Mental projection


Dear Artist,

“Just chip away everything that doesn’t look like a horse,” said the equestrian sculptor as he contemplated a block of marble. The power of visualization — to see the horse within the raw media — is basic to the creative act.


oil on canvas
by Alfred James Munnings

When painting without apparent benefit of reference, observers ask, “Do you have something in mind?” People don’t know what the demo-doer is thinking. Even halfway through, people will ask, “What’s that?” For artists working out of the mind, it’s as if the general idea is projected onto the canvas, often a serendipitous and disorganized patching of pictorial elements.

This methodology may be developed and improved through the use of mechanical projectors — slide, opaque or digital — which are tools commonly found in the studios of commercial artists. A lazy man’s drawing recourse, mechanical projection has its downside: the loss of anatomical understanding and the ability to draw naturally. However, as pattern is often more important than drawing, swatches of color and areas of tone can be placed without benefit of line. With projection you have sure knowledge of where things are. Mechanical projection may actually be good for you.

While mechanical projection more or less limits you to “what is,” mental projection permits wider improvisation. An acquired skill, the mental rendering finds shapes and essences, permits flourishes of design and elegance, and gives general rather than specific guidance.

Here’s how to pull it off. Take time to really look at subject matter and consciously commit it to the hard drive of your mind. Half closing the eyes, momentarily isolate elements such as sky, shadow or water, as well as unknown or murky areas. Note relative, interlocking or adjacent shapes and sizes. Be interested in soft and hard edges and the tones they hold within. It’s called “thorough seeing,” and not everyone can do it right off the bat. If you begin with simple objects — say, apples or apricots or acorns — you should later be able to move to more complex subjects. It’s do-able. The English master of horses Alfred Munnings didn’t always need the animals in his studio. He’d visit the client’s stables, look thoroughly at the horse in question, then go home and paint it. Accurate knowledge of all things horsey was stored in his mind’s eye. Thus he was able to project freely and concentrate on a horse’s personality.

Best regards,


PS: “By using patches of color and tone it is possible to capture every natural impression in the simplest way, freshly and immediately.” (Paul Klee)

Esoterica: “Like a bee going to flowers,” is how one might describe the apparent action of the mentally projecting painter. Elements like water, snow, sky or foliage are isolated and flatly inserted. The image emerges from the aggregation of its component parts. While the so-called “photographic memory” may not be available to most of us, approximate and adequate memory skills can be developed and marshalled. How does it happen? One needs to be “stuck” in a particularly delicious situation — without benefit of camera or sketchbook — to find, of necessity, the value of burning images to the great screen of the mind.


Visualization not lost with projection
by Terry Rempel-Mroz, Ottawa, ON, Canada


original painting
by Terry Rempel-Mroz

“A lazy-man’s drawing recourse”? The history of projection devices starts in the 11th century with a description of the ‘camera obscura’ by Ibn al-Haytham (Alhacen) in his Book of Optics (c. 1000). I believe Leonardo da Vinci described the camera obscura in his Codex Atlanticus. It is speculated (albeit disputed hotly) that the Dutch masters (for example Johannes Vermeer) may have made use of the device to attain their spectacularly detailed paintings. I wouldn’t call these ‘lazy men,’ just professionals who knew when not to reinvent the wheel. Your description does a disservice to artists everywhere, including modern day commercial artists, and smacks of elitism. Who says they don’t visualize beforehand — they just happen to use a tool to facilitate the end product. That being said, as an abstract expressionist, my work is almost completely visualization and mental projection. I only wish they could invent a mind-projection device so I could really put down on canvas what I see in my mind’s eye.


Dialog between painter and painting
by Winy Jacobs, Cuijk, Netherlands


original painting
by Winy Jacobs

This for a change a little feedback from a painter in Holland… This painting I made last June it’s almost 2 meter 2 in oil. The vision in your head, I always try to explain my students to try to be the creator in your own universe of your painting… I can play a little bit like a god when I create. The dialog that is growing then between the painter and his painting is for me the most interesting part of painting, on which vibrations in your mind do you react, certainly when you make a mess of it, like I always do when I let myself too much go with the flow from my expectation and how the developing painting should become (in my head). But my painting can ask for something else and we can really fight about it, some time paint coloring or accidentally born beautiful spots in the painting drive you in a different direction than you had planned before and you need to change a little your planned direction. To Paint is the best talk with yourself as a partner that reacts via the painting it keeps me busy. I can only try to figure out what in my brain is taking place when I paint in any case is it very sure that the forms that rise like imaginings in my head fight for their way out and one is always the strongest. Because I can imagine a hundred things in five minutes of painting, to stay concentrated on that one and only figure sometimes is really hard. Of course you get rid of a lot of this when you use a diaprojector but there is little left space than for that wonderful dialog with your painting. I personally never work with any projection. I always try to feel what is the right place to put it in. And sometime it’s less technique and more feeling. If I can’t get a certain line right with my techniques and I don’t know how to solve the problem, I found out that the only thing you have to do is to open your mind and feel where it should belong. In this way I can solve the most difficult problems.


Practice allows for freedom
by Petra Voegtle, Denmark


painting on silk
40 x 20 inches
by Petra Voegtle

This is how I work normally. When I started to draw again a couple of years ago because I wanted to work with wood in a representational way, I found myself rather often in front of the mirror in order to check how body parts, shades and shadows changed while moving. Or I made my partner model for me in order to check a special position. I know this is rather an unorthodox method to learn to draw again but it helped tremendously to see what happens with muscles, skin and everything so that I was able to draw it from my mind later on.

I also found that working with a 3-dimensional medium such as clay or carving wood helps a lot changing to a 2-dimensional medium again such as drawing and painting because you have already internalized a feeling for distance and perspective. I recommend doing this to anyone who wants to paint in figurative and representational style.

If I am copying from photos only I can learn a lot as well, but my motif or model is static and the shadows will always be the same. So I won’t know how it looks like when I want to change a position slightly. I am convinced that drawing or painting from life helps the best to learn drawing and painting from the mind later on. The more practise I gain doing this the easier it will become later to use my freedom while changing something deliberately in a way that might not even be realistic any more. Confidence with material, expression, light and shadows etc. gives me much more freedom to develop my own style and voice.


A painter is an editor
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA


“Spring is here”
pastel painting, 29 x 24 inches
by Paul deMarrais

I used to get a chuckle from watching the late Bob Ross doing his television paintings of Alaskan scenes. Novice art lovers marveled at his magical ability to paint these scenes out of his imagination. He encouraged his students to do likewise. It was as if there was a geyser of art stored in each student’s head and all they had to do was remove the cap and let it burst forth. Bob’s imagination, though, was well stocked with memories. He lived in Alaska for years and had done that same painting hundreds of times. My point is that if there is no data stored in the artist’s brain, it is unlikely that the artist can produce a good painting from memory. Plein air painting is excellent for furnishing you with stored images and experiences that could be drawn upon later. I was looking at a friend’s paintings yesterday. She has very good skills but has gained those skills by laboriously copying photographs. With no nature study at all, she is stunted by her reliance on photos. Like her mentor, the camera, she puts it all in. She repeats the camera’s depth of field distortions in her paintings. Her paintings lack emphasis. It is the blind leading the blind. I am certain this photo copying has left little imprint in her imagination. It is merely technical work and not emotional work. There are some beautiful technical passages in her work but without ‘real’ experience with nature, she can’t put the pieces together. Your ‘mental projection” is similar to plein air. In plein air you learn to pick out the simple elements that can best describe the essence of your subject. You learn to sort through the tons of data available and to see what is really important and what needs to be emphasized. A painter is an editor. Repetition will hone these skills and, whether from life or memory, the artist will be able to conjure up a painting.


Gadgets unstick the muse
by Kittie Beletic, Dallas, TX, USA


What color is your dream?
book by Kittie Nesius Beletic

I have used it all! Just BUYING the projector brought every tiny Catholic shred of guilt forward. “You’re not being authentic” whispered someone. I know I heard it…

What I didn’t know was how helpful the projector could be at that time. I was having trouble drawing, hating what was coming through onto the paper and it was literally stopping me. The projector turned out to be a toy, a new way to play with my paints and charcoals and pencils and pens. The results weren’t my favorite… but it did me a great service! I have employed similar gadgets/venues to unstick my muse from the muck and mire of doubting my abilities. Works like a charm every time!

Ah, but seeing. That is the key. “Just SEE.” It is often my mantra. It is fun and hugely valuable to really look, observe, and with all certainty, finally enjoy what I’m seeing. It always bleeds into the rest of my day and my other senses. I seem to hear more clearly, feel more fully, enjoy my morning coffee that much more!


Original artwork: just canvas, paint and your mind
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA


“Sara Sunday”
oil painting, 20 x 16 inches
by Rick Rotante

While I’m opposed to the use of any mechanical “projection” to produce art, I do see it as a tool to learn while developing your craft. In no way do I see it as a tool to produce “original” artwork. This sounds like a hard line to take but if we are to produce “great” work someday, it must come from a deeper more personal inner place. Call it the soul if you will.

Being an artist is about putting yourself on canvas. The canvas and the paint and your mind are your tools. Though drawing had taken a back seat in the past years, it is resurging again in art schools around the country. There is a reason for this. It’s the building blocks of what makes an artist who wants to produce artwork and say what’s in their heart – about the subject at hand.

The artist of which you speak who painted horses had a great knowledge of horses gained no doubt through years of study of the horse anatomy. Only then could he look at the client’s horse and go back and create a painting. The untrained could look at a thousand horses and never get it right, without the proper study of the subject. The same is true with landscape, figure, portraiture. If you use a mechanical projection to center an image on a canvas, so be it. That’s where it should end. From there use your knowledge and skill to produce your inner feelings about that image. I use reference material all the time. I don’t have an unlimited access to all stimuli. Taking pictures, making sketches are useful, but you need more today.

I try and absorb as much information about a subject and then produce a painting based on all this information. The same is true when I paint a model from life. I try and say what I feel about the subject rather than try and faithfully reproduce what I see. If I wanted an accurate reproduction, I’d take a photograph and paste it on the canvas. Again tools are a wonderful asset. But in the end they are just that. You are the artist. You should produce an original work of art from your talent.


Projection steals gift of deep observation
by Dianne Mize, Clarkesville, GA, USA


“Chestatee River Early Spring”
watercolour painting
by Dianne Mize

I bet when my former students read “Mechanical projection may actually be good for you,” they have imagined me going through the roof, especially since I recommended you to them. And, indeed, I did almost go through the roof because I know there are multitudes out there grabbing onto any permission they can get to cheat their way through a painting.

So many who are inept at drawing use this crutch to pull off a painting which would be impossible for them if they had to depend upon drawing skills. These folks are always looking for a defense, so I can imagine many of them grabbing those words “…may actually be good for you” and latching onto them to throw up to the next person who objects to mechanical projection.

It’s for this reason that I wish you hadn’t said that, though I, myself, understand why you did. A professional can use just about any tool to one’s advantage without using it as a crutch, but it’s the amateurs, the innocents, who either won’t think twice about how depending on mechanical projections deceives the viewer or how it robs one of the experience of deep observation.


Knowledge of anatomy needed for realism
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada


“Vancouver Reflections”
acrylic painting
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

Are you suggesting that one can develop a mental library of a horse without knowing the horse’s bones and muscles? Mental (or machine) projection works for landscapes and innate objects, but its margin of error is way too large for our sophisticated perception of people and animals. I am sure that Alfred Munnings intimately knew the horse’s bones and muscles and textures and he assembled them according to the combinations he saw and memorized in the stables. I don’t believe that he assembled his horse figures just by memorizing the ambiguous shapes of darks, lights and colors without thorough understanding of the horse’s structure. There may be other styles of paintings that focus on “capturing the spirit of the horse” etc. which are done as you describe or even totally from imagination, but not the realist works like Alfred Munnings’ horses.


Photographic memory can be learned
by Jada Rowland, New York, NY, USA


watercolour painting
by Jada Rowland

I drew and painted all my life for fun… well, not really for ‘fun’ so much as that I couldn’t not draw and paint… and when, at forty, I decided to switch careers and become a professional illustrator and painter and, therefore, began to meet and get to know other artists, I was surprised. I had always assumed that all artists and illustrators had what my mother always called one’s “mind’s eye.” For as long as I can remember, I had always been able to picture things without actually seeing them. I was shocked and amazed when I discovered that many (if not the majority) of illustrators and painters could not do that. They relied heavily, even entirely, on reference (photographic or real).

When I teach, as a result, I have my students look hard (at whatever is the subject of the day) for ten minutes or so and even, perhaps, start drawing but then, I have them turn away and attempt to draw it. At first, they are often almost immediately at a loss, but gradually, as they repeat the process, they begin to learn to see the largest shapes and edges or some small specific pieces and continue to improve. So, while I always knew I had a ‘photographic’ memory and that probably is why it is so easy for me to use my mind’s eye, still, I believe anyone can be trained to do so.


Going beyond the photo
by Roger Asselin, St. Petersburg, FL, USA


“MY Friend Nancy”
original painting
by Roger Asselin

My youth is quickly dissipating. At age 65 parts are slowing, wearing and sometimes disappearing; especially my mind with senior moments. For the most part, I have learned to depend upon my own photographs for subject matter. Most of my associates do the same. Some copy, trace, use the grid method or just wing it with their drawing talent. Most all do very well with what they choose. I’m not sure about the digital or mechanical projection thing but it would not surprise me as their best works are never seen in progress at the work shops; only at the shows. I feel it is to each his own as far as that goes.

The anatomical understanding and ability to draw naturally surely takes a hit from using crutches no matter the method. I’m pointing at myself as I write this letter. I just recently got tired of having to do the grid thing to get a good likeness from a photo and decided to better myself. I have fallen in love with portraits and most often used the grids because they are fast and easy. But… my paintings too often looked like photos. Seems like the 3rd dimension look was missing which only a natural talent could instill into a painting out of a photo. It’s like painting with one eye closed. Everything becomes flat. It’s the combination of both eyes and your senses which allows you to see the real dimensions of the real person, which enhances your natural ability to place the illusion of a real person on canvas.

The painting shown, “MY Friend Nancy” which I just finished last Friday is such a picture painted from a photo only to a point of abandonment from the photo near the finish of the painting to give it the flourish needed to make it look naturally painted. I broke some rules in the attempt as you can see but I had to go beyond the photo to achieve my expected end. I imagined Nancy in the flesh and was able to make her almost 3 dimensional. Hope you like her. She is a real artist friend and wonderful Lady. Comments welcome.


Giving in to the medium
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada


“Above Third Beach”
original painting
by John Ferrie

As a painter, one can only correlate in one way to a sculptor releasing their figure that exists inside of a piece of stone. That’s when I go to the art supply store and see all those tubes of paint lined up and I think about the paintings that are trapped inside. It is a weird sensation when you buy specific tubes and find that one type of paint works better than another. I usually have a good idea of what I want to paint when I approach a canvas. But what unravels as I paint is another thing. The way that colours are mixed on that day, the way a brush moves across a canvas and just my general mood can dictate what comes along. However, I am convinced that being an artist is a gift and that my work comes through me. So, not unlike a sculptor, we give into our medium and while we are always trying to work beyond what we already know, the work is somewhat dictated to us by our path.


It’s always mental projection
by Chris Bolmeier, Omaha, ME, USA


“Cousin of Kaboodle”
original painting
by Chris Bolmeier

According to string theory the furniture in a room doesn’t define the space, the space defines the furniture. And if you want to know more about that, refer to author and scientist Brian Greene.

The term “Mental Projection” can be used while speaking about tangibles or intangibles.

If the artist is chipping away at everything but the horse, then he is using negative space. He possibly memorized the negative space and committed it to memory.

Mental projection is always used whether the artist paints from life or memory.

Educators always stress, “Paint what you see,” as the mind remembers cups, flowers, horses, instead of shapes.

I have never considered mental projection to be an acquired skill, sounds like a painful mental exercise to me.

Yes, working out of the mind can be serendipitous and disorganized depending on knowledge base and life experience.

Mechanical projection may be lazy, but if you use a projector, your image will surely be skewed and distorted somewhat so you will have to correct with mental projection.


Composing from the squiggle
by Jeanette Rybinsky

Your “Mental Projection” letter reminds me of an art professor at Western Michigan University
with whom I had the pleasure of studying back in the 1970s. His name was Harry S. Hefner. He was not only an incredible artist, but an incredibly joyful human being.

To create a composition, he would often start out by making a squiggle on a piece of paper. He would then shade each area within the squiggle with a different value. After that was done, he would keep turning the paper clockwise until he “saw” something in it. Then, with his unbelievable drawing skills, he would develop it into a finished work of art.

When doing a watercolor, he would use the same process, starting with shapes of color and random lines drawn with a palette knife. I’m sure this unique ability of his came from years and years of observing and drawing the life around him. I heard that Michelangelo once told one of his apprentices, “Draw, draw, and then draw some more.”

Professor Hefner passed away last November, just shy of his 95th birthday. I will always remember the wonderful experiences in his classes and his zest for life.


Tips needed for transporting paintings
by Peter Maher, Clermont-L’Hérault, France


“View from Stoer lighthouse”
oil painting, 8 x 10 inches
by Peter Maher

Although I paint in Canada, I frequently spend extended periods of time in France and wonder if you have any advice on transporting paintings across the pond. I paint in oil on canvas and have been wondering about painting on un-stretched canvas and then rolling the finished paintings and then stretching them on arrival in Canada or taking a set of stretchers to France, stretching the canvas then taking it off and rolling it after painting. I know you travel a lot and wonder if you have any tips on this matter.


(RG note) Thanks, Peter. This topic was covered in the letter Packing for a trip.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Mental projection



From: Paul — Sep 25, 2007

The same thing can be said for music. Jazz musicians sit down with a “mechanical” sctucture in mind and layers of “rendering finds shapes and essences.”

From: Amber — Sep 26, 2007

It’s hard for me when people assume that i can ‘see’ with my mind’s eye, because they can. Everyone i know can actually ‘see’ a full 3-D apple in their mind if asked to do so. I see only blackness & swirling clouds. I can ‘feel’ an apple there, but i ‘see’ nothing. This technique of ‘saving to my hard drive’ is unfortunately not something that i am hardwired do, and believe me, i’ve tried. I’ve always felt left out because of this apparent dysfunction of mine. How i would LOVE to be able to ‘see’ things – ANYthing – in my mind’s eye!

From: Anonymous — Sep 26, 2007

Amber, that’s it – if you feel the apple and you can imagine touching it and get a brief glimpse of what color it might be and where it may be in relation to some other object – that’s it. Nobody can project a clearly defined photo-like image. The more you practise this, it will be easier and more clear, but never like a photo or a mechanical projection.

From: Doug Mays — Sep 28, 2007

Re – Mechanical Projection – Sorry but I’ve found that – “Those that can draw…. do and those that cannot…. project!

From: Lynn Bleasdale — Sep 28, 2007

This is for Amber-If what you see are blackness and swirling clouds, why not stay with that image for a bit and see where it takes you. Just because you don’t see an actual apple doesn’t mean you are “doing it wrong” Everyone’s minds works differently-no need to reject your own images/feeling about a subject.

From: Chris Everest — Sep 28, 2007

Although I never really wanted to paint like Bob Ross I really enjoyed the shows. The way he would paint his trees and then add “a little friend”. Another tree. The banter and all that brush-slapping on the easel. I am sure I once saw an owl on the show even various students of his method exhorting the viewers to try it for themselves. The mystique was denied vehemently. A quite remarkable take on the democratisation of art.

From: Maxine Price — Sep 28, 2007

I can draw. Have drawn since crayolas. Took 4 years of life drawing in college. For years I did portraits first using the grid method and then using the projector. Trust me — a projector is no help unless you already know how to draw and paint. The drawing is lost quickly once the first layer of paint is applied. It’s just a tool to give you a jump start.

From: Ginia Davis — Sep 28, 2007

I agree with Maxine Price. Projection is just a quick start (one time) tool for the innitial key point placement SKETCHY sketch…much faster than the grid method. Even using the projector for this, one STILL has to refine line placements for accuracy (real or artistic accuracy). With the application of paint, they do disappear quickly. Not all lines are meant to stay lines anyway. And, certainly, one must know the true nature of form and function once the painting progresses with color…another complication in it self. Alone, the projector really is not an answer to anyone wishing to be an artist. It does make for a good time saving tool in a much more complicated process.

From: Anonymous — Sep 28, 2007

How I wish people would use proper English. May I rephrase Doug May’s thought: those who can draw, do, and those who cannot, project. Thank you.

From: Toni Ciserella — Sep 28, 2007

I have always drawn. Since I was small, I would have to put to paper what I experienced for it to be real and actually process it. I had always believed I had a photographic memory in that the art of observation has always been very keen for me. I had come to believe it is an artist’s condition. Part of the talent. A symptom of the disease. As a small child I could focus so intently on an object that I would dissociate. Later, I realized it was a coping method the brain creates when dealing with traumatic events. Little did I know that in therapy I would be able to recall a lamp shade or a flower pattern in a carpet, from over 35 years ago, in finite detail. And in what could only be a child’s perspective, draw the face of my perpetrator. But, I do know that mental projection can be learned. I do and have used the grid method and projection to hurry past the drawing stage of painting but it undeniably lacks the honesty of mental projection. After reading this letter I went and pulled out all the paintings I began (and never finished) created entirely out of my head with no reference to work from. Their child-like innocence clutched my heart and made me want to go back to that place where you drew what you saw and what you saw was magical.

From: Liz — Sep 28, 2007

The subject of photo copying or projection interests me because I think it’s cheating the artist from finding their true self-expression. The camera, as some of the clickbacks pointed out, is cold and gives us too much information. The artist has a point of view, a mood and is responsible for being editor. I just had to finish a job last week that involved having to use photo reference, and by the end I felt like a gigantic robot copy-er. I rebounded with joy this week and packed my easel & paints, headed for the L.A. River, out in the fresh air to paint freeway overpasses, cement shores, grafitti and glorious high tension electric towers strung across the smog. You just had to be there, early in the morning with the homies and homeless for company with a big, pre-primed textured canvas and tons of color. The things you leave in and the things you leave out, the mood of the morning, the layer of air between me and the shimmering procession of bridges and telephone poles. Being there is so much more alive than sitting in the studio with a photo and my reading glasses. The big difference is when I get back to my studio with a big wet painting and download the photos I took that morning. The painting has a point of view, a feeling – and being in a marginal neighborhood alone seems to give my brush strokes a little (terrified) extra edge. There’s nothing like real world experience seen through your eyes, the eyes of the artist, into paint, music, poetry.

From: Alex Garcia — Sep 29, 2007

If a person cannot draw, projection will not help to hide that fact. Unless the end result is the projected image itself, the person doing the projection, tracing, grid system or whatever other method they use, will inevitably be faced with the need to refine and complete the image. That requires drawing skills. Without drawing skills I would imagine that is impossible.

From: Claudia — Sep 29, 2007

So many speak against projection. I am too new at trying to produce art to even think of trying that. But I wonder…… what about artists like Mary Pratt? Such beautiful work and she makes no bones about the fact she uses a projector. What difference does it make how she does it if she captures the essence of light the way that she does?

From: Dave Wilson — Sep 30, 2007

When I was a kid, a friend gave me a giant colouring book. I tried to like it, to use it, but what a waste of time. Instead I got to copy Frankenstein’s monster from the front page of a monster magazine, with coloured pencils. I mention this, because it parallels how I feel about using a mechanical projector. I mistakenly bought a former military (early ’50s type) overhead projector some years ago, which weighed about a thousand pounds- or seemed to. I used it a couple of times but never finished the themes I began with it. Why? Because “I” was not there at the birth or onset of my picture. I was too darned busy back in colouring-book-land, where the shapes before me are not my own- and this feeling existed even when I projected my own drawings! When art becomes a process of saving time, I have ceased to be an artist, present in every moment and point of my picture’s development. My old psychiatrist once suggested to me that I am not a machine. I am gonna keep it that way!







Siwash Rock

oil painting on canvas
by Joyce Popein, Canada


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