Learn to Paint From Memory

Lisa Marder, "Sanibel," oil on canvas, 36"x48". Lisa Marder

Painting from memory is one of the most important things an artist can learn. While it is not easy, it does get easier with practice. The key is to keep practicing by developing your observational abilities and powers of perception. It involves a lot of drawing, taking notes, doing studies, and looking hard. The process of drawing something helps to etch it in your memory, so those artists who draw a lot are better able to work from memory.

 And once you know how to draw something realistically, you are free to use your imagination to recreate it as you want and express your personal vision.

Read:  Inness and Bonnard: Painting From Memory


Recent scientific studies have shown how fallible a normal memory is. That is because it is integrally tied to perception, viewpoint, and what we expect to see, and it can be influenced by others and changed by false information. For the artist this fluidity can be useful. Unlike witnesses in a criminal trial, an artist's memory does not have to be accurate in detail. What the artist tries to capture in memory is the essence of a subject, not specifics. However, even this can be quite difficult and elusive. 

As Daniela Schiller, a neuroscientist, is quoted as saying in the article, Memory is Inherently Fallible, And That's a Good Thing:

"So how can we know the reality of a memory? Look to art, said Schiller.

“Art has a very intimate relationship with memory,” she said. 'The only way to keep memories as they are … is to carve them into a story or art form that captures the original emotion.'"(1)

It is, in fact, impossible to escape our memories. We are a combination of what we experience in the present as well as our memories of the past.

We are often moved by something we see or feel today because of prior experiences.

These prior experiences inform our present perceptions and give us our unique artistic vision. Using our skills as an artist, past perceptions are channeled through us into present expression. Every painting we make is a confluence of past and present, sometimes surprising us with the outcome. Often these are the paintings that seem to flow easily from us, coming from a source we can't pin down.

The painting, Sanibel (shown above), was one such painting for me. After laboring over a completely different painting for weeks without success, I completely painted over it one day, driven by childhood memories of time spent by a beautiful stretch of sandy beach in Florida. While I had an old reference photo, the finished painting was much different as I relied more on memory and sensations recalled of many early mornings in gentle light, and of a lone figure in red punctuating the pale gray-blues and beiges of the shoreline.  I was amazed to complete the painting in only a few hours. 

Tips for Painting From Memory

  • Keep a sketchbook and draw all the time!
  • Do multiple drawings and studies from observation.
  • Draw things that are moving. This forces you to draw fast and edit out unnecessary details. Draw the squirrels in your yard, or people in a cafe, or a fleeting image on the television.
  • Time yourself drawing. Give yourself ten minutes or less to draw a likeness of something.
  • Do scribble drawings. These will help you draw fast while looking intensely.
  • Another time, draw your subject very slowly, looking carefully at the contours and planes.
  • Draw the same thing several times from different viewpoints.
  • Copy drawings and paintings of the masters. 
  • Copy your own photographs. In time, you will be able to use photos as references for your imagination rather than copying them exactly.
  • Take notes about the direction of the sun, placement of objects, relative sizes, colors.
  • Look hard, squint your eyes and see the composition in terms of value and Notan.
  • After some observational drawings, test yourself by doing multiple drawings from memory.
  • Search your memory of how you experienced your subject in the past.
  • Do a painting from memory of something you experienced as a child. 
  • Search your memory of famous paintings you've seen with similar subject matter. 
  • Don't be discouraged by first attempts at drawing from memory.
  • Date your drawings and paintings.
  • Use your eyes like a camera and imagine your subject as a photograph. Look at your subject through a viewfinder  and close one eye to envision it in two dimensions. Use your hands to create a frame if you have nothing else.
  • Simplify the scene. In your mind's eye break the scene down into a diagram of at most five or six shapes.
  • Remember the generalized local color of those shapes.
  • From the major shapes you can use your imagination to add detail as you want, but keep the whole in mind.
  • Understand the principles of design and rules of composition such as Gestalt theory.
  • Remember that you are not aiming for exactitude but rather an expressive approximation.

Developing your ability to paint from memory will help you reach a new level of personal expression in your painting, giving you the confidence and freedom to create visual stories and paint whatever you want, knowing all is not lost if you don't happen to have a camera on hand or a sketchbook to record something that catches your eye. The painting we make today of a certain subject will be a different painting of the same subject tomorrow, next week, next year, or ten years from now, for we are constantly being informed by both the past and the present and the ever-changing landscape of memory.



1. Rojahn, Susan Young, Memory is Inherently Fallible, And That's a Good Thing, http://www.technologyreview.com/view/520156/memory-is-inherently-fallible-and-thats-a-good-thing/, Oct. 9, 2013


Boray, Gabriel, Painting From Memory, Secrets of a Modern Painter, http://secretsofamodernpainter.blogspot.com/2010/12/painting-from-memory.html

Brooks, Jon, 9 Sketching Exercises Leonardo da Vinci Practiced to Achieve Artistic Mastery, comfort pit, http://comfortpit.com/drawing-exercises-leonardo-da-vinci/

McPherson, Dr. Fiona, Our Fallible Memory: It's a Feature, Not a Bug, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-fiona-mcpherson/its-a-feature-not-a-bug_b_4159218.html, 10/25/2013.

Sloan, Robert, Drawing from Memory, Blick art materials, http://www.explore-oil-pastels-with-robert-sloan.com/drawing-from-memory.html