A Primer On Drawing From Memory Exercises

Years ago, like many of you, I saw Kim Jung Gi's work videos, and, like you, I was blown away. This man seems able to draw anything he wants from his imagination!

And, just like you, I wanted to figure out how he did that. So I searched for interviews, and what he said in those interviews was that he used to draw from memory a lot. When he was a soldier in the army, he would not have drawing tools with him, so he'd draw in his mind. I don't know if he still does it, but if I remember correctly, he'll memorize A STACK of images and then draw them from memory. He'll practice like this like five hours a day. I think he said he never pulls all-nighters anymore since he is married. Adding: only once a month or so.

Of course, you need to draw a lot to get better at drawing. But perhaps his practicing drawing from memory helped him fill his memory banks with images he could use from memory for reference.

I had always resisted drawing from memory. Why would you, when you had access to the actual reference to look at? It seemed stupid to me.

I had studied at a fine art academy, and there they emphasized drawing from observation. You know, look at the model as long as possible and your paper as little as possible.

Drawing from memory is the opposite! When drawing, you don't look at your model at all. So much for hard rules in art.

And if you think about it, even drawing from observation is drawing from memory, in a way; as you turn to the page, you memorize what you want to draw for a few seconds. I found that practicing drawing from memory improved my ability to visualize things in my mind and made me better at drawing from observation.

And then, I tried the exercise for a few days, and the results seriously blew me away. I discovered that I became better at drawing things I hadn't practiced this way! As much as it is perhaps about filling your memory banks with visual references, it may also be about accessing such information that is already in your head. We already know what things look like but can't summon the images in our mind's eye. Practicing drawing from memory improves your ability to visualize what you want to draw in your mind and then draw what you have in mind.

You can practice anything this way, and it has become my go-to Swiss army knife for drawing exercises.

If you are still on the fence about doing drawing from memory exercises, then consider that this training makes you better in general at seeing what is wrong with your art!
In his recent videos, Kim Jung Gi never mentions practicing drawing from memory, preferring to emphasize visualizing the boxes you place things in.

When I tried drawing from memory, it was a huge revelation. The exercise did a lot to help me improve my skills.

But enough ranting and raving. Let's dig into the exercise!

1. Materials

We can keep this short. It doesn't matter. Choose what you find comfortable to draw with, or choose tools you want to practice. Pen, pencil, ballpoint pen, dip pen, it all doesn't matter. Pick some suitable paper. The tools can be cheap; it doesn't matter, as long as you find it comfortable to draw with these tools.

As to paper, you can work on separate sheets of paper or in a sketchbook. You will be making multiple drawings of the same thing. If you work in a sketchbook, try to structure it so that you make, for example, a drawing on one left page, then on the right page of the next page. You want to be able to draw the thing without being able to see your previous attempts. Loose sheets of paper are practical for that, but you will often arrive at beautiful drawings, and for some reason, if you keep your sketches in a sketchbook, it makes it much easier to keep, to store away, on bookshelves, for example. Loose sheets of paper tend to be thrown away more often. Try out both options, and see what works for you.

2. Choosing a reference image

Decide on how complex you want the image to be. As a beginner, you might want to pick something very simple to memorize. Perhaps a shape or a simple cartoon figure.

Another strategy might be choosing something more complex but then picking a small part to memorize. You can memorize the parts of the whole also and then patch it together later. You don't have to memorize a whole figure; you can try to memorize something very simple, like how a sleeve folds over a lower arm. Make it small enough that you stand a chance of doing a reasonable job. You can always upscale the difficulty level later.

Above all, choose something you find pretty, something you admire, something you long to be able to draw. Don't choose something you think you have to memorize. Choose something you like. You want the reward of having a beautiful sketchbook page in the end.

3. Warm-up

Some people need more warm-ups than others. Some artists lunge into drawing. I need upwards of ten minutes, sometimes even one or two hours before I am in the right state of mind. Find out what works for you. See also my article on dexterity warm-up drawing exercises.

4. Memorize

There is a lot of flexibility in how you can approach drawing from memory, and you might change it based on your experience level over time or the circumstances you are in.

You can look at the reference image briefly, for example, then put it away, and try to recreate the impression the image gave you.

Or you can look at it longer. You can try to trace what you see with your finger in the air, or close your eyes and try to draw it in your mind's eye, then open your eyes and see what you got wrong. This works well! This allows you to draw when you don't have access to your drawing tools!

Drawing from observation is also one way you can memorize the image. It's not a bad option. The methods where you try to memorize without drawing tools handy are rather hard work! Memorizing while drawing from observation tends to be easier.

5. Pause

There is a time between when you memorize and when you draw.

At the short end is drawing from observation. You look at the model, memorize a detail, then turn your eyes to the paper, and in these few seconds, you try to draw what you memorized. Because drawing from observation is drawing from memory also, drawing from memory exercises help you improve drawing from observation! It is a fantastic exercise.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Nicolaides, who thought that the best drawing exercise was memorizing a scene you saw and then drawing it from memory the next day.

There are all sorts of choices between these extremes. I often draw immediately after I memorized, fifteen minutes later, or the next day. When you draw immediately after, you depend on your short-term memory. When you pause for 15 minutes or more, now you are working from and training your long-term memory.

Experiment, see what works for you. You can also do different types of memory drawing.

6. Draw from memory

Now draw it from memory. And, this is important: DO NOT CHEAT! It will be tempting to take a quick look at the reference. “What was the angle of that line? If I just know that, I can figure out the rest.” Don't fall for it, don't do it.

Here's the reason why:

You want to find out what you haven't stored in your memory yet so you can study it. If you quickly look it up, congrats, now you still don't know it, but you also deprived yourself of the opportunity to find out you don't know.

Draw from memory as best you can. Draw lightly so that you can draw over it later on to fix things.

7. Feedback: verify, and fix

Now compare your sketch to the reference image, and fix things that are wrong. Perhaps some angle was wrong, or some proportion. Or maybe you forgot about some details. Fix them in your drawing.

And then, immediately, put away the reference image AND your drawing, and draw it from memory again. Again, no cheating. You're only disadvantaging yourself by cheating. You want to find out what you do wrong, so you can study it, fix it, and make sure you don't make the same mistake again. But it starts with discovering you'd make that mistake without reference.

If your reference image was not too complex for you, this should be satisfying. Memorizing it was hard work, but now you get to draw it from memory magically. It is a cool and fun stage.

If you want to memorize this specific thing, you might want to practice using the same image a few days in a row to solidify that information in your long-term memory.

But, frankly, what you were also practicing was accessing this visual information from your memory. So you become better at accessing similar information already in your brain, which you do not have a lot of practice accessing. And training yourself to sense and feel when lines are right or wrong. It is okay to select something else to practice.

An important note: the goal is not to perfectly redraw the original reference! The goal is beautiful art, uniquely yours. If you find you have the urge to deviate from the reference in some way, then please do! Make it your own! I find this is a fun stage. You try more or less shading, or you add or remove details, or you change proportions, you change up style. You can also do this when you realize that you forgot something while drawing from memory: just make it up! Come up with your own solution. Make it a design activity. Lean back a bit, look at your drawing, try to figure out what you want to add to it or change.

On a side note, it is a really good idea to step back from your art and to see it small. You see sharp only in the center of your field of view, and when you place your artwork there, you get to see the whole and find out if there is something wrong with that whole. If you stand too closely, you only see details sharply.

8. Why it works

Our brain works because there are cells, and they fire electric signals to each other. Those signals initially go slow. But each time such a signal is fired, a coating of Myelin is added over the line, isolating that wire, and making the signal travel faster.

When you repeat something, the correct wirings get myelinated in your brain, and the right cell links signal more quickly.

This memory drawing exercise is structured so that you first find out what you don't know yet--the things you got wrong on the first try--and then consciously fix the mistakes, and in the process, you are myelinating the right channels between the cells. And voila, next time, suddenly you draw it correctly.

For this to work, you must focus and concentrate while doing the memorization and feedback steps. You need to pay attention; otherwise, you are not storing the new knowledge in your brain.

9. How long every day?

You can maybe work on your art in concentration for around five hours a day or so. But, frankly, memorization is exhausting. I found that I should often stick to one reference each day. If I finish with one reference and switch to the next one, I don't do as well as I did on the first one. It is seriously hard work. But that should be no surprise as the gains can be tremendous.

So try one fifteen-minute session each day, where you memorize, draw from memory, fix, and draw it again from memory. And then finish. See if you can scale up from there, but frankly, if you are doing one such session a day, you are doing very fine.

10. Advanced techniques

Here we get into the things Kim Jung Gi probably does. You can imagine an object being in a box, imagine rotating a box, and draw the object from another angle.

Or maybe you can change the design of the object. I find this one particularly fun, and you can change the proportions if you want.

Or perhaps you draw the person but in a different pose.

That concludes this brief explainer on drawing from memory exercises.

11. Take notes on what works

As you can see, there is a lot of flexibility in how you can draw from memory. As a beginner, you might feel one approach works best, but as you become more experienced, you might find other approaches work better. You can tweak many parameters, and it would be a good idea to try different approaches to see what suits you best. Keep an informal journal where you write down how you structured the drawing from memory exercises and note the results. What worked, what didn't? If things didn't work well, then set to redesigning the exercise.

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