About fifty documented instances exist of children reared by animals. Children brought up by wolves or bears tend not to speak or draw. On the other hand, children born into a world of speech and art adopt the skills of their elders. Most cultures encourage children to make images as soon as they can hold a tool. Remarkably, at about four years of age, all children produce similar imagery. In a now-famous research project, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) found that toddlers from all cultures, when encouraged, do the following:
1. Draw from memory, not direct observation
2. Emphasize obvious features, omitting others
3. Sometimes add local characteristics or happenings
4. Omit proportion, perspective, and other devices of pictorial illusion
One of the typical drawings produced by small children is known as “tadpole figure” or “all-head man” — a round face with a few facial features and no torso. Piaget also discovered that children, as they grew older, sometimes corrected earlier images to bring them into line with their further knowledge. These “embellishers,” he speculated, often became the ones who were selected and featured as artists by the societies that produced them. This penchant for embellishing, when appreciated, encourages further learning and proficiency.
Another pioneer in the study of child art was the Austrian artist and researcher Franz Cizek. He founded what became known as the Child Art Movement that promoted children’s art as sacred. To Cizek it was important to cultivate and protect the early years of childhood from the destructive influences of adult art so that the innate originality and imaginations of children might not be tainted. Cizek was particularly hostile to colouring books. He cautioned against the “adult fallacy,” which is the tendency to judge children’s artwork by grown-up standards. Adults, who viewed the drawings of young children as mistakes with “wrong” proportions and “errors” of perspective, did not realize the children were drawing what they knew rather than what they saw. Remarkably, this mind-based imaging brings children’s art parallel to some modern conceptual art where matching an object is not a necessity.
PS: “What adults call ‘wrong’ in Child Art is the most beautiful and most precious. I value highly those things done by small children. They are the first and purest source of artistic creation.” (Franz Cizek, 1865-1946)
Esoterica: Is there a chance that we all hold these sorts of images in our collective unconscious, to be found readily in any innocent child, and either stamped on by society or later embellished to adult acceptability? Further, is it safe to draw a parallel with some of the images that I once saw in caves in the Dominican Republic? How innate is the conceptual imagination? How wild is the child?
This letter was originally published as “Wild child” on March 30, 2007.
“Man’s need for art is absolutely primordial, as strong as, and perhaps stronger than our need for bread. Without bread, we die of hunger, but without art we die of boredom.” (Jean Dubuffet)
Do you feel stuck in a rut? Need time to reflect on transitions? Long for an extended art-play date? Join Ellie Harold for a unique expressive art-making retreat for 12 women in colonial San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Re-establish flow in your life through painting, movement, soulful discussion, and a wealth of cultural, visual and culinary delights. (Everyone has their own room!)
Art practice will encourage intuitive use of color and expressive mark-making with emphasis on process rather than technique. Materials provided or you can bring your own.
An inspired facilitator and prolific oil painter, Ellie invites all experience levels (including none) to participate in Painting for Pleasure.
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