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 saw four days ago in those caves in the Dominican Republic and mentioned in my previous letter? How innate is the conceptual imagination? How wild is the child?
Pre-Schematic Child Art
Layers in children’s art
by Stanley Horner, Victoria, BC, Canada
Children evolve through four archetypal layers of mark-making. First they scribble. During this period they are not concerned with the look of the marks made, nor are they concerned with a confined area such as a rectangle. They can scribble in a boundless way and can even do it with their eyes shut. At some point, the circular motion of the arm and wrist results in a loop, a shape that stands out from the space around it, and they become aware of the feedback loop of eye-hand coordination. They are at the threshold of the figure-ground relationship that inhabits the infrastructure of all art. Later they notice fragments of marks inside the circle and begin to identify the presence of the human face; it’s a reflective loop of the beginnings of the one and the other dialogue that is the basis of socialization. During this time they are always at the mercy of seeing after-the-fact, that is, following feedback. However, in a fourth phase, they are able for the first time to inner image conceptual patterns of markings before they make them. That’s an amazing discovery. It’s important to note that new research makes it clear that children typically use any of the layers that are a part of their experienced repertoire. They do not see new layers as advances that eradicate previous phases of mark-making.
(RG note) Thanks, Stanley. There’s more to be had in Stanley Horner’s books and on his website.
Power of children’s art
by Katy Huston, Kenmore, WA, USA
I have a degree in art history and, long ago, aspired to be an art teacher. I’ve kept a file of children’s drawings done by friends’ children or others I’ve encountered. One child that I was nanny to for a couple of years did a drawing one day after an altercation with her mother. This child, 5 at the time, sat down quite deliberately with her crayons and a sheet of paper. She drew a house — the usual: two windows, a door, the chimney at about a 45 degree angle to the roof line; flowers in the yard, lights on in the windows — very cheerful and warm and welcoming, and very carefully drawn. And then, with a black crayon, she drew a heavy black “cloud” — really just furious back-and-forth strokes — at the top of the page. She did not deface her careful drawing, but there was, quite clearly, a cloud over that house!
She then presented the drawing to her mother in a very loving way. Her mother, a university professor, immediately got the message. There was a quiet and dignified reconciliation and ice cream all around. I’ve kept this in mind for almost 40 years. The power of children’s art is a given for me!
No colouring books here
by Peni Patrick-McArthur, Toronto, ON, Canada
As a former teacher of young children I have always discouraged parents from purchasing colouring books for their children. I have encouraged them instead to explore and observe the world around them with their children. Giving a young child a blank paper to draw on is like saying, “You have thoughts, ideas, imagination and we respect, celebrate and value those thoughts (drawings).” I have always felt sad that there comes a time way too early when the young child moves away from the natural confidence and freedom of drawing towards convention, correctness, and an “I can’t draw well” frame of mind. I agree, “They are the first and purest source of artistic creation.” (Franz Cizek, 1865-1946) and how I wish for children a home or classroom with a variety of art materials and tools and the freedom to explore those materials and tools over and over again. I wonder why, in our schools, we continue to have children do “crafts,” i.e. follow the teacher’s instructions and create the teacher’s idea — and we call that art?
‘Tell me about it’
by Jennifer Bellinger, Ketchum, ID, USA
When my son was a toddler he had his own space and easel in my studio, also an art table in the kitchen. Someone told me early on when commenting on a child’s art instead of asking “What is this/that?” say, “Tell me about your painting/drawing/sculpture.” If you do the former the child responds with what he thinks YOU want to hear. The latter always produces the most amazing story and/or HONEST description of the art. Try it, you’ll be amazed.
An elderly and very proper couple was visiting my studio looking at my art. My then 4 year old son came over with one of his paintings to “share.” I asked him to “tell” us about his painting. He proceeds to describe in great detail his dinosaur. The elderly man points to a part of the painting and asks “What is that?” Gleefully, my son responds with “That’s the dinosaur’s penis,” as if we were idiots and couldn’t see for ourselves. As you can imagine this brought the house down.
Children make noises when drawing Katrina
by Nancy Raia, Fairhope, AL, USA
I worked with some children this past week from Pascagoula, Mississippi, who were greatly affected by Katrina. I asked them draw what they remembered from the experience. I asked them to be the documenters of this event. The drawings were combined with actual and symbolic images, scribbles of violent winds and images of “You loot, I shoot,” floating coffins, and dead family pets. As they shared their images, they relived the sounds of what was happening around them (as in “My granny was screaming, ‘Help me, Jesus!'”).
Child rediscovered in retirement home
by Ellen G. Burgoyne
I watched my three children go through the same stages in their drawing and painting, at about the same time as their siblings. That was so exciting! I have also taught art to kids, not in a “structured” way, and am amazed at what they do. I have taught people in their 80s in retirement homes, and some still remember the hurt of an early teacher telling them they couldn’t draw, and never picking up an art tool again until the retirement home, when they began to enjoy it.
Egg carton approach
by Bruce R. Dean, MA, USA
I’ve served as an art educator and early childhood educator over the last 33 years. The first thirteen were pre-school, kindergarten through sixth graders. One year in the middle school years, the rest in two high school positions. I certainly continue to struggle with how to align my humanistic background with the formalities of public school grading system and honor the wild child in each of us. I continue to strive to have each child/student/young adult work through each class period and challenging them at the levels I perceive them to be at. Often times I find my practice in conflict with my philosophy. The wild child is in each of us, but has been tamed back in most through our egg carton approach to public education and subject teaching.
Child wins art contest
by Paul Constable, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
A few years ago I wrote an article for the Artists in Canada website on Judging the ‘Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Art, in an amateur art exhibition. I was posed with the problem of choosing a best of show from a group aging 5 years of age to 70ish — accomplished professionals against amateur and fledgling beginners. What a horrific position to be placed in. In the final resolve, a graphite drawing by a 7-year-old was chosen.
Pioneering child-art research in Italy
by Lois Rennie, North Vancouver, BC, Canada
I thought your readers might be interested in the amazing work being done in daycares in Reggio Emilia, Italy. It is work that has influenced early childhood education in many countries. A key resource for information on this approach is The Hundred Languages of Children. The second edition is edited by Edwards, Gandini and Forman.
About 13 years ago a small contingent of Canadian Early Childhood Educators went to Reggio. We were astounded by the children’s art work. While I was teaching at Capilano College, we offered several conferences, seminars, etc. on the Reggio approach. Preschools and daycares have adapted many of their principles in their programs.
When to teach adult art?
by Luz Perez, Riverside, CA, USA
At what age does one start to teach adult art to a child? I have now taught two children who started with me when they were 10, and I taught them in the only way I know how to paint as I learned it from art school. I wouldn’t even know how to teach children’s art. When the one student turned 13, she started playing sports, excelled in it and dropped out of class but is still interested in art. My other student is now 12. Her dexterity needs to grow with her but she remembers everything I teach her. What do you think?
(RG note) Thanks, Maria. This is where things get sticky. Some would say there is never a good time to start teaching “adult art” to children. On the other hand, when you consider most of the evolved pursuits of mankind, few are achieved without refinement and practice. We do not invite wild children to perform appendectomies.
Trust in the child
by Ren Allen, Jonesborough, TN, USA
School and society seek to turn children into conformists — to teach distrust of self and disrespect — the most innate character traits of the human being. Creativity is being crushed very early in a child’s school career as they’re being taught that there is one “right” answer to most everything and that their own ideas are not as important as pleasing adults. If we are to keep alive the spirit of art in children, we must first and foremost trust the child and their unique way of processing the world. Trust is the key here. Unfortunately in our society, children are not trusted.
(RG note) Thanks, Ren. Brian Andreas is an example of an artist who has managed to keep his childlike way of viewing the world — he continues to draw like a three year old. His art and writing can be found on his website.
The ‘rightness’ of adults
by Claudio Ghirardo, Mississauga, ON, Canada
Adults are focused on their kids to get everything “right.” The right look, the right perspective, the right colours, the right grades, and so on. This tends to erase a child’s natural tendency to imagine and use their memory and senses to express themselves. I have a four year old and we have bought colouring books but I refuse to “teach him to colour properly.” I just let him go and am amazed at the colours he uses and have adopted a scribbly technique to my work based on seeing what my son did. I read where Picasso said that he spent his entire life how to draw like a child and Jean Michel Basquait said that the reason he drew like a child was because he wanted to be honest with his art and to him children were the most honest creatures on the face of the earth.
(RG note) Thanks, Claudio. A good online overview of the natural progression of child art can be found at Child Art, Coloring Books, Copying and Creativity, A Guide for Parents and Teachers.
Voices from a world in trouble
by Desiree Fitzgibbon, Dodges Ferry, Tasmania, Australia
I often feel isolated here — literally on the edge — in my work, my view of the world, the way I live and in my art. Last week, I walked with a student who comes to my studio and took her to look at the sandstone pavement, cliffs and small caves on the shore where I live. I spoke to her of the ancestors in those walls, of the figures emerging as if from an ancient manuscript — the palimpsest.
I was affirmed that the muse is with me as I work down here, with ochres and clay, with beeswax and charcoal — working closely with the genius loci. I will certainly take up your offer of a free posting and will perhaps choose one of my latest works using the clay, fibre, mud and charcoal I find on the eroding cliff face, where the pardalote nests are under threat of loss due to the weather patterns. This tiny bird makes its nest in long tunnels in the cliff. The little nest is delicately made from grasses and fine fibrils of fibres. I discovered one on the sand when I was walking. It had fallen intact from the cliff when a huge section of the face dropped away some weeks ago.
The walls of the caves in the Dominican Republic are reminiscent of the shapes I see (of the tiny birds, and perhaps of now extinct critters) here on the walls of the eroding cliffs — voices calling from a world in trouble. These tiny birds may one day be memories only — mere markings on my paper and canvas.
Hat, Tie, Apple, Apron
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Susan Levenson of Ogunquit, Maine, USA who wrote, “You must acquaint yourself with Rhoda Kelloggs’ book Analyzing Children’s Art published in 1969. She analyzed hundreds of thousands of children’s drawings from travels the world over, filed them in as many filing cabinets. The gist of her research concluded that all children everywhere have the same level of drawing development.”
And also Michael Fuerst who wrote, “Picasso, after visiting an exhibition of children’s drawings, once said, ‘When I was their age I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to learn to draw like them.’ ”
And also Jan Bush who wrote, “Kids’ art falls into two categories: One is ‘Static’ they only see that moment and draw that moment. The other is more flowing, as if they see what is happening out of train windows and connect the scenes. The first one is designated ‘Haptic’ and the second is called ‘Associative.’ ”
And also Virginia Wieringa who wrote, “The handprint turkeys and stick figures that many people show children how to make are also a form of child abuse. Two inspirational books for us were Artful Scribbles by Howard Gardner and also The Psychology of Children’s Art by Rhoda Kellogg.”
And also Natalie who wrote, “Viktor Lowenfeld’s Creative and Mental Growth is another understanding of child art. I had the privilege of studying with him. We students jokingly referred to his book as ‘The Gospel according to Lowenfeld.’ Unfortunately, too many art teachers today never heard of Piaget, Czeck or Lowenfeld and teach art to young children according to the precepts of the general society. They are encouraged to have the children produce art that will make a ‘nice’ display on the classroom teacher’s bulletin board. Also, teachers now make a lot of use of coloring books (seat work) to teach the precepts of other subjects.”
And also Sylvia C. Tucker who wrote, “Several decades ago in elementary art education, the name I learned for ‘tadpole figure’ was ‘leglin,’ a creature with head and legs, a name that seemed rather poetic when spoken aloud.”
And also Rosalind Lipscomb Forrest of Huntsville, AL, USA who wrote, “My favorite picture drawn by my four-year-old was a frontal, straight on view of her cat. I lavished praise and admiration on her art work, but her feelings were hurt when I returned the drawing to her. I had failed to turn the paper over where she had drawn his beautiful tail on the back — where any sensible person knew it belonged.”
And also Carole Walch who wrote, “I just finished viewing a 2-disk DVD presentation by BBC Video made in 2006 and narrated by Dr. Nigel Spivey called How Art made the World with a sub-text description How Humans Made Art and Art Made Us Human. It goes into great detail about Cave Art. Just thought I would mention it in case you had not seen it.”
And also Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki who wrote, “I really try hard to find the beauty and even interest in children’s drawings, I just don’t see it. I think that the biggest beauty is the child’s passion for drawing, not the product.”