How to draw from memory?

How to draw from memory?

Question from Abiona

Please, I need your guidance on how and what to start doing (exercises and steps) to train myself to develop a photographic memory over time as an artist just starting out on the journey – visualizing images and memories and drawing them when I have no model or life reference.

Feedback from Vladimir London, Drawing Academy tutor

Hi Abiona,

Many thanks for your question.

Visual memory of an artist is a product of making constructive drawings from life.

You have an erroneous idea that having a photographic memory will help you to draw. This is like relying on drawing from photos stored in your head, which is copying, not drawing creatively.

There are some people who remember every single thing they ever heard, read, or saw – they have a form of mental disability and are unable to forget things. I know one autistic artist – Stephen Wiltshire, who suffers from Eidetic memory. Forgetting is one of the main functions of a human brain, which is contrary to a photographic memory, so I don’t think you want to have it in this sense.

How to draw from memory
Autistic artist Stephen Wiltshire draws 18ft picture of New York from memory after a 20-minute helicopter ride over city

On another hand, when you draw from life using constructive principles of drawing, practicing rules of perspective, studying human anatomy, making multiple drawings of whatever interests you – landscapes, portraits, figures and so on – with time, you will get the most important drawing skill: ability to draw what you know. This skill will enable to you draw anything you want from memory or imagination.

Here’s an example: a proficient portrait artist does not need to have a visual reference of an ear; he or she will have done hundreds if not thousands of ear drawings, perfectly knows an ear anatomy and proportions, and knows how to depict an ear from any angle in any perspective. This is the knowledge I’m talking about when mentioning the “draw what you know” rule.

The knowledge of an object – that’s what counts when drawing from memory. Such an artist would not need a photograph or even a life model to draw an ear of a particular person. Just having one look at a person’s ear, an artist would notice any individual features that diverge from the idealized shape and would easy remember and draw such discrepancies from memory. For example, an ideal ear has a one-to-two width-to-height ratio, so if a person has individual proportions that are more squarish, it is not a challenge for a proficient artist to notice this deviation and depict it realistically from memory.

The same example goes for anything else – knee joint, hand, shape of a skull, and so on. If you do 500 constructive drawings of eyes from life, you won’t need a model next time you want to sketch an eye. You can easily do it from memory.

It is not about keeping a visual image of a particular person in memory; it is about knowing how to draw a person and having a strong practice background of drawing from life.

When it comes to drawing a model from memory, an artist remembers what individual features this model has and adds those features to a generic template of a human body he or she has in mind. This way, an artist doesn’t need a photographic memory to draw a realistic, recognizable portrait of that model.

I hope this gives you a clear idea what to do to improve your drawing skills and learn to draw from memory and imagination – draw from life and learn proficient drawing skills like constructive drawing, rules of perspective, anatomy, and so on.

These skills are taught in the Drawing Academy.

Kind regards,

Vladimir London
Drawing Academy tutor

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Aaron says:

    It really doesn’t matter how smart someone is Drawing is a skill that needs to be well developed through practice and determination.

  2. Philip says:

    Drawing or painting what-you-know can only come from an intimate knowledge of the subject. Study and practice can provide this knowledge.
    However, I believe that the what-you-know approach always falls short of real world references that contain many nuances that are imagination falls short of.

    Thanks, Phil

    • Lily says:


      I think you are confused by what “draw-what-you-know” means. You don’t need “an intimate knowledge of the subject.” Instead, you have to know the rules of drawing that can be applied when drawing any subject. Knowing and applying those rules is “drawing-what-you-know.”

      For example, when I’m drawing a vase, I don’t want to get “intimate” with that vase. But I know this object is cylindrical and therefore will draw a vertical line of symmetry to check whether two outlines on either side of the vase are symmetrical; and I will also use this vertical line to check if axes of ovals are perpendicular to that line and also whether right and left parts of those ovals have the same dimensions.

      Of course, individual shapes of a vase, its design and features would be then drawn from life. So your comment that “imagination falls short” is rather redundant. Why anyone would draw from imagination when drawing objects from life?

      I guess you are a self-taught artist because you have major gaps in classical art education. No disrespect here; I just want to say that you need to study proper drawing techniques to understand what constructive drawing (or drawing-what-you-know) is.

  3. Tom Bolt says:

    I am just going to say this is all so mind boggeling. I spent four years in an accredited University carrying a double major, the first Art. Upon graduation I never recognized that I had been dupped. Honestly, it has been recently that I have discovered that I learned squat. I never drew any better than the day I graduated with my B.B. It is here that I have had to face the reality that I have no skill at all. I can copy pretty darned good but beyond that….???
    At 74 Now, I don’t have the time to do much except enjoy and be amazed like with this piece. Humbelness will get you further than anything else will.

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