… the use of memory, the perfection of memory to render specific qualities of light was considered both a practical skill … and a necessary discipline of the professional artist.David Cleveland, History of American Tonalism
Although working from memory was once a necessary discipline for the landscape artist, this has not been the case over the last one hundred years. Well known methods of training visual memory and an understanding of its powerful potential for landscape painters have gradually been lost since the end of the 19th century. Evidence of its once accepted role can be found in early 20th century books still read and studied by contemporary landscape painters like John Carlson’s Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting and Landscape Painting by Birge Harrison. These books–in the case of Carlson, in the very last chapter of his book — piqued my interest in learning more about how to work from memory.
Although my desire to work from memory was initially driven by frustration—the difficulty in capturing fleeting effects of light at transitional times of day—over time I saw its utility in a much broader light, a way to tap into a deeper relationship with nature and a deeper vein of meaning in my work.
This way of working required that I learn to see nature in a whole new way. Landscape painters learn to see nature as motif. We are trained to see nature as component parts consisting of the building blocks of picture making—shapes, values, design, color. As an artist, I was trained to see it painted, that is, to look at Nature and visualize the translation from three-dimensional reality to a painted surface before I ever started to paint. The instruction to see it painted is not bad advice. In fact, it’s an essential skill at some point in the creative process.
Landscape painting, whether done in the studio or outdoors, is a series of problem solving decisions, so the mind and eye are alert and constantly sorting through relevant data and making choices—comparing values, mixing the right color, editing and rearranging. When working outdoors in nature, I found that that I was unable to simply experience nature, or to recall specific visual memories of it, if I was engaged in picture making. What I needed was a new way of seeing—a way that would allow me first to simply experience nature and strive to be a part of it. As a participant rather than an observer I could see it for what it was—Nature–not motif. I call this Pure Seeing.
I embarked on this method as a way to engage more deeply with Nature and by doing so to transcend superficial observational reporting with something experiential and poetic. I was after a synthesis of fact and feeling—the intersection of knowledge and deep connection to subject with emotional response. Pure Seeing was the first step.
Let me begin by stating that the meaning in which I use the word memory is that of stored observation.Horace LeCoq de Boisbaudrian, The Training of the Memory in Art and the Education
I also began to study the 19th century methods of training visual memory, working my way back from Carlson and Harrison, to Horace LeCoq de Boisbaudrian who was an influential teacher and pioneer in training visual memory in 19th century France. I experimented with his methods in my own work and worked with my students utilizing these methods as well. In addition, I begin to research what is now known about the science of memory—how memories are formed, stored, and recalled. I even wrote and presented a paper on the topic of The Training and Use of Visual Memory for Representational Landscape Painters at the 2015 TRAC Convention.
What I discovered was that memory is much more than a way to recall fleeting effects of light. It is a way into a deeper relationship with nature and into a more personal response to it. Memory is a powerful filter, an alembic through which visual experience is distilled and intensified, and mixed with other memories, associations and feelings, to form a heady brew of inspiration. Memory is generative. It juxtaposes sensory experience with the life of the mind. It helps the landscape painter to achieve a unity of visual impression underlined with meaning and opens the door to working from imagination.