Figure Drawing and Active Retrieval

Once again I find more motivation and interest in the human figure. Tonight I drew from the New Masters Academy life drawing session as well as drawing from a photo with focus on recalling anatomical names. This is a very interesting concept I just learned from Brian Johnson called Active Retrieval.

Time and again I watch the Philosopher Notes TV session and have small epiphanies. In this video Brian Johnson  reviews a book called “Make it stick”, “The science of successful learning”. This could be the best book for me, what I’m trying to do here is learn to be a master artist, and if I can employ actual scientifically proven methods to learn better or faster I’m all in.

One of the big ideas that Brian pointed out was called “Active Retrieval”. The basic idea is that quizzing yourself on the knowledge you want to learn is one of the top way to master what you’re trying to learn. This may seem a bit obvious but it goes further than this. Scientific studies cited in this book indicate that short and dense session of study only improves your fluency in the material, your short term memory. But, if we break up study session and repeat them  over time you begin to go beyond just being fluent and you get closer to mastering the subject.

Brian pointed out sever other great ideas in the book, but honestly as I write them down now I kinda feel as if they are obvious… I highly recommend you watch the video and maybe purchase the book, Brian is able to articulate the concepts much better than I can. Hopefully you will have your own epiphany.

Figure Drawing and Active Retrieval, warmup
Figure Drawing and Active Retrieval, 1 and 2 minute poses
1 and 2 minute poses
Figure Drawing and Active Retrieval, 5 minute poses
5 minute poses

Here is why I think these drawing went well. First, I slowed down, second I focused, and third I drew in a way that fits my brain best. This is a concept that I have brought up before, and sometime I feel it to be true and other times I doubt it.

Basically, I like to build a figure. I start in one place and finish as I go, you can see this method described by Richard Schmid in his book Alla Prima. Put down a stroke that is correct, then add another stroke and check it with the first, then repeat.

I’m not sure why but this way of working just melds with my brain better than the Anthony Ryder, or altelier school type block-in, or “envelope” method.  The drawback with this method is placement and size. It is very hard to determine the placement and site of something when you focus on a small section and build it from the ground up. Like building a house without a blueprint.

Figure Drawing and Active Retrieval, gesture setup
Gesture drawing setup
Figure Drawing and Active Retrieval
Focus on anatomy

Here I’m focusing on anatomy and active retrieval of muscular names. I didn’t write any down, I just said them to myself as I drew them, I may go back and write them down or do another drawing where I write them down later. I’m also working in my favorite building method, I did draw out the figure in pencil first but the same method was used.

Figure Drawing and Active Retrieval, ink setup
Ink drawing setup

2 thoughts on “Figure Drawing and Active Retrieval”

  1. I haven’t watched the video yet, and maybe they touch on this aspect, but I honestly think the best way I learn is “hands-on”. Studying material doesn’t do anything for me. I can get by on an exam, but the practical application is lost, unless I learn through doing. I remember having this conversation at the zoo with my co-workers, too, when I was learning aspects of elephant husbandry, and it was difficult to teach me to work on elephant foot care because, being left-handed, they seemed to only be able to TELL me things, and not SHOW me things.
    I think art is DEFINITELY an active learning subject too. I’m sure someone could TELL you all day long how to properly draw a muscle, or a flower, but unless you DO it, and work along another artist, it is much more difficult. And I’m pretty sure this is also why the old Masters had apprentices. These apprentices were learning by doing alongside history’s greatest artists.

  2. I agree, hands-on is the best way to practice anything like art or zoo keeping. I think the book that Brian reviews makes the distinction of when and how to practice that makes the huge difference. We all know that if you practice one thing for a week straight you will feel like you have learned it, but mastery is practice in small sessions over a longer period of time.


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