Painting from Memory

You’re driving down the highway, perhaps through the hills of west Texas (where I live) and the sun is just beginning to take its bow for the day. Imagine the scene. Just over the next hill you see the most gorgeous group of trees with the light skimming over the top creating a mood that is hard to describe because it’s so beautiful. Where’s your camera?? If you were thinking ahead and you have a driver that will instantly pull over and turn around so that you can snap that photo, you are fortunate. If not, that memory will eventually fade or, to borrow a phrase from Elvis, be ‘pressed between the pages of your mind’. For all artists, this is a familiar scenario. It is just impossible to record every scene that makes an impression on us with a camera. Even if that moment is caught on camera, in my experience, it’s never the same as that scene that first made my heart leap.

Experts believe that our memories are far more elusive that anyone ever thought. In the past, memories were thought of to be akin to a filing cabinet where memories are stored, but today they believe that the ability to recall is made of complex systems that are located in a brain wide process.

When something, perhaps the scent of rain, the way a flower lifts or the morning light streaming across our bedroom as we open our eyes, makes a deep impression on us it can become part of our long term memory if we-and here is the key-pay attention. How did those trees really look? Were they red, was the sky gold and were the shadows really purple? How were they shaped across the evening sky? If I am paying attention, that sensation will travel into my hippocampus and frontal cortex and possibly become a long-term memory. It’s called encoding but for me it means that instead of jumping to try to find the camera I need to focus on improving my memory and just pay attention. It means that my brain is my camera. *

BirdThis is exciting news for me due to my current situation and also because my photo skills are lacking. My husband and I recently made a huge move from Houston to a small town in northwest Texas. It’s really beautiful here. We have tons of birds but they don’t sit very still so that I can paint them from life which I’ve always told my students is the way to go. They rarely even sit still for a photo! Instead I’ve had the most wonderful time sitting at my window in the early morning when it’s quiet and I can ‘pay attention’. I watch and sketch. These visual images are becoming a part of my memory and if scientists are right, the more I create these visual images in my brain and the more I practice, I will become better at sketching the way the birds twist and turn and fluff up when it’s cold and rainy. I will begin to ‘understand’ them. Having said that, it stands to reason that I must constantly work at improving my technical skill set by painting from life as much as possible to garner that knowledge that is required of the representational artist. The more I learn the skills of value comparison, foundations of composition, drawing, color and edges, the more I will feel adept at putting my memory skills to work as well.

John Carlson in his book “Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting” makes a sound argument for development of memory painting. I’ll end with his words of wisdom.

“In memory work we relive our experiences and the effect they produced on us. We enthusiastically endeavor to put on canvas what we saw and felt, and in this way also unconsciously employ an original handling. The mind is dealing more with expression of thought than with the clever application of paint, and we now enter into the realm of true art. A work is only art in the measure that it gives us the truth, translated into emotions aroused in the soul of the artist. It has been truly said that there is no work that shows so thoroughly the state of mind of the worker as painting.”

Sources:
*How Human Memory Works by Dr. Richard Mohs, www.science.HowStuffWorks.com
*John F. Carlson, Guide to Landscape Painting.

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