Art Anatomy

Memory and the Act of Seeing

Memory influences the act of seeing, and in part determines its quality. This was perhaps best expressed by Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in his journal, Many an object is not seen though it falls within the range of our visual ray, because it does not come in the range of our intellectural ray, i.e., we are not looking for it. So, in the largest sense, we find only the world we look for.

Knowing anatomy brings the world of anatomy into view. Simply by learning the names, shapes, and positions of the muscles, we are able to see them on the figure and draw them, whereas before, they were invisible though in plain sight. Before, our intellectual ray was able merely to detect a fleshy field of bumps where a beautifully organized structure lay before us. As Leonardo da Vinci put it, you would think you were looking at a sack of walnuts rather than the human form, or a bundle of radishes rather than the muscles of figures.

So you will find that without any particular method of application, your anatomical knowledge will improve your figure drawing because your eyes will have become smarter along with your brain. Robert Beverly Hale, the greatest art anatomist of the twentieth century, had this to say: First we draw what we see; then we draw what we know; finally we see what we know. And, I would add, we know what we see.

All drawings, in the end, are done from memory. As soon as you take your eyes off of the model and put them on your paper, you are working from the memory of your observations. These observations combine with your mental conception of the subject, itself a product of memory. And you use your arsenal of techniques to render it, an arsenal adapted from the technical successes of your drawings and others', also a product of memory.

It is therefore recommended that artists develop a complete and accurate mental representation of the human figure - a mental model, if you will. This mental model provides the conceptual framework for your figure drawings. S/he is hermaphroditic, and can be adjusted to one gender or the other with the proper adaptations, or perhaps you will have two, one male and one female. Ideally, you are able to pose this figure in your mind and draw it accurately - a challenge that will put your knowledge of anatomy to the test. When the living model sits before you, your mental model takes the same pose, and you use the latter to understand the former. The drawing on your paper is a combination of both, an agreement between your eyes and your mind.

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