Draw from Memory: Seeing to Remember

To draw from your memory, you need to access a visual image stored in your brain. Simple techniques (based on my 25-year career as a forensic artist) can help you store an image in your memory.

If you watch television or movies, you have probably seen a sketch artist’s drawing of a criminal suspect. A sketch artist (also called a forensic artist) translates the memories of eyewitnesses and victims into drawings. Memory enhancement techniques are integral to accessing the information required to create drawings based on someone else’s memory.

Surprisingly, these same techniques also help artists learn how to remember potential drawing subjects. Your five senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting) feed sensory information to your memory. “Seeing” employs both vision and perception to trigger strong sensory memories. You need to accurately see a potential subject before you can attempt to draw it from memory. Factors such as time, viewpoint, distance, and clarity influence your memory of what you see.

Taking time to carefully observe your subject is integral to remembering visual information. If you’re texting a friend while running to catch the subway, you probably won’t remember much about a clown sitting on the steps of the art gallery.
However, if you’re walking and paying attention to your surroundings, you may see the clown and possibly store enough information in your memory to later draw her.

You can retain more information about anything you want to remember when you view it from all sides. Examine a frontal view of a suspect (oops – meant to say “subject”). Check out the same subject in profile. From this viewpoint, the shape of the head is somewhat unexpected. Try to imagine what this criminal mastermind looks like from behind.


When a subject is far away, you can’t see it very well. On the other hand, if you are too close, you may not be able to see its entire shape and form.

In the first image below, Wesley the Maltese is too far away to see much in the way of details. You’re more likely to see and remember enough information to sketch his face and body if he’s a little closer (the middle image). If Wesley jumped into your lap and began licking your nose, you may remember feeling the wispy hairs of his mustache on your face and seeing the shine in his eyes (the third image). However, if this was the only time you saw him, you may have no memory of his head or body.

Ideally, you need to examine a subject from both far away and close-up.


Lighting conditions, weather, and air pollutants affect how well or how poorly you see a potential subject. Early morning or late evening may not provide enough light to see an outdoor subject clearly (the first image below). In addition, if a strong light source such as a sunrise or sunset is behind a subject, you may see only its silhouette rather than details. Subjects may appear blurry on a foggy, snowy, or rainy day (the middle image). Under ideal lighting conditions, you may be able to remember enough information to create a sketch (the image on the right).

About Brenda Hoddinott
Award-winning artist and author; illustrator, art educator, curriculum designer, co-owner of Drawspace.com, owner of Drawspace Publishing, and retired forensic artist Brenda has developed art curricula and taught multidisciplinary arts since 1980. During her 25-year career as a forensic artist, Brenda worked with diverse criminal investigative agencies including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Canadian Department of National Defense, private investigative agencies, and municipal police departments. Brenda and her partner John live in the suburbs of Halifax, Nova Scotia with their two SPCA rescue dogs: Timber the Huskador and Katie the Pitweiler. Their blended human family includes five adult children and two grandchildren. Books by Brenda Hoddinott include: 2012: Introduction to Contour Lines (Drawspace Publishing) 2012: Introduction to Drawing (Drawspace Publishing) 2011: Illustrated Dictionary of Art-Related Terms (Drawspace Publishing) 2010: Getting Started with Drawing (Drawspace Publishing) 2004: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Drawing People Illustrated (Alpha Books) 2003: Drawing for Dummies (Wiley Publishing, Inc.)

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