And, just like you, I wanted to figure out how he did that. So I searched for interviews, and what he said in those interviews was that he used to draw from memory a lot. When he was a soldier in the army, he would not have drawing tools with him, so he'd draw in his mind. I don't know if he still does it, but if I remember correctly, he'll memorize A STACK of images and then draw them from memory. He'll practice like this like five hours a day. I think he said he never pulls all-nighters anymore since he is married. Adding: only once a month or so.
Of course, you need to draw a lot to get better at drawing. But perhaps his practicing drawing from memory helped him fill his memory banks with images he could use from memory for reference.
I had always resisted drawing from memory. Why would you, when you had access to the actual reference to look at? It seemed stupid to me.
I had studied at a fine art academy, and there they emphasized drawing from observation. You know, look at the model as long as possible and your paper as little as possible.
Drawing from memory is the opposite! When drawing, you don't look at your model at all. So much for hard rules in art.
And if you think about it, even drawing from observation is drawing from memory, in a way; as you turn to the page, you memorize what you want to draw for a few seconds. I found that practicing drawing from memory improved my ability to visualize things in my mind and made me better at drawing from observation.
And then, I tried the exercise for a few days, and the results seriously blew me away. I discovered that I became better at drawing things I hadn't practiced this way! As much as it is perhaps about filling your memory banks with visual references, it may also be about accessing such information that is already in your head. We already know what things look like but can't summon the images in our mind's eye. Practicing drawing from memory improves your ability to visualize what you want to draw in your mind and then draw what you have in mind.
You can practice anything this way, and it has become my go-to Swiss army knife for drawing exercises.
When I tried drawing from memory, it was a huge revelation. The exercise did a lot to help me improve my skills.
But enough ranting and raving. Let's dig into the exercise!
As to paper, you can work on separate sheets of paper or in a sketchbook. You will be making multiple drawings of the same thing. If you work in a sketchbook, try to structure it so that you make, for example, a drawing on one left page, then on the right page of the next page. You want to be able to draw the thing without being able to see your previous attempts. Loose sheets of paper are practical for that, but you will often arrive at beautiful drawings, and for some reason, if you keep your sketches in a sketchbook, it makes it much easier to keep, to store away, on bookshelves, for example. Loose sheets of paper tend to be thrown away more often. Try out both options, and see what works for you.
Another strategy might be choosing something more complex but then picking a small part to memorize. You can memorize the parts of the whole also and then patch it together later. You don't have to memorize a whole figure; you can try to memorize something very simple, like how a sleeve folds over a lower arm. Make it small enough that you stand a chance of doing a reasonable job. You can always upscale the difficulty level later.
Above all, choose something you find pretty, something you admire, something you long to be able to draw. Don't choose something you think you have to memorize. Choose something you like. You want the reward of having a beautiful sketchbook page in the end.
You can look at the reference image briefly, for example, then put it away, and try to recreate the impression the image gave you.
Or you can look at it longer. You can try to trace what you see with your finger in the air, or close your eyes and try to draw it in your mind's eye, then open your eyes and see what you got wrong. This works well! This allows you to draw when you don't have access to your drawing tools!
Drawing from observation is also one way you can memorize the image. It's not a bad option. The methods where you try to memorize without drawing tools handy are rather hard work! Memorizing while drawing from observation tends to be easier.
At the short end is drawing from observation. You look at the model, memorize a detail, then turn your eyes to the paper, and in these few seconds, you try to draw what you memorized. Because drawing from observation is drawing from memory also, drawing from memory exercises help you improve drawing from observation! It is a fantastic exercise.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Nicolaides, who thought that the best drawing exercise was memorizing a scene you saw and then drawing it from memory the next day.
There are all sorts of choices between these extremes. I often draw immediately after I memorized, fifteen minutes later, or the next day. When you draw immediately after, you depend on your short-term memory. When you pause for 15 minutes or more, now you are working from and training your long-term memory.
Experiment, see what works for you. You can also do different types of memory drawing.
Here's the reason why:
You want to find out what you haven't stored in your memory yet so you can study it. If you quickly look it up, congrats, now you still don't know it, but you also deprived yourself of the opportunity to find out you don't know.
Draw from memory as best you can. Draw lightly so that you can draw over it later on to fix things.
And then, immediately, put away the reference image AND your drawing, and draw it from memory again. Again, no cheating. You're only disadvantaging yourself by cheating. You want to find out what you do wrong, so you can study it, fix it, and make sure you don't make the same mistake again. But it starts with discovering you'd make that mistake without reference.
If your reference image was not too complex for you, this should be satisfying. Memorizing it was hard work, but now you get to draw it from memory magically. It is a cool and fun stage.
If you want to memorize this specific thing, you might want to practice using the same image a few days in a row to solidify that information in your long-term memory.
But, frankly, what you were also practicing was accessing this visual information from your memory. So you become better at accessing similar information already in your brain, which you do not have a lot of practice accessing. And training yourself to sense and feel when lines are right or wrong. It is okay to select something else to practice.
An important note: the goal is not to perfectly redraw the original reference! The goal is beautiful art, uniquely yours. If you find you have the urge to deviate from the reference in some way, then please do! Make it your own! I find this is a fun stage. You try more or less shading, or you add or remove details, or you change proportions, you change up style. You can also do this when you realize that you forgot something while drawing from memory: just make it up! Come up with your own solution. Make it a design activity. Lean back a bit, look at your drawing, try to figure out what you want to add to it or change.
On a side note, it is a really good idea to step back from your art and to see it small. You see sharp only in the center of your field of view, and when you place your artwork there, you get to see the whole and find out if there is something wrong with that whole. If you stand too closely, you only see details sharply.
When you repeat something, the correct wirings get myelinated in your brain, and the right cell links signal more quickly.
This memory drawing exercise is structured so that you first find out what you don't know yet--the things you got wrong on the first try--and then consciously fix the mistakes, and in the process, you are myelinating the right channels between the cells. And voila, next time, suddenly you draw it correctly.
For this to work, you must focus and concentrate while doing the memorization and feedback steps. You need to pay attention; otherwise, you are not storing the new knowledge in your brain.
So try one fifteen-minute session each day, where you memorize, draw from memory, fix, and draw it again from memory. And then finish. See if you can scale up from there, but frankly, if you are doing one such session a day, you are doing very fine.
Or maybe you can change the design of the object. I find this one particularly fun, and you can change the proportions if you want.
Or perhaps you draw the person but in a different pose.
That concludes this brief explainer on drawing from memory exercises.