Memory Training for Painters

Article by Darren Rousar.

Richard Lack, Evening Jet Trails (1963)Richard Lack, Evening Jet Trails (1963). Photograph courtesy of the Lack Estate.

“Memory training must be integrated into a mature painter’s working method if his or her talent is to be truly fulfilled. I myself, when doing a portrait commission, will spend up to three times as much time on memory work as I do on direct observation. Much of the weakness of contemporary realism done from nature comes not only from poorly trained eyes, but also from poorly trained memory…” -Richard Lack

But for R. H. Ives Gammell it is likely that the practice of memory drawing might have passed into history. Gammell’s student, Richard Lack and his student, Annette LeSueur strongly influenced my book and if you’ve read it you are under their influence as well. This article is an abridged version of Mr. Lack’s article, Memory Training for Painters. It originally appeared in Classical Realism Quarterly, V.2 (1990). ©1990 Richard Lack. Used with permission.

Leonardo da Vinci stated in his notebooks: “I have experienced no small benefit, when in the dark and in bed, by retracing in my mind the outlines of those forms which I had previously studied, particularly such as had appeared the most difficult to comprehend and retain; by this method they will be confirmed and treasured up in the memory.”

Degas, one of the greatest masters to exploit the possibilities of memory, was fond of saying: “If I were to open an academy I would have a five story building. The model would pose on the ground floor with the first year students. The most advanced students would work on the fifth floor.”

Degas is here, of course, referring to the fact that in the actual process of learning to draw, the advanced student would do his finished figure studies almost entirely from memory! This fascinating and highly original idea still awaits application in the ateliers of the future.

Degas also said: “It is all very well to copy what you see; it is much better to draw what you only see in memory. There is a transformation during which the imagination works in conjunction with the memory. You only put down what made an impression on you, the essential. Then your memory and your invention are freed from the dominating influence of nature. That is why pictures made by a man with a trained memory who know thoroughly both the masters and his own craft are almost always remarkable works, for instance Delacroix.”

Degas, Whistler, and Rodin utilized memory to the fullest in their paintings, drawings, and sculpture. Fantin-Latour, Legros, l’Hermitte, Tissot, and the sculptor Dalou came under the influence, either directly or by association, of that remarkable nineteenth century teacher Lecoq de Boisbaudran. Rodin in later years said of him, “We did not fully appreciate at the time, Legros and I, and the other youngsters, what luck we had in falling in with such a teacher. Most of what he taught me is assuredly in me still.”

This teacher of genius has left us with one great literary work, The Training of the Memory in Art, which unfortunately gives us only a hint of his teaching methods, and of the creative atmosphere surrounding his circle. We do see, however, the results of his pedagogy through illustrations of paintings and drawings done by his students in the 1911 English translation: a remarkable copy of Holbein’s Erasmus, and Titian’s Laura de Dianti, finished cast drawings, and slices of nature including genre scenes with many figures, all done with a fidelity to the subject which is truly prodigious.

Since the text gives us only hints of a practical method, I have had to invent exercises for my students in order to get them started in what should become a lifetime endeavor for each serious painter. Fortunately my teacher, R. H. Ives Gammell, who was well-nigh fanatical on the subject of memory training, gave me a number of useful approaches for the study of memory which I have incorporated into my own teaching.

Draw lines, lots of lines, either from memory or from nature.


Memory training for the visual artist can be divided into two parts: work done from imagination, “out of one’s head,” or work done from the “real” world. As a prerequisite for memory study, the traditional method of training, such a copying, casts, life drawing, etc., are absolutely essential. Boisbaudran insisted again and again that memory drawing is not a substitute for direct study of nature, but a companion to that study. To start a regular program of memory development I offer the following exercises.

Draw on a sheet of paper an irregular but simple geometric shape, making it approximately 4-5 inches in width.


On a piece of tracing paper placed over the original, draw one side of the shape, the line AB, exactly the same size. Now pin the original shape on a wall or a drawing board placed some distance from you. After studying the shape, tum your back and see if you can draw the shape from memory using the single line AB as your guide. See if you can memorize exactly the other sides of the shape, BC, CD, and DA. This means not only the length of the lines, but the angles between the lines as well. Then turn around, take the drawing off the wall and place your tracing paper copy over it to see how accurate you were.

This exercise should be done daily with different shapes of your own invention until you can consistently draw them from memory with great accuracy.1

A second exercise is as follows.

Find an interesting action photo with good contours. Trace the outline on a piece of paper and darken the area within the contour, creating a silhouette. Instead of a photograph you could make a tracing of a figure from a favorite masterpiece or from good illustration. In our atelier program we have a book of silhouettes ranging from simple to complex from which students can draw. These silhouettes should be about 8-10 inches high. You can see an example below, left.


Using a pad of tracing paper, slip the silhouette under the top sheet. Lightly draw a top and bottom mark and a plumb line over your silhouette. See above, right.2

Using these guidelines, memorize the shape as well as you can. Quite naturally these are more complicated shapes than the geometric ones, and require more time to memorize, perhaps 15 or 20 minutes each. When you have finished, remove your silhouette from underneath your piece of tracing paper and attempt to draw the shape accurately from memory. Use a pencil and erase whenever needed until you feel you have done the best you can. Slip the silhouette under your drawing again and check your mistakes. Unlike our first exercise, this drawing should be done at least five or six times, starting fresh each day until you can draw it accurately. In other words, you work on the same drawing, but start over each day with a new version, remembering the mistakes of the previous day, until you achieve a high degree of accuracy. I recommend taking at least 20 to 30 minutes for each drawing.

Incidentally, this tracing paper method should be used for all work done from the flat. Obviously, more and more complicated subjects can be tried eventually, using subjects with both detail and light and shadow within the form. In memory work, as in all things pertaining to training a painter, each stage should be mastered before going on to the next.

A useful way to learn anatomy is to use good anatomical plates as your memory subjects. These would be done the same way you do silhouettes, except that more time should be spent on them so that you would eventually retain in your head an entire anatomical visual library.

In working from the flat, the degree of complexity of the subject is limited only by your skill. As I stated earlier, Boisbaudran’ s students were capable of memorizing finished masterpieces from the Louvre.

The exercises I have suggested so far had to do with form. There are also exercises in color that will not only develop your memory for color, but your color perception as well. A good starting exercise would be to memorize color swatches. Cut out three colored squares from construction paper. Choose subdued colors rather than bold or vivid colors. For the first attempt choose three contrasting colors such as light red, middle green, and dark blue.

Tape the three squares side by side on a neutral grey paper so that the squares are entirely surrounded by the grey. Attempt to memorize two of the colors, say the green and the blue. When you feel you have them in your mind, remove the two swatches and paint the missing colors on separate squares to see if you can get them to match the originals. Use the grey and the remaining color (in this case, red) as your guide. I recommend oil paint since it is the most flexible medium, although for those used to acrylics that might also be suitable. As skill develops, more subtle color contrasts can be used and more colors, perhaps as many as six or seven.

I have so far discussed preliminary exercises in working from the flat. Be sure to separate studies of color and studies of form. In my experience about three or four times as much time should be devoted to the study of form as to the study of color. If a student has the willpower to work daily on these exercises for a period of several years, miraculous results can be obtained.

lack-memory-cast-pairOn the left is a cast painting done by Richard Lack. While painting it, the cast was in a different room than the painting. He had to walk to the room with the cast in order to see it, and then walk back to the other room to actually work on the painting. Another aspect which is not clear in the photograph is that this painting was also done in color. Photograph courtesy of Kirk Richards.

The next stage of memory work involves the study of nature-the world of three-dimensional space. I do not recommend starting this until a student can memorize complicated subjects from the flat, and match colors with a great deal of accuracy. At this stage a student must show proficiency in drawing from nature, i.e. seeing proportions correctly, understanding how light and shadow give forms relief, and having at least a rudimentary ability to state true color from indoor subjects such as a still life. Here memory work is only limited by the student’s imagination. For example, in a rigorous atelier program, the current life studies should be drawn from memory away from the model even if these are only small sketches.3 The same should be done with the cast studies, and still life. Also, all the more advanced anatomy exercises should be done from memory. The student can then start to memorize objects from the everyday world such as a chair in the corner, a cat sitting in a window, a face seen on a bus, even a “talking head” from a television program. These drawings can be done in a small sketchbook kept solely for that purpose. The medium could be pen, pencil, felt marker, or whatever the student feels comfortable using. Quite naturally, these sketches will not be highly finished, but they will demonstrate the value of working from memory.

As the student advances and has mastered plein air landscape painting, memory work in oil from out of door subjects should be attempted. Landscape painting is particularly well suited to memory work. It is well documented that Whistler painted many of his finest works from memory such as the nocturnes, and virtually all of Degas’ landscape painting was done from memory.

Memory must be integrated into a mature painter’s working method if his or her talent is to be truly fulfilled. I myself, when doing a portrait commission, will spend up to three times as much time on memory work as I do on direct observation. Much of the weakness of contemporary realism done from nature comes not only from poorly trained eyes, but also from poorly trained memory. This is why so many American painters have fallen back on copying photographs to the point where it has become a national disease.

Editor’s notes:
1Far be it for me to critique Mr. Lack. However, the act of creating your own sources instills some memory of their shape, value, and colors into your visual memory. Better is to create your sources in bulk, then wait a few days to a week before making use of them. Better still is to use sources created by others.

Even better is having someone purposefully create all the memory drawing exercise images for you, and guide you through the entire process! I’ve done just that in The Memory Drawing Course Book.

2Notice that in Mr. Lack’s figure example he has placed control dots at key areas along the outline. These, combined with the vertical line as well as the upper and lower extremes help the beginning student.

3Both Lack and Annette emphasized drawing our day’s figure subject from memory in the evening when at home.