Drawing requires a lot from us. There are a million things to learn and it feels like you need to know all of them before you even get started.
If you’re an artist, you’ll learn for a lifetime. You can go through that lifetime of learning with frustration at your progress or you can achieve mastery faster and have the freedom to create any visual masterpiece you can think of.
The top artists out there don’t even realize they used this technique to achieve the incredible skills they have. They’ll tell you to draw every day but instinctively they did something specific to help them learn –drawing from memory.
Retrieval practice or active recall is an efficient learning strategy where you recall facts or concepts from memory. It’s the single most efficient learning technique and though it sounds easy, few people practice it.
I’ve found that this is especially true for artists. This is one of the key reasons why your improvement as an artist appears to slow to a crawl. You study an exorbitant amount from reference and very little from memory. The top artists do the opposite.
Your brain has a storage and retrieval strength for all the information you learn. The storage strength is how well you’ve learned something, while the retrieval strength is how easily you can bring that information to the front of your mind. If all you do is study how to draw with reference material in front of you, you’ll never increase your retrieval strength – you won’t be able to recall it from memory when you need to use it.
Not only that, but you won’t have the full use of that information to manipulate it at will.
I went to an Atelier school for a year in Sweden. They train you from day one to closely observe your subject. I was surprised to find that the most skilled artists at the school, who practiced only this observation training, were unable to draw without reference.
I observed the sketchbook of one of the most skilled students and from just looking at his drawings, it was like seeing another artist’s work. Don’t get me wrong, sketchbooks can have messy drawings. The point is that the only good drawings in his collection of work were purely based from observation.
He couldn’t turn the forms, he couldn’t change the lighting– he lacked the ability to properly use the information he had so intimately observed. He never practiced from memory.
If you want to be an artist that does anything other than pure observational drawing, which is most of the artistic world, practicing from only reference will significantly impact your skills. You need to draw the information you’ve learned from memory so you can not only recall it but fully use it in any conceivable way.
You might think that your memory is like a computer, where all the information on any concept or subject is tucked away neatly in a folder of your mind. The truth is, memory is is more of a network – meaning you pull pieces of that memory from all over your brain. It’s not a one-to-one exchange where you recall a memory like you click on a folder on your computer to view its contents.
Your brain also remembers a lot more than you think. You may only recall some pieces of information from the network of that memory, but there’s more there that you’re not consciously aware of. When studies were done to prove the effectiveness of recall, it showed that when you learn something, and let some time pass, you don’t just forget what you’ve learned – you remember things too.
If you want to practice active recall, it’s really quite simple – draw from memory.
Say you’re learning to draw the portrait and you practice the proportions of the head from your study materials. Give yourself some time to forget the material. Wait 24 hours before you sit down and study it again, except this time, draw without the reference. See how much you can remember.
Retrieval practice can be a very uncomfortable process in the beginning. You’re trying to remember information that you could easily just look at. It’s hard. Give yourself a moment to remember what you learned. You need an opportunity to try to recall the concepts before you give up. If you give up too fast you won’t improve that retrieval strength.
As you start to recall the concepts you’ve learned, you might find that there are things you do in fact forget. This is when you can go back to review the parts you struggled with and wait for the next opportunity to practice retrieval.
When studies proved that recall was better than simply reviewing information, some students were convinced that reviewing was still better simply because it “felt better”. Do not fall into this trap. You’re going to feel uncomfortable with this method, but it’s the most effective learning technique. Get comfortable being uncomfortable and you can achieve the same mastery as the top artists in this industry.
If learning to draw was easy, everyone would do it. The majority of artists are mediocre. Only a small percentage manage to breakthrough and achieve incredible skills. Those are the artists who get noticed, who get hired, and enjoy creating their work – they made it past the point where their work looks okay and into the realm of awe-inspiring.
Learning to draw takes time. You can choose to make that time slow or use techniques like recall to learn faster and remember more. The choice is up to you. If you’re serious about becoming an artist, I would hope that you choose to practice recall and draw from memory.
You can have the freedom and exhilaration that comes from being able to fully use the information you learn. You can make your imagination come to life. Just draw from memory.