Painting from memory

I suspect that it was the Victorians who invented the self-improvement industry. One of the many tracts intended to lead to a better life was written by the redoubtable Marie-Élisabeth Blavet Cavé, published in 1869, and described her method for learning to draw from memory. Although none now makes the best-seller lists, there is still a steady trickle of modern equivalents.

Drawing and painting from memory were certainly quite popular in the days before photography reached the masses, with the likes of Kodak’s Brownie roll film camera of 1900. Until then, artists painting away from their motif could only rely on their own sketches, plus whatever they could recall from memory. Once ‘trained’, the theory went, you could recall more of a view or other motif than could be captured in a quick sketch.

Modern research on visual memory has focussed more on short-term memory – the facility which you rely on when painting in front of the motif, so that you can apply more brushstrokes without having to keep looking back at the original. Compared to the sort of ability which the Cavé Method was claimed to develop, detailed short-term memory appears surprisingly limited to little more than a handful of objects at best.

Since I was a child, I have been aware that I am able to recall quite vivid, accurate images of even relatively brief moments, and inspect them in my “mind’s eye’. I don’t know that that is anything exceptional, but it is quite often very useful. Rather than trying to remember where I put things which I have misplaced, I often find it better to visualise remembered images of likely locations, and search those in my “mind’s eye”.

It does have its down side too. I can, as the saying goes, always remember a face. I am also pretty good at remembering names. But because faces seem to get stored in visual memory, and names in verbal memory, they are often very hard to associate. I have tried to store visual images of names with faces, but it just doesn’t seem to work, and as I grow older, I find recalling names harder too; the images seem to stay forever.

I cherish my visual memory. It is a bit like a mental photo album: I can recall images from when I visited Japan in the early 1990s, for instance, those of a shrine in memory of dead babies, and other ancient temples in Kamakura. Images with strong emotional associations stay best, and remain most vivid, at times even haunting.

My artistic preference is for painting en plein air, in front of the motif, whenever possible, engrossed in trying to express the sunlit view before me. There are inevitably many occasions when the changeable maritime climate here on the south coast of England is less than co-operative, though. I have, as an exercise and inspired by the Cavé Method, attempted one complete painting from memory, and was pleasantly surprised at how faithful it was, when compared later with photos, and the view itself.

I am not, though, convinced that the Cavé or any other method can result in any dramatic improvements in accuracy. A ‘photographic memory’ seems to be an ability which you either have, or you have not. Diligent attempts to try to acquire high accuracy in those who struggle to visualise remembered images may bring a little improvement, but I doubt whether they can be transformative.

And as far as I can tell, such strong long-term visual memory has been little explored by any form of experimental study.

If you know any more, I would be fascinated to hear from you.