Concentration and hard looking can be heightened if there is a specific task to undertake. One particular drawing session was divided into two distinct activities. The first part consisted of memory training. A morning would be spent building a drawing from memory. This would depend on the space available. For instance if a spare room was to be found, (this was possible in those days) a still life set-up would be constructed in one space and students would have easels set up in another. If not a particular spot was identified to draw, close enough to get back to the easel reasonably quickly but far enough away to make it an effort to do so. Students were asked to look hard and carefully at the chosen situation and in their mind's eye build up a series of relationships, that could be checked by simply closing their eyes, looking at their mental picture and then opening them to see how different this was to reality. What was next to what, how was its position indicated by its relationship to other things, what were the overall dynamics of the selection made? Then once it was felt that no more information could be carried in the head, they had to quickly get back to their easel and draw. When an individual student started to guess or make things up, it was time to go back, look again and keep repeating the process. I had put this one together after reading about Gainsborough setting up a still life in his cellar and then setting out to paint it on a canvas set up in his attic. At the end of the morning session we would look at the images and consider what was being edited out by the process. What sorts of things did memory do to the way we carried information? Attention to spacial positioning was often compromised by the tendency of the mind to be word dominated and the drawing could become more about things than relationships. Getting students to look at 'not what it is, but where it is' was essential. The critical debate centred on conceptual v perceptual information and the relative merits of each.
The afternoon session was more involved with speed and image summation. Drawings were done in response to the morning's attempts. Each one would take a shorter time. The first one perhaps 30 minutes, the second 15 minutes the third 5 minutes, the forth 1 minute, the next 30 seconds etc. The end of the session was a critique looking at how successfully or not, these drawings had been able to capture the essence of what had been looked at.
Finally both sessions were examined as ways to extract information from the infinitely complex world around us and a final drawing was done, (the last hour of the day), whereby students would strive to construct a drawing that was the clearest summation of the day's looking.
At one point I was given the job to do a days drawing with foundation students one day a week every week throughout the year. This would often involve having a life model, so I might take this memory session on as a way of introducing students to the problem of what happens when you turn your head away from the looking and attempt to put the information on paper. Even that brief moment between looking at a knee and turning your head and attention to the paper to respond to what you had seen, was filled with perceptual complications and memory loss. By extending the time between looking and drawing you were able to highlight the issues, such as the tendency to make symbols of things like fingers and eyes, rather than find how they articulated awareness of space and mass.
A key text was Frances Yates' The Art of Memory, and students would be directed to this as an arena within which to start exploring how memory could become a concept to explore in its own right and perhaps a subject matter that could be used to help generate their own developing practices.