Three Technical Tips For Painting From Memory

Although I wrote about painting from memory recently and have also talked about the basics of how to memorise something you see, I thought that I’d offer a few technical tips today.

This is mostly because I ended up making yet another memory painting when I happened to see a familiar building from a slightly different angle during a walk and then memorised the scene before me (after about 20-40 seconds of constant observation), in order to start painting it about 20-30 minutes later – whilst also relying on older memories of the area too. Here’s a preview:

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size painting will be posted here on the 8th September.

And here are some technical tips for painting from memory. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to assume that you already know all of the basic artistic skills (eg: perspective, drawing “3D” scenes, painting from life etc…) that are a basic underlying requirement for memorising things in order to paint them later.

1) Focus on key details: In addition to memorising the basic shapes/outlines and colours of what you’ve seen, it can also be useful to memorise a few key details. Often, these will be things that grab your attention quickly (so, you won’t have to search for them). But, try to focus on only memorising the most important details. After all, if you try to memorise too much, then the memory won’t be as clear or long-lasting.

Incorporating 2-3 key details into your painting will give it an instant impression of authenticity, whilst also providing something for you to guess/interpret/extrapolate other details from when you are converting your small collection of memorised shapes, colours and details into a coherent painting.

For example, in the painting I showed you earlier, the two key details (other than the shape of the building) were the fact that there was a tree in front of the building, the small cross/fleur-de-lis on top of the building and the general shape and position of the sign from the neighbouring pub.

So, memorising a very small number of key details (in addition to the usual shapes/colours) can give your memory painting more of an authentic look, even if you either have to guess/extrapolate other details or rely on much older and vaguer memories for the rest of the picture.

2) Sketch as soon as possible!: I know that I’ve mentioned this before but, once you’ve memorised something you’ve seen, you need to get that memory down on paper as quickly as you can before it starts to fade.

This sketch doesn’t have to be large or elaborate. It just needs to include the basic shapes/outlines of everything, any important details and possibly a few written notes about colours or other elements of the picture. Here’s the sketch from the picture I showed you earlier – its really tiny and it took me less than two minutes.

This is the sketch for the picture earlier. I didn’t even bother with an underlying pencil drawing here, I just drew it with my usual drawing pen.

Make your sketch quickly and just focus on drawing out the rudimentary shapes/details that you’ve actually memorised. You can add detail and use artistic licence later when you’re making the final painting.

3) Once you’ve learnt it, that’s it:
Although it can take a bit of practice and trial-and-error to learn how to memorise the things you see, the skill is similar to riding a bicycle. In other words, once you’ve learnt how to do it (through practice and experience), then it won’t be something that you’ll forget. In other words, it’s a skill that is very resistant to disuse.

For example, I’ve made two memory paintings recently. Here’s a preview of the other one (and, yes, I know that the full-size painting was meant to appear here four days ago. But, due to a scheduling mishap, it won’t appear until the 23rd. Sorry about this):

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size painting will be posted here on the 3rd September 23rd September.

But, before that, I hadn’t memorised something I’d seen in ages. But, since the techniques for doing it have become almost instinctive (through prior practice over the past 2-3 years), it was something that I was quickly able to do without really thinking about it too much.

So, yes, once you’ve learnt this skill then you don’t really have to worry too much about forgetting how to use it.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂


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