Thursday, 29 May 2008

The Constable Memory Exercise

Visual memory is an important part of drawing and painting because you cannot draw accurately unless you first observe accurately. It is therefore important to develop a sharp sense of observation.

When you learn painting, copying from the masters will give you valuable insights into their technique as well as their sense of composition and colour.

This exercise is designed to develop your visual memory while forcing you to observe the work you are copying from in a deep and analytical way. It has been inspired by the life of John Constable.

In “Memoirs of the life of John Constable”, his biographers CR Leslie comments on the artist’s bad health and how his doctors tried in 1811 to take him away from the melancholy that was affecting him with the following artistic therapy:

“It now became apparent to Constable’s friends that his health was declining. It was, I believe, at this time that Sir George Beaumont undertook to be his physician, and prescribed for him that he should copy a picture entirely from memory. He was to walk every day to Sir George’s house in Grosvenor Square, look at the picture as long as he pleased, then return home and paint as much of it as he had retained in his recollection, until the copy was finished. The regular exercise and the change of scene, combined with an agreeable and not too arduous employment were to work the cure. The picture selected was a landscape by Wilson, and the experiment was tried, but the malady under which Constable laboured was not to be easily removed.”

This experiment may have not cured Constable but cannot do any harm to your artistic development, on the contrary.

John Constable Stonehenge - Victoria and Albert Museum
– Londres
A few suggestions on how to set-up this exercise:

  • Select a painting you like by an artist you like. Life is too short to paint something you don’t have feeling for.

  • If you live close an art museum (and the entry is free or your have an annual pass), select the painting to work from in the museum gallery. Working from an original painting will give you more benefits.

  • If you work from a reproduction, keep your model outside of your studio. If you work outside of your home, you could keep it in your office. If you work from home, just put the model in a different room.

  • Take your time: Take all the time you need to observe the painting you are copying. Then, paint only a portion of the painting each day. Building-up the mental image of the model over time is part of the exercise. The image of your model should become clearer and clearer as time passes.

Related articles and resources
John Constable on painting from nature

Memoirs of the Life of John Constable: Composed Chiefly of His Letters (Arts & Letters)

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