Paint from memory

I was lucky to have been introduced to painting at a time when the prevalent teaching dictums as expressed through fabulously talented teachers and painters emphasized the use of an artists’ ability to make paintings up from memory. The goal of the painting was a creative expressive statement combining an understanding of design and composition with that unique vision we all have inside of us.  Photographs were employed to assist in the process of defining or understanding the complexity of certain subject matter, but were frowned on for use as the total and final statement of possibility for the painting.

Making up shapes, designs,  and color relationships was at the heart of the painting process and the results were fun, free and expressive. Unfortunately somewhere along the line a large part of the painting community bought into the idea that the photograph was the ultimate and final word in the creative process. As a result many students have lost the ability to paint from memory or to make up subject matter. Fear grips them when asked to put the photo away — they know from experience that the painting that will result from painting without the use of the photograph will be a failure. Clumsy shapes, poor colors, lack of focus, and generally a waste of two hours of work will be the result. What a shame this is because the poor results come not from the process but from unfamiliarity and lack of experience with making up the painting. It is a skill that must be learned and refined and requires practice and commitment.

I can guarantee you two things.  First, it will be a slow go of it and initially painful; and second it will turn you on to a new world of creative possibilities when you become comfortable with doing it. Just look at the catalogues of the winning entries for the major art competitions and honestly appraise the work and you will find that the majority of the work represents a strong, unique statement that has gone far beyond the simple copying of a photograph. Great designs are more important than perfect reproduction to these painters and it should be that way for you also. For an analogy, let’s consider the creative writer for a moment. If the author did not create wonderful worlds and unique takes on the nature of things, the encyclopedia would be all the writing we would need to read. Some of us have fallen for the encyclopedia method of painting.

As a beginning let me say I know you are declaring me bonkers and in some ways I might be but not about this. I want you to make this approach only part of your painting process, not the entire way you paint. Begin with small steps and build to a more creative artistic vision. I very rarely paint from photos but I do use them for reference and assistance when I am confronted with things that I don’t know how to draw or shapes I am not comfortable with, but I use the photograph as a useful tool not the painting itself. I make value patterns to begin with that employ simple shapes, combining them in interesting ways that utilize good composition and design. I use shapes and objects that I am comfortable with, trying for a new and unique combination. All painters and for that matter all creative artists have their favorite shapes and themes and they continue to use them and explore their possibilities throughout their careers. By employing the familiar shapes and motifs we love we really learn to express our strong reactions to them and to be creative by using material we are not only comfortable with but feel an attachment to. I concentrate more on creating movement through the shapes and achieving a strongly stated focal point with subordinate places of interest around the painting. I try to create a nice circular flow around the painting. I find the making up of the arrangements and shapes to be a creative exercise that involves me and my ideas in the painting from the very start. One last thought before some exercises to try give yourself the permission to fail and to keep trying. Remember how you learned to ride a bike or play the guitar —  it was not a totally successful start I am sure.

As a starting point it is a good idea to think of subject matter that excites you and then think of the objects that are related to the subject. Pick out 5 or 6 shapes that represent your idea of the subject and roughly sketch them. Just get a feel for them — remember, exactness is not the goal. Then try to arrange them inside of a border that represents the shape of your paper and move them around changing their shape and size to make a good composition. Overlap them for a feeling of depth and just get a feel for them. Try to interlock some of the shapes by a common value and think about relating these value shapes against a contrasting value. Also begin to think about where you want your focal point to be. Remember the result of this exercise can be a painting, but it might just lead to another attempt at arranging the same shapes in new composition. You will know when it is a composition you want to paint. This is a starting point on the road to creative composition.

Try these Exercises

  • Look at one of your photographs or paintings and then turn in over. Draw it then paint it from memory. Think big shapes and limited detail. Choose the colors you want to use, not the ones that are exactly representative of the subject.
  • Draw and then paint a complicated subject from memory.  This time put in the details and all of the window dressing. Remember this is just a lesson, not a statement of your abilities as an artist.
  • Imagine the colors and textures of a place you love and verbalize them, really try to get the image in your head. Then just paint the colors and textures on paper. Imagine the underlying shapes and give structure to the painting. Do just a minimum of drawing because as you become comfortable with this you can do it without any drawing. You will just paint the big stuff.
  • Name a contrast and paint it. Examples are dark shape against a light background; cool light value shape against a dark cool value shape in a warm middle value; small piece of vibrant warm against a dark neutral.

In conclusion, in this chapter I am asking you to really put your artistic self on the line and to do things which might be really uncomfortable. I will promise you that if you try to make up designs and paint from the memory of your favorite places and shapes, your work will begin to have a new creativity and strength. You will be absolutely thrilled with your new freedom and vision and I am sure you will begin to really feel you are the artist you always wanted to be.


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