Wednesday, September 12, 2007

How good is your visual recognition memory?

Sydney Back Garden
25.5" x 19.5", pastel
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

I was reading a blog post the other day by Robyn (Have Dogs Will Travel). She's just been to Venice and has been sketching. Her experience reminded me very much of how difficult it can be to draw in Venice - and not just because of all the visitors.

I commented about how, on the first time I visited Venice, I found the whole place to be a total visual overload. It was really difficult place to start creating artwork as there was just so much visual information to absorb. At the same time it's a place that I now also have a fantastic visual memory of.

My comment made me think about our visual capacities and in particular visual perception, visual recognition and visual memory and I've been pondering it ever since - hence this post. Here are some of the questions I've been pondering.
  • How good is your visual capacity and your visual memory?
  • How good is your brain at perceiving information and recording visual memories?
  • How much do you rely on visual memory records when developing a sketch, drawing or painting of a place, object or event?
This is probably going to be my version of 'talking out loud' as I'm sure I'm going to continue to think about this. So at the moment I'm getting some words down via the keyboard as I find that helps me sort out both information and thoughts. This may ramble a bit.........

I'd really love to hear your thoughts on this topic so, if you like, please join in via the comments.

Visual capacity - and drawing and sketching from life

Our capacity to absorb and remember visual information seems to be a product of how well our visual system works (eyesight, how it connects to the brain and how well the brain processes data!), any 'natural' ability we may have to process visual information and sheer practice.

For example, I find as I'm getting older my eyesight is getting worse but this is more than offset by that fact that I've been getting progressively better at processing visual information. I can now filter out 'stuff' (the visual equivalent of 'noise') which might absorb other people. So for example I'm now much better than I was when I was young at seeing 'big shapes' and values (irrespective of colours) and nuances in colours.

I know that because I draw from life a lot that I notice visual information all the time. Once I started sketching in public I started to learn how to 'process' the visual information I found in scenes as 'pictures' and consequently started seeing scenes to sketch all over the place! Instantaneously. It was quite uncanny and was really very distracting while driving the car until I got used to it. Now I see them all the time and only have to deal with mental processing of the 'to do' list in terms of ones to go back to and draw!

In my experience, I've found that most people who draw from photographs all the time just don't seem to develop this ability in the same way - simply because they don't practice it enough. Back to ability and practice again.

I also find that I remember the places I've sketched very much better than places that I haven't. It's something to do with recording visual shapes, tones and details. Plus of course I tend to observe more acutely when trying to draw such places. I'm then very happy to leave scenes as sketches for some time - years even - because I 'know' that the visual memory will be acute when I call it back up using the sketch as the tool.

Bixby Bridge, Big Sur
coloured pencil in Moleskine

copyright Katherine Tyrrell

One of the things that I also like to do with the scenes I sketch is wait to see which memories last longest. With some sketches I know straight away that the visual memory is going to be very strong. They generally seem to be those which made the most impact at the time.

What's also interesting is to see which ones are still 'strong' a year later. I rather enjoy waiting to see what comes out sometimes it's quite different to what I expecting. I'm only now beginning to distill down the scenes I saw on my two trips to the USA last year

Massacre Pond, Prouts Neck
coloured pencil in Moleskine
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

Visual memory and overload

Visual perception is not just simply a question of what we see - it's also to do with how our brains process visual information
Visual memory is a part of memory preserving some characteristics of our senses pertaining to visual experience. We are able to place in memory information that resembles objects, places, animals or people in a sort of a mental image. Some authors refer to this experience as an “our mind's eye” through which we can retrieve from our memory a mental image of the original object, place, animal or person.
Wikipedia - visual memory
The problem I had with Venice on my first visit is that it doesn't look like anywhere else I knew. There was just too much new visual information. By the time of my first visit to Venice I had developed my ability to absorb visual information through practice - and consequently I felt absolutely swamped by new shapes, new light, new colour, new tonal relationships. It was too much.

The Steps by The Rialto (a WIP)
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

The next time I visited, I'd looked at photographs of my previous visit, read more books about Venice and generally just knew more about what it looked like. On the second visit, it became much easier to sort out the visual information I received and consequently became much easier to draw as a result.

I'd also gone with a list of places already worked of places I wanted to go and scenes I wanted to do - altogether much more planned and purposeful.

The same thing has happened in other places which have very distinctive visual characters and look quite different to anywhere else I'd been previously. So, for example, colours in the tropics (during visits to Goa and Bali) took a lot of getting used to, whereas some of the architecture in Goa was familiar (because of its Portuguese influence).

I found on my first visit to New South Wales that parts of it reminded me of parts of Europe. However it was very odd on my first visit to California to find that I kept being reminded of Australia. I later learned that the eucalyptus trees in California are not indigeneous and had been imported. I wonder how many Californians might think that the pastel painting at the top of this blog post was of California - if I didn't tell them that it was actually my sister's back garden in the suburbs of Sydney!

Visual recognition

Interestingly, it appears that this phenomena might be linked in some way to something called the recognition system which helps with the neural basis of spatial memory. Apparently, the visual recognition memory avoids the brain going into overload - and explains why new places can seem so overwhelming. The links here and at the bottom and this quote are for the techie types only - we know who we are! ;)
The visual recognition memory system that resides in a region of the brain known as the perirhinal cortex. Certain neurons in this area respond in such a way as to discriminate between objects that have not been seen before (novelty neurons), those that have been seen before (familiarity neurons) and those that have been seen recently (recency neurons). In each case, the response of the neuron is decreased following stimulation. Thus, a novelty neuron responds strongly when presented with a novel object, but less strongly when that object is presented for a second or third time.
MRC Centre for Synaptic Plasticity - Brain Basics - Learning and memory
In addition there is something called eidetic memory - which is a very particular form of memory.

Eidetic memory, photographic memory, or total recall, is the ability to recall images, sounds, or objects in memory with extreme accuracy and in seemingly abundant volume. The word eidetic (pronounced: /aɪˈdɛtɪk/) comes from the Greek word είδος (eidos), which means "image" or "form". Eidetic memory can have a very different meaning for memory experts who use the Picture Elicitation Method to detect it. Eidetic memory as observed in children is typified by the ability of an individual to study an image for approximately 30 seconds, and maintain a nearly perfect photographic memory of that image for a short time once it has been removed--indeed such eidetikers claim to "see" the image on the blank canvas as vividly and in as perfect detail as if it were still there.

While many people demonstrate extraordinary memory abilities, it is unlikely that true eidetic memory exists in adults (if at all[1][2][3][4]). While many famous artists and composers (Claude Monet[5] and Mozart) are commonly thought to have had eidetic memory, it is possible that their memories simply became highly trained in their respective fields of art, as they each devoted large portions of their waking hours towards the improvement of their abilities.
Wikipedia - Eidetic memory
Things you can do to improve your visual memory

I've got some techniques plus have done a little bit of research and what follows is a summary of some suggestions for ways to improve your visual memory
  • talk about what you can see - using words helps organise your memory
  • record what you can see - sketches leave a longer lasting impression that photographs
  • make notes about what you see (eg I often record words for the colours I can see in terms of other objects)
  • study a scene for a minute then look away and draw it without looking back
  • draw something you saw yesterday which made an impact on you
The one thing I do know is that practice helps develop capability.

The bit I'm still pondering at the moment is whether we process information from a scene in the same way that we tend to process visual information of a page. Or do we assume that a scene is not organised and therefore we don't have any pre-conceived patterns of eye movement - unlike organisation of information on paper and the recognised tendency for eyes to move in particular patterns - which, in turn, is used by people who design web pages for a living!

OK - over to you - do you have any thoughts on this topic?



Casey Klahn said...

Well done, Katherine.

Visual memory, and a thing I describe (at least, I don't know where I saw the phrase) as "artistic seeing", are the foundation of my own direction.

Sorry to be too much on "me", but here goes. And, the visual memory subject is very introspective, isn't it? I once did a series of pastels, early in my career, on an image from memory that goes back to childhood. I must have been @ 10 years old, and I rode with my uncle as he worked. A scene of the riverside, with the scraggly forest and a tree angling out over the water. The memory was 30 years old.

Again, the figure drawing of a rock climber I posted this week is an example of a realist sketch from memory (darn it! Again about me!) .

Your Venice story is so telling. A place unlike any other. Thanks for sharing the details of that process. I still feel the washing day image you drew is the strongest of many that I've seen on the internet.

It helps me, though, to get out and do an occasional sketch.

Robyn said...

This post prompted me to go back and enjoy all over again your Venice 2005 sketches, Katherine. I wish I had done that before my trip. I was way too unfocused and this led to me tiring myself too early, wandering around trying to decide what I was going to sketch.

I too find my visual memory is much sharper since I've been sketching and painting. This fascination with detail often leads me to bump into people because I'm gathering visual information and not looking where I'm going.

Photos are a poor substitute for capturing the image on the spot. I have a weakness for too much information in the painting if it's there in the photo. Great post. Thank you.

vivien said...

Another really interesting topic :)

I've always had a fairly good visual memory - some of my earliest memories are purely visual and very vivid.

I agree - Sketching really does fix a place and the sense of place in your mind and practice improves both the sketching and the visual memory.

I find when I'm driving and looking at the light on the landscape or clouds that I'm mentally 'painting' it! thinking about how I'd get it down on paper or canvas.

Robert Winston on his series on the brain and thought processes talked about the importance of mentally rehearsing for athletes - visualising the moves of a high jump, the run up etc - It's the same for painting I think - the mental rehearsal and all those links you are creating in your brain with sketching and staring and thinking about a scene enables a vivid recall.

I'm absolutely NOT in the league of Stephen Wiltshire though! there is a link to a website on him and his amazing work with total recall of a scene seen once on the side bar of my blog.

Katherine said...

I remember that unfocused feeling - where do I go? / where do I start? / I bet there's another sensational view just around the corner / ........and the next one too.......

That's why my list of places really helped. I've come to the conclusion that, with the really image rich places, the first visit is for scouting out the opportunities - and maybe the odd sketch at the cafe while you fuel up for more walking. The second visit is when you get things done.

The other thing I do is make a note of which places are likely to be best at which time of day.

Rose Welty said...

Katherine, you've made my day with this post! I've always been a visual learner, if I've seen it, I know it. I could recall dates for exams by thinking about the page in the text that had the paragraph that mentioned the date in question. My family are all oral learners though - and they remember what they've heard - something that I am terrible at. I've always felt that made me a slow learner, because I had to see it to know it. But, now I see the advantage! I am ever so glad to be a visual learner. My husband also contends that thinking everything through in pictures causes me to lose details, which is true, but now I can argue that there are advantages to my way of thinking :-).

Jo Castillo said...

Katherine, So true about your revisit to Venice. This is our second summer in Silver City, NM, and I have been better at knowing where I want to sketch and what I am painting. Also I am seeing my home here in NM where I grew up with different, artful eyes.

Thanks for jogging the memories and making me think.


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