Artist and teacher Robert Henri (1865–1929) proposed that the best kind of art school would be one at which the subject is in one room, and the students paint in another. Students would take as much time as they wanted looking at the subject, then they’d have to use their memory of it to paint. After studying the subject from many angles, into the painting room students would go “carrying only what they know.” He went on to say that painting by memory “will make it possible to make your statement of something when it was the most beautiful to you.”
I have never painted by memory. I’m a photo-reference gal. I print out a couple photos of a subject, I draw on them making grids and notes, and I look at them constantly while I’m painting. I don’t paint everything I see, but I look very hard at the photo to decide how I want to edit it for my painting. I listen to loud music or podcasts, and I have a good time.
During the 30/30 challenge, I painted my first picture from memory. And it was out of necessity (mmm, laziness). I work up one morning during sunrise and went out to the pergola in front of our beach house in my jammies to drink my coffee. It was a cloudy morning so the sun wasn’t screaming at my eyes, and there was a swarm of little birds hovering and diving over the ocean. I wanted to take a picture for a painting later, but I had left my phone in my bedroom, and I didn’t want to go get it. And there was no one to holler at to get it for me. I decided to try Henri’s practice. “Ok, Amanda, take it aaalllll in.” Those birds stayed. I stared. I ran out of coffee. I made mental notes about what I thought was important about the scene and ignored the rest. When I painted it a few hours later, it turned out exactly as I had wanted to remember the scene. AND painting was easier and faster in this method. AND this painting was the most popular (per Instagram likes) one of the 30. Now in full honesty, I wanted a decent shot at success, so I limited the size of the painting to 3.5 x 3 inches.
The next day I painted a companion piece of sunset in the same size. This one was done from a photo. Looking time + painting time together, I spent about the same amount of time on this one as the sunrise, but there was a clear difference in mood and affect when I spent more time looking than painting. Those personal qualities that appear beyond technique. Just like Henri said.
I Heart Art
I do! I make it, sell it, think about it, look at it, read about it, and (sometimes) I write about it. Join my mailing list, and you'll receive my brief--promise--messages about new work, shows, events, and a little inspiration. Probably a picture of my dog, too.