Today we’re going to go through a powerful exercise designed to build your gesture skills, test your knowledge of the figure, build your brain’s visual memory and your ability to draw from imagination. So it’s useful for a lot of things. There’s a video version and an article version below that:
We’ve teamed up with Simon Luty again to bring you this exercise, which is about drawing from memory. Check out his Instagram page, @mandela.ri.
Memory & drawing from observation
This isn’t based on proper neuroscience, but it’s what I think basically happens when we draw from observation.
- While the information is in your brain, it’s very easy for the information to be scrambled with your brain’s preconceptions. To find out more about those preconceptions, see the symbols stage in our article 5 stages of learning to draw people. This is the biggest challenge for beginner artists, and held me back for decades.
- Ideally, you’d like your brain to enhance your drawing by identifying what really matters, add meaning and understanding while retaining the true gesture and reality of what the eyes are seeing. Studying anatomy, for example, equips your brain with information that will help it better understand what it sees and communicate it to the paper.
This exercise we are looking at today is designed to help you improve how this all works for you. It helps you see where your brain is scrambling and replacing things with preconceptions, and lets you practise not doing that, and instead you teach yourself to capture the most meaningful things.
The exercise itself
So first let’s go through the exercise itself, and then we’ll look at some important things to keep in mind while you do it. The exercise will take about 1 hour total, and it can be added to your regular practice schedule.
Preparation: Choose 13 poses and get them all ready to go. Don’t look at them too deeply. We have a fantastic and free reference library if you need references to draw.
Warm Up: Use five of the poses for the warmup – just 45 second quick sketches will be enough to get loose (don’t worry how they turn out!).
Exercise 1: 2.5 min + 3 min
For the first exercise, we’re going to do four poses and draw them twice each. First, we draw the pose with 2.5 minutes on the clock. As you draw, you’ll be observing the figure, simplifying it into what really matters. There’s not much time, so you have to filter down to big important shapes and gestural lines and leave out the rest. Take note of the major angles you see – the angle of the ribcage against the pelvis is a good one. Take note of a few major points in the proportions and alignments. Look for how the big shapes overlap each other. Don’t concern yourself too much with light and shadow. You’re going to be drawing this without the reference later, so you can’t memorise the whole thing. Your only chance is simplify down to the big volumes of the pose. (If this is something you struggle with, I really recommend our Fresh Eyes challenge).
After the 2.5 minute drawing, we move on to the second drawing of the same pose. This time, we put 3 minutes on the clock. Start observing the pose for 20 – 50 seconds depending on how complex the pose is. Take note of the same things, like the major angles in the big volumes. There is no drawing in this observation time, you are just looking at the pose, maybe ghost drawing above it with your hand, but not making marks on paper yet.
Then hide the reference for the remainder of the time, and try to draw the pose using your memory and imagination. You might forget something about the pose, which way the hand was facing for example. But that’s fine, in that case, try to draw something that makes sense, it’s ok if your drawing doesn’t end up the same as the original.
After the 3 minutes, take 30 seconds to compare your two drawings. What changed when you drew from memory? Some things don’t really matter, like if you had the hand facing a different way or you added some lighting that was different. But some things do matter, like if you straightened out the pose and reduced the gesture, reduced the important angles. Or if you got something major wrong in the proportions or anatomy. Simon’s really good at this, so there’s not many issues to learn from in this comparison below, which is good for him to know. But you might find many more issues.
I did this exercise years ago when I was more of a beginner and found it really illuminating. I was surprised at how much I struggled without the reference, and realised that I had huge holes in my understanding of basic anatomy. Something that stands out was realising that I hadn’t connected the pectoral muscle to the arm and that I didn’t understand enough about what muscles did and how they connected to things. It was a hard lesson, but an important learning moment for me that really stands out in my memory.
Once you’ve done four poses this way, it’s time for the second exercise.
Exercise 2: 3 min + 2.5 min
This time it’s the same thing with the drawings the other way round. Start with the 3 minute drawing and then do the 2.5 minute drawing with the reference second. So you start the 3 minute drawing with 20-50 seconds of observation of the pose. You look for the major things that really matter. You then hide the reference and draw the pose from memory, like we did before.
Then after the 3 minute drawing, you draw the pose again for 2.5 minutes, this time you have the reference. What happens is that during that first drawing, there is a lot of unanswered questions and confusion. Your mind is trying to visualise how the arm connected to the shoulder and how long the leg was and so on. Your mind is filled with really useful questions. Then when you do the second drawing with the reference, you are able to find answers to those important questions in the reference.
Again, at the end, take 30 seconds to compare your two drawings, and pull out any more lessons you can from the experience.
Who should do this?
If you are in the very earliest stages of learning to draw, the first 6 months for example, I’d say don’t do this yet. Instead, continue to learn to observe and try to draw what you see, and keep this exercise for later on when you’re a little more comfortable with figure drawing. Beginners with a little bit more experience can get a lot out of this exercise. You’ll learn to observe what really matters, because you won’t be able to remember much more than the essentials. You’ll find major gaps in your understanding of the figure, like I did when I tried it years ago.
If you really struggle with quicker poses, you could consider giving yourself longer timeframes for this exercise. You’ll still get a lot out of it, and it might be more fruitful. You could even give yourself 5 or 10 minutes for each drawing. If you extend the overall time, also extend the time you give yourself to observe the reference for the memory drawing. Instead of 20-50 seconds, take 1 or 2 minutes to observe. Intermediate and advanced artists will get a lot out of this exercise. You are reaching a point where you have a lot of knowledge and skill, and this is a great way to find the gaps that you need to work on next, plus it reinforces your simplification skills.
This helps you draw from imagination too
Another benefit of this exercise is for those of you that want to draw people from imagination. When you draw from imagination, you are creating an image from nothing, which is amazing, but you are using information and knowledge that you have gathered by doing a lot of drawings from observation. When you’ve drawn a zillion hands, you can start to take that visual information you’ve stored in your memory, inject some creativity, and recombine it all into something new. So your visual memory is a big part of drawing from imagination – this exercise is a stepping stone from drawing from observation to drawing from imagination.
Let’s make a deal with each other first. You should only do this exercise if we accept that the results could be quite ‘bad’. There may be many problems and gaps in the memory drawing, but that is all good. That is the point of the exercise. Make your mistakes not with panic or disappointment, but with great interest, curiosity and excitement. Identifying a problem is the first step to solving it. Having a positive mindset like that is really hard, it’s a skill in itself, but make that deal with yourself, and you’ll really have fun with this.
Check out some other techniques from Simon Luty and see you soon!
PS, We’ve put together a FREE ten-day challenge called Fresh Eyes, which is specially designed to help transform the way you see the figure. Signing up will also give you access to our reference library, which has hundreds of high quality life drawing reference images for you to practise your drawing with.