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September 2013



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Training your sketcher's memory...

I've often written about memory drawings and gesture sketches and such...recently I've found myself frequently putting those concepts to work in my OWN sketches and drawings.

I've been inspired by the work on Urban Sketchers, where I am happy to be a correspondent--look at this fantastic stuff from all over the world! www.urbansketchers.com/ Often, when sketching in these situations, there simply isn't time to include a lot of detail or measure one proportion against another. We just have to GET IT DOWN, as quickly as possible.

I've been noticing people a lot, lately, going on about their business...

(You can click on the image for a larger version, if you wish.)

I had time to really observe the boy playing games on his cell phone, and drew him fairly carefully with my mechanical pencil, paying attention to the tilt of his head and what it did to normal proportions. When someone's head is inclined toward you, of course you see much more of the crown of the head, and much less of the lower part of their face. All their features appear to be crowded together closer to the bottom, because of perspective.

The women were both passing by in the parking lot, gone in a heartbeat. I had to rely on my memory and quick observation.

On the one in the middle, I simply drew what I could see of her, and didn't try to complete the rest...the elderly lady on the right, however, I only had time to get her hair and ear before she'd disappeared behind the next car.

There was the same situation here:

Yesterday's people

I had more time to sketch the young mother from direct observation (the baby, on the other hand, moved constantly, so she was more of a challenge! )

The woman in the grocery store, right, above, imprinted herself on my memory, and was drawn maybe 10 minutes later.

Someone on my Flickr album asked how I made myself remember things like this long enough to sketch--here what I do, and I think it's what most artists do instinctively:

I make myself remember details by asking myself questions or making mental notes as I observe. In her case, the pose caught my eye, and that tiny topknot of gray hair, but other than that I noted the simplicity of her outfit, the shape of her hair and head from the front, her chin line, the fact that she was wearing glasses, her thinness, and wondered if she'd been beautiful when she was young. All that can take place in less than a minute.

I looked back at her as we left, and quickly made a mental note of her profile...

Sometimes I think that fleeting impression we take away with us is almost like a snapshot--it freezes the action.

Grocery-store lady

I had a bit longer with this lady-- kateslover was in line at the grocery store and I stepped out to get a better look at this colorful outfit. Again, though, I took mental notes. When we got out to the truck I began sketching, and he asked how I DID that, since it really did capture something of her personality. I told him I just note things to myself: "denim jacket with elastic at a rather short waist and full skirt--short curly gray hair--bright plaid skirt with red setting off the red in the ethnic kerchief--black tights and shoes..."

And just by doing that I was able to add the color to my pencil sketch even after we got back home.

Neither method is superior--long, careful, direct observation is wonderful, 10 minute sketches are terrific, training your memory is not only fun but great exercise.  Try them all!

(I don't know that any of these people would recognize themselves in my sketches...but I do!)

By the way, I just found one of my favorite books on sketching and added it to my virtual bookstore on Amazon (link at left!)--it's James Gurney and Thomas Kinkade's delightful The Artist's Guide to Sketching
which I'll review in more length here soon. It's no longer in print, but it's a TREASURE. I've been rereading it, and was delighted to see that they recommend trying both these methods--and many others. If their results are any indication--and they are--these are techniques well worth trying.

This is one of the books Russ Stutler recommends on his sketching website, as well--it's been a favorite for years! (Catch up with Russ's work here: www.stutler.cc/other/sketchbook/sketchbook.html )

(Gurney, as I've mentioned before, is the James Gurney of Dinotopia fame. His blog is terrific--it's Gurney Journey, at gurneyjourney.blogspot.com/, and if you haven't bookmarked it, I strongly recommend it!)


Interesting post. I like the sketches, particularly the use of limited white for highlights in the first image.
Thanks, Owen! I really enjoy this technique...and since I have mixed papers in my journal and I'm down to about four of toned paper, it's a good thing!


Hi Kate;

This is a great article! I actually read it twice. It remiinds me of a game we played in Girl Guides (like your Girl Scouts): our teacher/leader would assemble various items on a tray. Then we had 5 minutes to look at everything before she put it away in a cupboard. We would have to write a list of the items on the tray and the more we got right, she would add 3 more items to the trsy for us to memorize. She would do this for an hour before stopping. By the end we'd have to remember up to 50 things. You could do the same thing but draw each item, with the correct colours. Fun!

(Thanks for your 'Well Wishes'on my site today. ) ;)
Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it! And yes, I'd forgotten about exercises like that--I read about it in a spy novel once!

And you're welcome!


I am in awe of anybody who can sketch people and animals and make them look so wonderful--and you do that with both so well. I pretty much stick to photos and pictures so far. You develop different skills when you draw from real life as you do. Maybe some day--and if I ever am trying to capture anything that's moving, I'll remember your sage advice. :)
Instead of waiting till "if I ever am trying" why not do it NOW, as practice! You'll get better and better at it!