As a pianist, I’ve always struggled with memorization. It doesn’t come easily for me. Recently I spent weeks memorizing Schumann’s Melodie, a very simple piece with no real technical demands. I played it over and over. I studied the music carefully. I analyzed the composition measure by measure. Eventually I drilled it into my head, and only then could I really get the music into my heart.
That’s the term we often use in music, you know. Not playing from memory, but playing by heart.
I’ve used a similar concept in art and have written before about painting from the heart. At the time, though, I didn’t fully grasp the similarities between art and music and the concept of memorization.
Most of the time we’re painting from reference materials — photographs or sketches we’ve made — or painting en plein air. Much of what we’re taught involves painting what we see. And that’s important, to be sure.
But art is a lot more than what we see. It’s definitely about what we feel, and here is where memory comes into play in many ways. When we are inspired, it’s not so much because of what we see. Our inspiration comes from who we are, where we’ve been, and what we’ve experienced.
“We see something that stirs our soul with creative desire, because we recognize or remember subconsciously an old experience.” — John F. Carlson
But there’s more to memorization than our past. It also deals with our approach to painting. If we paint directly from a reference, we are limited by our physical senses. If we paint from memory, however, we are open to express far more than what’s before our eyes.
As I learn more about expressiveness in art — specifically in my art — I’m working with the concept of memorization. It involves a bit of initial brainwork and study. Once I have a scene in my head, I can then move toward my heart.
It’s a way of exploring not only what I see, but what I want to say. It involves masses, moods, memories, and messages.
Consider this scene, a photograph from my recent outing to North Lake:
During a recent drawing practice, I pulled this photo up and made a quick sketch. Being a page from my sketchbook, it didn’t produce a very clear image on the scanner, but maybe you can get the idea.
If you were to look closely at this page, you’d see not only the lines I drew, but also notes that I made.
I noted that the sky area at the upper right was the lightest area in the scene. I made a few notes about colors in the foreground. I marked places where the light fell on the water and the trees.
These areas are what I refer to as the masses of the scene. Like a pianist marking the correct fingering on a piece of music or noting certain dynamics, I took notes that would help me recall the scene from memory.
Earlier today, I took out my quick sketch. I glanced over it, and then I turned the page in my sketchbook and made additional notes on the back. This time, I worked completely from memory, listing the various masses and my impressions of them.
- Sky is very light
- Water is light and reflects colors from the sky
- Trees in the background are medium colors
- Area of the lake bank has strong value contrasts and many different colors
Next, I considered the moods and emotions that drew me to this scene.
From here, I dug deeper into my memories, recalling times and places from the past that this scene brought back to me.
- Exploring different lakes and conservation areas
- Being awed by the beauty of nature
- Feeling that I was also a part of nature
At last, I put these ideas together to come up with the thoughts and feelings I wanted to express in my painting of this scene.
- We become more fully alive in nature, and each new sunrise brings new hope for love, happiness, and peace. We should celebrate life and embrace it fully.
After all my preparatory work, I headed for my easel. For this practice, I decided to paint alla prima, doing the complete painting in a single session. I always have several canvases ready, so I looked through them and considered a light gray tone. No. Too somber for what I wanted to say. Next I thought about a yellow, and it would probably have worked quite well. My eyes went to another canvas though, one toned with a light pink.
This was my first improvisation — another musical term that can apply equally as well to art. I liked the warmth of the pink, so I chose that. Using variations of brown and ochre acrylics, I sketched in the basic elements of the scene, working mostly from memory with only a quick glance at my sketch. I didn’t look at the actual reference photo during my painting session.
Now, here’s something I want to work on more in the future — making the transition from sketchbook to canvas. I’ve come to a point where I can capture my basic ideas fairly well in a sketchbook. I’ve translated those ideas very loosely in the past, creating what one artist once referred to as “a roadmap only you can follow.” It made sense to me at the time. I want to do more detailed drawings now, however.
For what it’s worth, here’s my quickly-drawn acrylic roadmap:
Painting the scene from memory proved to be somewhat daunting. I knew the colors, I knew the essential elements of the scene, yet I’ll admit to feeling somewhat lost, especially since I’d changed the key of the scene by choosing the pink-toned panel.
But, it’s only a practice piece, and it was an opportunity for me to play with paints, and see what would happen. Here’s the final painting.
Yes, you’ll see quite a few differences as you look from one photo to the other, but that’s a large part of what painting from memory is all about. Plus, I couldn’t get my lake shore looking the way it should, so again, I improvised, and added a bit of a pathway.
Does the painting express any of my thoughts and feelings? No, not really. Yet I do think I captured some sense of peacefulness in the scene. I can see it as a painting that says “Just take a stroll along the lake, pause, and reflect upon who you are.”
Or maybe it’s saying “Slow down. Don’t rush through life.” Maybe it’s saying something else, and what it says to you — if anything — will come from your thoughts and feelings, your emotions and experiences.
I didn’t care much for the painting when I first stepped away from the easel, but little by little, I’m beginning to like it. It wasn’t what I wanted it to be, but it somehow became what it was meant to be — a painting from a memory, and a song played by heart.