Storing an Image in Your Memory

During my 25-year career (1978-2003) as a forensic artist, I was often asked, “How do you draw from someone else’s memory?” Simple answer: “It’s not much different than drawing from your own memory.”

Visualization techniques facilitate the gathering of credible information by attempting to bring all five senses into the memory enhancement process. Throughout this initial visualization stage of a cognitive interview, I would write meticulously detailed notes. Then, I continuously referred to these notes while the victim or eyewitness helped me create a composite drawing.

Seeing is the most important stage of creating a memory. Several people can view the exact same subject under identical conditions, and yet each person may remember a completely different image.

I was once called to a bank that had been robbed by a male suspect without a mask. I created sketches with each of the three witnesses who had clearly seen him close-up.

When the detectives and I later met up, we compared the three drawings. The three men looked very different from one another – they didn’t even look like cousins. Yet, each witness had clearly remembered and described in great detail the brightly-colored, cartoon Band-Aid across his nose.

A perceived visual image of a subject may not be the same as how that subject looks in reality. For instance, if you believe that the branches of all trees are straight, then when you retrieve a memory of a specific tree, you may draw it with straight branches.

Even when you see a subject correctly, your brain may record images based on your current state of mind as well as memories of and experiences with similar subjects. Forensic artists often refer to these phenomenons of perception as memory pollution.

Images that you see can be remembered both verbally and visually. A strong visual image can be translated into a narrative and vice versa. For example, a verbal description of a suspect, based on an eyewitness’s visual memory, is provided to a forensic artist, who then translates that verbal description back into an image – a sketch of the suspect.

Tip: Try air drawing a potential drawing subject to remember visual information. Simply follow the contours of a subject with your eyes (or a finger) while mentally describing every detail with words. You then have both a visual and verbal memory.

About Brenda Hoddinott
Award-winning artist and author; illustrator, art educator, curriculum designer, co-owner of, 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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