Wild Child


Dear Artist,

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:

Jean Dubuffet, La riante contrée, 1977

La riante contrée (The Laughing Country)
 by Jean Dubuffet, 1977

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.

Jean Dubuffet, Pouce-érigé, (Erect Thumb), 1961

Pouce érigé (Erect Thumb)
by Jean Dubuffet, 1961

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.

Best regards,


Jean Dubuffet, The Cow with Subtile Nose, 1954

The Cow with Subtile Nose
by Jean Dubuffet, 1954

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.

The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

Jean Dubuffet at work on a polystyrene sculpture in Paris, June 1967. Photograph by Luc Joubert

“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)




  1. This letter has a special meaning for me as the mother of an adult son quite challenged by Autism. I hope you won’t mind if I share a poem I wrote about working with Zak….

    Zak is an “Autist”
    And he is my son
    It was this birthday
    He turned 31

    We work together
    Creating is fun
    He chooses markers
    We work one on one

    Blank piece of paper
    I center a line
    He takes the left side
    The right side is mine

    I draw proportion
    To make it look right
    He draws his vision
    An Autistic sight

    How is it he sees?
    It’s nothing like I
    Bright Bulbous Beings
    Inhabit his eyes

    Whatever subject
    His drawings are best
    Visions of dreamtime
    More real than the rest

  2. By the age of five, I was drawing what I saw and not what I imagined. This ability has affected my art throughout my life. I received my first oil paints at age 12 and started selling paintings at fifteen, always in a realistic style. When I enrolled in fine arts at University, I felt that no one could teach me anything because ” I already knew how to draw”. People would ask me to copy famous artists work, which I did for remuneration. This “skill” has been a detriment to my growth as an artist. I felt at an early age that I was not able to be as creative as those who just drew or painted whatever was in their imagination. But I was not able to cross that line into creativity for creativity’s sake. People suggested that I use my left hand or big house painting brushes. Now that I am retired and can paint almost full time, I am starting to loosen up a bit, and I am going to pursue more plein air. I hope that helps!
    Wondering if anyone else has been held back by the ability to draw at an early age?

    • Praise from adults not understanding art for art’s sake might have been to blame Catherine. I understand exactly what you mean, people thinking art is good just because the technical skill is there and you’re able to get it to look like what they recognize.

      I was fortunate enough to teach “art class” for a group of homeschooled children ages 5-18 and much to my dismay, they were always trying to please an adult by making it look “right”. The older the child, the harder they were on themselves.

      Even my own son who I highly praise for any abstract or realistic creations thinks if it doesn’t look real then it’s not any good. It’s an endless cycle.

      I hope you’re able to please yourself with your plain air landscapes, that’s all that matters anyway.

      • Thank you for your reply Jaime. I believe you are right on. Praise from adults, teachers, and fellow students lead me to believe that technical skill was the only important art skill. And the positive feedback continued with the ability to get paid for realistic creations. I don’t want to complain too loudly, being a single mother with 3 children allowed me to work at home doing small realistic paintings and selling them….but my creative soul suffered.
        And yes, pleasing myself does matter at this point! Its never too late to discover the beauty of art for art’s sake.

    • Kathleen Lightman on

      Yes! This rings true for me. This easy success kept drawing me back from other exciting art adventures. However I was pleased when looking back at the remaining early drawings at 6 and 7 to see dramatic narratives of daily life, e.g., three girls slanting in a storm with umbrellas, one blown inside out and a house far in the background. There is a distinct narrative voice and style there and a strong interest in the human figure. They were not boring representations. Will I pick up that thread again and follow it with more invention and abstraction?
      After all Picasso got over being able to draw realistically! Many modern artists show that recovery is possible. Let’s look at our early work again to see where it might lead us while valuing what was our innate way of relating to the world and thus our natural form of expression.

  3. Imagination, dreams, and innocence are lovely things and children seem to know best…When we can come to art like a child, not judging it’s “quality, rightness or value” we may find it to be Brilliant. Thank you for this letter and good comments above -love the poem from a mothers heart too.

    • I don’t know how much input you may have on the advertising on your site, but the recent one (received with this lovely “Wild Child” story,) is over the top. “Stop Illegal immigration”, Sign the petition to “Build the Wall”. I was shocked that the very people killing our art programs in the schools, national museums and on the streets of the U.S. are represented here. EEEE Gads.

  4. Louanne Headrick on

    Yes Catherine, at a young age my parents enrolled me in an art course based upon how well I could copy accurately an object. I remember one object was a slightly angled chair. From that point forward accuracy seemed to be the main attraction in my drawings. I have never been able to break that chain though I drool over wonderous abstractions. Right now I have a full sheet of water color paper stretched and ready to accept an image which I cannot bring myself to begin. I am fighting with myself again. I want to know creative freedom!

    • Louanne, its nice to know there are others out there who share this difficulty. I am constantly fighting with myself! I learn to “loosen up” a bit, but find myself going back to old habits. It is hard wired in my brain. I completely understand the “fear” of facing that blank water color paper. I’m not sure what the solution is. I’m hoping going outside with weather and time constraints to deal with, rather than my need for accuracy, will help. And I’m going to be brave and leave my t square at home. ;)
      A ceramist I know uses the expression “some and some”. He loves to be creative, developing new glazes and styles, but knows his traditional mugs and dish sets will always be his bread and butter. Maybe that is the way to approach it.

  5. There’s a practical side to learning also. My children were blessed with a wonderful nursery school teacher who pointed out that 3-5 year olds are learning to control the medium as well as expressing ideas, and that they love the process of learning. She taught the parents to ask open ended questions such as “Tell me about your painting”, and not to comment on whether something was “wrong” or “right”.

    I wish I’d had that teacher when I was a child. But working in her classroom left me with the confidence to take up art years later, in retirement.

  6. This is awesome! I’ve been going through grandkids paintings from 20+ years ago n rejoiced even more at their free expressions of color and movement. Those were fun times!!

  7. I could kick myself for throwing away my children’s early paintings. I admired them at the time. Hung them on the wall/ refrigerator. And praised the kids. As the grew, they learned the “right” way to draw/paint. That was when I decided to throw them thinking; if they don’t like them why should I keep them. They might be embarrassed !

    • Thanks to all for sharing. I too have experienced these limitations to creativity, hate to see kids being taught to color inside the lines of coloring book images, and now the fad of adults doing the same for relaxation. Our two daughters did wonderful images from their imagination in their preschool years. I treasured and saved those early images.

      However, our culture values “art” that can be turned into $; it has little appreciation for art for arts sake. My parents and family in which I was reared never approved of my art career. They were proud when I was an Engineer(first training); they were disappointed when I turned to art.

      After taking a short painting class for fun, I pursued art because of the freedom to create.
      After graduating from art training, I again found the need to earn a living driving my art and making me question my pursuit of art. Thus the ever challenging conflict——the need to produce realistic art for sale versus truly creative work using a lot of imagination. For me, the solution has been two fold. I have learned to earn $ outside of art and do art regularly part-time.

      And to be more creative, imaginative, and loosen up, I regularly go from realistic to abstract, from studying German Expressionism, to Abstract Expressionism, to children’s art. I also change scale from 16×20 to 36x 48 and from half inch brushes to 2-4 inch brushes. I also occasionally work in only black. I love movement, spontaneity, and a kind of abstract realism that works for both figurative and landscape–progress has been slow.

      Best wishes to all in this struggle.

  8. When I was going to school to become an art teacher, tadpole figures were called leglins – so delightfully descriptive!

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https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/shawn-jackson-artwork-landscape-mountain-trees_big-wpcf_300x247.jpgMelanie Islet
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