and paint from memory before, I was randomly looking at articles on BBC News a few months ago when I happened to stumble across this article about an amazing artist called Stephen Wiltshire, who has an extraordinary talent for drawing extremely detailed landscapes from memory.
The BBC article also linked to a Youtube video which shows him drawing a detailed ten-metre panorama of Tokyo from memory after just a short helicopter ride over the city and some sightseeing on the ground. Even though the BBC article points out that he sometimes makes brief sketches from life whilst memorising landscapes, being able to memorise and reproduce the sheer level of fine detail that he does is still an absolutely astonishing feat.
Although very few artists will ever reach the level of skill that Wiltshire displays, being able to draw relatively undetailed landscapes from memory alone is something that pretty much anyone can do. Even though, as I mentioned earlier, there are some basic techniques that you can use to draw from memory I thought that I’d give you a few more tips that might come in handy if you want to learn how to do this:
1) Learn how to copy photos: If you want to learn how to draw from memory, then one skill that is worth learning first is how to copy photographs from sight alone. Although I go into more detail about exactly how to do this in this article, it’s something you need to learn before you start drawing or painting from memory.
Why? Because drawing from photographs teaches you how to copy the shapes and outlines of things accurately (and how to memorise them). It also teaches you to focus on copying the most important parts of any scene that you see ( since these are the only things you will usually have time to memorise when painting from memory).
But, most of all, copying photographs teaches you how to “see” three-dimensional scenes as two-dimensional images. After all, a photograph is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional scene.
When you are memorising something that you want to draw later, you will be looking at a three-dimensional scene but you will need to memorise a two-dimensional version of that scene. You will basically have to take a photograph using your eyes and hold that two-dimensional photo in memory until you can sketch out the basic details of it later. So, knowing how to copy photos is an essential skill for learning how to draw and paint from memory.
2) Do it consciously: Like taking an old-fashioned photograph, memorising something you want to draw or paint later takes time. Learning how to draw or paint things from memory doesn’t mean that you’ll suddenly be able to paint or draw literally everything that you’ve seen today.
What it means is that you will be able to make the conscious decision to look at something in a particular way for a minute or two and then you’ll be able to draw or paint a simplified version of it from memory for a short while afterwards.
Why? Because, despite what I’ve said, memorising something that you want to draw or paint isn’t quite like taking a photo. It’s more like something out of the first half of this (rather violent) scene from “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” where the Terminator scans everything and everyone in a room using his robotic eyes.
Notice how, in this scene, the outlines of people are briefly highlighted when the Terminator scans them. This is basically what you have to do in your own mind when you’re memorising something – you have to consciously remember a collection of shapes and outlines.
So, unless you spot something so unusual that you memorise it instantly, memorising something in order to draw or paint it later is a conscious process which takes a minute or two at the very least.
3) Do it once or twice: Although this will probably improve with practice, don’t try to memorise more than one scene at a time. Yes, you may be able to use your memory like a digital camera, but it’s kind of like a low-resolution digital camera with only a few hundred kilobytes of RAM-based storage space.
In other words, don’t try to memorise more than one or two scenes at once and be sure to sketch out something that you’ve memorised before you try to memorise something else. This is because memorising a scene takes a surprising amount of mental processing power, since you’re basically repeating a collection of shapes and outlines to yourself in the same way that you might repeat a shopping list to yourself when you’re trying to memorise it.
So, if you try to memorise too many scenes at once, then you’re going to forget some of them. So, choose one or two really interesting things to memorise at a time.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂