Color and the Use of Memory

Color, from memory
Color sketch, from memory

“How can I improve my ability to draw from memory?” a friend asked me. I told him I knew of a 19th century text on just that issue and Rodin himself studied with the author. It had been about ten years since I had looked at the text and it was really his own interest in drawing from memory that my friend brought it into the present. In fact he had his most difficult name on his lips, “do you mean Lecoq De Boisbaudran?’

“That is exactly who I mean,” I answered.  Boisbaudran wrote The Training of the Memory in Art and The Education of the Artist in the 1880’s which was eventually translated into English in 1911. When I had first encountered this text during my education at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art, I had been primarily interested in acquiring the ability to draw from memory. I had read everything in regard to Rodin early on in my artistic pursuits. Rodin said his study with Boisbaudran was one of the most formative experiences of his life and it shaped the way he was able to work from life and build on that experience through his memory of the model. It will be remembered that Rodin did not pose his models but allowed them freedom in the studio to walk, meditate and move unhindered. From these exercises, Rodin developed his ideas for his sculptures. This very practice did not originate with Rodin but with Boisbaudran’s method of training the artist.

Looking back on this text as an older and much more developed artist, I have found a new interest in it through his use of memory and color retention. As a young artist, I found that this idea seemed practically impossible to achieve. It seemed so out of reach that I scarcely remember it as being part of the course of study. But now it stands there questioning me. Is this something I have the ability to acquire? I know Henri had achieved this skill. He writes in his notebooks that he reworked some of his portraits from memory. In fact, he even began a new portrait of the model on a fresh canvas from memory- achieving a likeness as well as perfect color retention.

I have found that the use of the spectrum palette of Henri’s very useful to this end. The use of the spectrum palette involves a process of mixing pigments repeatedly to achieve the desired relationship of tones. This constant mixing and remixing joined with one’s need to compare tones aides in color memory. When I first began using this method it was very difficult and time consuming to get the proper relationships. But over time, I was able to mix more quickly as well as have an immediate sense of its proper relationship to the surrounding tones. This developed sensitivity to color relationships improved my ability to see and remember color.

Boisbaudran notes that working from the human figure, from life, aides our ability to remember. He accounts for this because one has an inherent relationship with another human being whereas an inanimate object or a landscape or an abstract shape takes less hold on our memory and therefore its shape and color is more difficult to retain. Henri’s method of working with the spectrum palette and from life increased his ability to remember. Working repeatedly in this fashion allowed him to retain a memory of color, color temperature and tone relationships. Boisbaudran has his own method of studying tones and reproducing them with exactitude, but I feel Henri’s method may in a way be closer to a broader truth about color and color relationships. With Henri, one looks at all the colors in the composition and their direct relationship to each other. There is a broad unity and harmony in this way of working and I feel in many ways easier to obtain a more exacting memory of color. One retains not only a certain tone in one’s memory but its broader relationship to the whole. And seeing the whole helps one to see the individual parts more clearly. This type of sensitivity to visual phenomena will open more avenues within the memory.

Nothing can replace working from life, but simultaneously working from memory will enable one to capture the fleeting things that we see and enjoy but always seem to be just out of our grasp. By working our memory, our awareness is increased and our sensitivity to those fleeting moments become heightened. We feel compelled through memory to capture those incidents. Sargent in many ways felt that his late mural work was his greatest achievement- the imagination joined to all those years of working from life- where the memory empowered by the imagination was given the freedom it had so long desired.

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

5 thoughts on “Color and the Use of Memory”

  1. Ms. Reeve – I am considering coming to your 5 day June workshop as I admire both your paintings and your artistic vision as you write about so eloquently. As an older person I am a bit wary of working 5 consecutive days. I have taken a 3 day workshop and was very tired at its completion. Otherwise, I am excited by the prospect of learning to paint the figure under your tutelage. Thank you.

    Judith Tallerman

    1. Judith, For the workshop, I am planning to have a morning pose and an afternoon pose- both different- but each will continue throughout the week. A possible approach could be this- you could focus on the a.m. pose and work this to completion. Then in the afternoon, you could take a more experimental approach- producing various sketches, trying different color combinations on the palette and really getting to know the possibilities available in your palette. In many ways, you could learn more about color and be able to carry this over to your own work. Many times my students are afraid to just experiment. They feel they are wasting their precious time with the model and desire to take home completed works. But there is only so much to accomplish in a workshop. It is much more important to carry away the knowledge rather than a finished piece. By experimenting with studies, one will be able to try many things within the five days without the pressure to complete a piece. This way, one can have a wonderful record of the experiments to take home and have available in one’s own studio as a reference for further experimentation and the possibility of then carrying one to completion using one’s own imagery. Think about it.- Judith

  2. Beautiful color sketch from memory. It looks like it was done from life. It is very impressive. I am in complete agreement with you about the ability to work from memory being so important in helping to capture fleeting images from life. The best I am able to do now is produce a not very elaborate line drawing from memory of a pose I had recently been working on from life. It can be frustrating because the results are not nearly as good as what I get working from life. It really shows me what I don`t know but it can be fun too and the drawings improve with practice. Something interesting I have noticed lately is that while it is beyond my ability to do a color study from memory when I am nearing the end of an extended figure painting from life I am sometimes better able to pull it together when the model is not there.

    How exciting it was on Saturday to see your figure painting done from memory. What an accomplishment!
    You had it all drawing, action, anatomy, gorgeous color, composition and sentiment. I was especially impressed by your use of color and temperature to describe the forms. This is figure painting at the highest level.

    I am very much looking forward to taking your workshops and class at the Woodstock School of Art.

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