Personal references for memory jogging

     Most artists can’t just pull a picture out of their heads on short notice.  Unless they are painting a completely abstract picture, they usually have to have something to help them come up with things like shapes, colors, and composition.  This is where personal reference material comes in.

     Reference material comes in a lot of formats.  It can be sketches, tiny rough paintings, photographs, magazine clippings, or things remembered and jotted down later.  The very best reference materials are things that have personal meaning for the artist — things that will help him/her paint something that stirred their emotions to the point of wanting to paint it.  Of all the ways to collect reference material, your own sketches and photos will probably yield the best results because they mean something personal to you. 

     For example:  A couple of days ago I was driving in the country and passed an old grain storage building out in the middle of nowhere. The lonely scene stayed in my mind.  When I got home, I quickly did a rough sketch from memory of the dilapidated building, the melting snow, the brown grass peeking through, and the dark fields and woods beyond.  The sketch will be enough to jog my memory of the scene when I do the painting.

     Using photographs as reference is almost as good, but because photos are so easy to take, the camera rather than the artist does the looking.  Fortunately, we can combine different kinds of reference materials to fit our needs.  Artist Charles Sovek spent time sketching backstage in a theater during rehearsals.  “The subject matter was inspiring, the people and props were exciting, and the color and mood were a perfect backdrop for some possible paintings,” he says.  However, the only material he could come away with were quick drawings in his sketchbook.  He returned to the theater later, after rehearsal, and took photos of exactly what props, costumes, and colors looked like.   Using all these bits and pieces to bring back memories of the atmosphere of the theater, he created several impressive paintings.

     Another way to retain images for future pictures is “memory painting.”  Many artists develop their visual memories to such a point that they can retain enough information to sketch a detailed drawing of a subject weeks after seeing it.  Anyone can improve their visual memory by simply making the effort to really look at what is around them.  For example, if you are waiting for an appointment you can study the details of the waiting room — the location and kind of furniture, the colors, the decorations and plants, and even the other people in the room.  Some people remember details best; others like to look at the whole scene and keep the impression of it in their mind.  When that impression is put into paint, it usually has the essence of the scene uncluttered by trivial material.

     Memory painting isn’t anything new.  Whistler would have a friend describe a scene to him as he looked at it.  Then he went to his studio and worked from memory, recalling his friend’s words to help trigger the visual images he retained from the scene.

     Using personal reference material does more than help you remember a scene; it also gives your work life and feeling.  A few years ago an artist entered several paintings in a local competitive exhibit.  The rules called for original paintings (“original” meaning coming from the artist’s own ideas, not copied from another person’s art or photo).  A few people suspected that the artist had copied the pictures from someone else’s photographs.  However, no one could prove that the paintings weren’t original, so the pictures were included in the jurying process.  The jurors eliminated the artist’s paintings in the first round of jurying.  One juror commented, “These paintings are really well done, but they have no emotion.  The artist didn’t put any feeling into the work, and it is boring.”

     Personal reference material helps artists share their feelings with those who view their art.  Using personal sketches and your own photos will give your paintings a quality of “aliveness.”

By Kay Sluterbeck/AAPJ      




Published by on February 2011. Filed under Archives, Tips&Techniques PB dept. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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