As well as being creatively stimulating, working from memory has many practical advantages, there is no need to go anywhere to find your subject matter as it is all there in your head, gathered perhaps on occasions when it was impossible to sit down and paint or sketch. There is not the same pressure to work quickly – the light doesn’t change, things don’t move around in a remembered image and you can take time to consider your next move.
In order to be able to recall what you see with any confidence it is necessary to develop a reliable visual memory. I believe that this can be done with practice in the same way as musicians can learn to play by ear, the advantage being that they do not need to refer constantly to the score and can therefore concentrate on interpreting the music.
The more you exercise your ability to recall what you see the clearer and more complete these remembered images become. To begin with it is rather like trying to paint a picture from a dream; the memory may seem as clear as anything in your mind but when you try to get it down on paper it slips from your grasp, the space is hard to pin down and certain crucial elements seem to be missing.
Not surprisingly it seems that working from observations is, in the first instance, the best exercise for developing the visual memory; it makes you aware of tone, colour and the way things look generally; it helps you to understand the way light and shadows work. Anyone who has spent much time painting will probably find that they are frequently making mental notes whilst doing something else – about colour and tone, shapes and patterns. This tendency can soon be developed into conscious memorising of complete images which can be summoned up at a later date in the studio.
When I was a student I filled numerous sketchbooks and drew wherever I went. I think this was valuable drawing practice and it undoubtedly helped me to notice my surroundings and the way things work visually. Nowadays, though, I sketch very little and find that it is better not to sketch at all if I wish to remember a specific image. It seems far more reliable to observe with greater concentration and really drum it into your head rather than to relax and make notes, which can mislead you if you depend on them later on when the memory has faded.
Working from memory opens up a much broader range of subject matter. You are no longer restricted to the conveniently paintable. The first time I deliberately memorised an image, with the view to making a picture from it, was in the dentist’s chair – a bright little light shining in my eyes and the corner of the room beyond. It was very beautiful. The next occasion was in a Greek hospital where I had to wait all night with a friend. It was boredom that drove me to it initially but once I was aware of the light reflecting on the lino floor and a little figure in a distant bed I became totally absorbed in the process of memorising the scene. Every now and then I would close my eyes and test myself on the tonal relationships or the proportions of, say, the figure to its surroundings, until I had gathered enough information from which to work. Since then I have returned at regular intervals to working from memory, either in painting, drawing or printmaking. There are always a number of images stored in my memory which haven’t yet surfaced but, strangely enough, they don’t seem to fade very quickly. From those which have emerged, I have chosen a few to illustrate here.