“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
— I Cor. 13:11
As an expert on children’s art, Miriam Lindstrom of the San Francisco Art Museum, described the adolescent art student:
’’Discontented with his own accomplishments and extremely anxious to please others with his art, he tends to give up original creation and personal expression. Further development of his visualizing powers and even his capacity for original thought and for relating himself through personal feelings to his environment may be blocked at this point. It is a crucial stage beyond which many adults have not advanced.”
— Miriam Lindstrom
Children’s Art, 1957
”The scribblings of any … child clearly indicate how thoroughly immersed he is in the sensation of moving his hand and crayon aimlessly over a surface, depositing a line in his path. There must be some quantity of magic in this alone.”
— Edward Hill
The Language of Drawing, 1966
Children’s repeated images become known to fellow students and teachers, as shown in this wonderful cartoon by Brenda Burbank.
Drawing on Memories, Your History as an Artist
Source: The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards
The majority of adults in THE WESTERN WORLD do not progress in art skills much beyond the level of development they reached at age nine or ten. In most mental and physical activities, individuals’ skills change and develop as they grow to adulthood: Speech is one example, handwriting another. The development of drawing skills, however, seems to halt unaccountably at an early age for most people. In our culture, children, of course, draw like children, but most adults also draw like children, no matter what level they may have achieved in other areas of life. For example, Figures 5-1 and 5-2 illustrate the persistence of childlike forms in drawings that were done recently by a brilliant young professional man who was just completing a doctoral degree at a major university.
I watched the man as he did the drawings, watched him as he regarded the models, drew a bit, erased and drew again, for about twenty minutes. During this time, he became restless and seemed tense and frustrated. Later he told me that he hated his drawings and that he hated drawing, period.
If we were to attach a label to this disability in the way that educators have attached the label dyslexia to reading problems, we might call the problem dyspictoria or dysartistica or some such term. But no one has done so because drawing is not a vital skill for survival in our culture, whereas speech and reading are. Therefore, hardly anyone seems to notice that many adults draw childlike drawings and many children give up drawing at age nine or ten. These children grow up to become the adults who say that they never could draw and can’t even draw a straight line. The same adults, however, if questioned, often say that they would have liked to learn to draw well, just for their own satisfaction at solving the drawing problems that plagued them as children. But they feel that they had to stop drawing because they simply couldn’t learn how to draw.
A consequence of this early cutting off of artistic development is that fully competent and self-confident adults often become suddenly self-conscious, embarrassed, and anxious if they are asked to draw a picture of a human face or figure. In this situation, individuals often say such things as “No, I can’t! Whatever I draw is always terrible. It looks like a kid’s drawing.” Or, “I don’t like to draw. It makes me feel so stupid.” You yourself may have felt a twinge or two of those feelings when you did the Preinstruction drawings.
The crisis period
The beginning of adolescence seems to mark the abrupt end of artistic development in terms of drawing skills for many adults. As children, they confronted an artistic crisis, a conflict between their increasingly complex perceptions of the world around them and their current level of art skills.
Most children between the ages of about nine and eleven have a passion for realistic drawing. They become sharply critical of their childhood drawings and begin to draw certain favorite subjects over and over again, attempting to perfect the image. Anything short of perfect realism may be regarded as failure.
Perhaps you can remember your own attempts at that age to make things “look right” in your drawings, and your feeling of disappointment with the results. Drawings you might have been proud of at an earlier age probably seemed hopelessly wrong and embarrassing. Looking at your drawings, you may have said, as many adolescents say, “This is terrible! I have no talent for art. I never liked it anyway, so I’m not doing it anymore.”
Children often abandon art as an expressive activity for another unfortunately frequent reason. Unthinking people sometimes make sarcastic or derogatory remarks about children’s art. The thoughtless person may be a teacher, a parent, another child, or perhaps an admired older brother or sister. Many adults have related to me their painfully clear memories of someone ridiculing their attempts at drawing. Sadly, children often blame the drawing for causing the hurt, rather than blaming the careless critic. Therefore, to protect the ego from further damage, children react defensively, and understandably so: They seldom ever attempt to draw again.
Art in school
Even sympathetic art teachers, who may feel dismayed by unfair criticism of children’s art and who want to help, become discouraged by the style of drawing that young adolescents prefer— complex, detailed scenes, labored attempts at realistic drawing, endless repetitions of favorite themes such as racing cars, and so on. Teachers recall the beguiling freedom and charm of younger children’s work and wonder what happened. They deplore what they see as “tightness” and “lack of creativity” in students’ drawings. The children themselves often become their own most unrelenting critics. Consequently, teachers frequently resort to crafts projects because they seem safer and cause less anguish— projects such as paper mosaics, string painting, drip painting, and other manipulations of materials.
As a result, most students do not learn how to draw in the early and middle grades. Their self-criticism becomes permanent, and they very rarely try to learn how to draw later in life. Like the doctoral candidate mentioned earlier, they might grow up to be highly skilled in a number of areas, but if asked to draw a human being, they will produce the same childlike image they were drawing at age ten.
From infancy to adolescence
For most of my students, it has proved beneficial to go back in time to try to understand how their visual imagery in drawing developed from infancy to adolescence. With a firm grasp on how the symbol system of childhood drawing has developed, students seem to “unstick” their artistic development more easily in order to move on to adult skills.
The scribbling stage
Making marks on paper begins at about age one and a half, when you as an infant were given a pencil or crayon, and you, by yourself, made a mark. It’s hard for us to imagine the sense of wonder a child experiences on seeing a black line emerge from the end of a stick, a line the child controls. You and I, all of us, had that experience.
After a tentative start, you probably scribbled with delight on every available surface, perhaps including your parents’ best books and the walls of a bedroom or two. Your scribbles were seemingly quite random at first, like the example in Figure 5-3, but very quickly began to take on definite shapes. One of the basic scribbling movements is a circular one, probably arising simply from the way the shoulder, arm, wrist, hand, and fingers work together. A circular movement is a natural movement—more so, for instance, than the arm movements required to draw a square. (Try both on a piece of paper, and you’ll see what I mean.)
The stage of symbols
After some days or weeks of scribbling, infants—and apparently all human children—make the basic discovery of art: A drawn symbol can stand for something out there in the environment. The child makes a circular mark, looks at it, adds two marks for eyes, points to the drawing, and says, “Mommy,” or “Daddy,” or “That’s me,” or “My dog,” or whatever. Thus, we all made the uniquely human leap of insight that is the foundation for art, from the prehistoric cave paintings all the way up through the centuries to the art of Leonardo, Rembrandt, and Picasso.
With great delight, infants draw circles with eyes, mouth, and lines sticking out to represent arms and legs, as in Figure 5-4. This form, a symmetrical, circular form, is a basic form universally drawn by infants. The circular form can be used for almost anything: With slight variations, the basic pattern can stand for a human being, a cat, a sun, a jellyfish, an elephant, a crocodile, a flower, or a germ. For you as a child, the picture was whatever you said it was, although you probably made subtle and charming adjustments of the basic form to get the idea across.
By the time children are about three and a half, the imagery of their art becomes more complex, reflecting growing awareness and perceptions of the world. A body is attached to the head, though it may be smaller than the head. Arms may still grow out of the head, but more often they emerge from the body—sometimes from below the waist. Legs are attached to the body.
By age four, children are keenly aware of details of clothing—buttons and zippers, for example, appear as details of the drawings. Fingers appear at the ends of arms and hands, and toes at the ends of legs and feet. Numbers of fingers and toes vary imaginatively. I have counted as many as thirty-one fingers on one hand and as few as one toe per foot (Figure 5-4).
Although children’s drawings of figures resemble each other in many ways, each child works out through trial and error a favorite image, which becomes refined through repetition. Children draw their special images over and over, memorizing them and adding details as time goes on. These favorite ways to draw various parts of the image eventually become embedded in the memory and are remarkably stable over time (Figure 5-5).
This house is very close to the viewer. The bottom edge of the paper functions as the ground. To a child it seems that every part of the drawing surface has symbolic meaning, the empty spaces of this surface functioning as air through which smoke rises, the sun’s rays shine, and birds fly.
This house is farther away from the viewer and has a wonderfully self-satisfied expression, enclosed as it is under the arc of a rainbow.
Children seem to start out with a nearly perfect sense of composition, which they often lose during adolescence and regain only through laborious study. I believe that the reason may be that older children concentrate their perceptions on separate objects existing in an undifferentiated space, whereas young children construct a self-contained conceptual world bounded by the paper’s edges. For older children, however, the edges of the paper seem almost nonexistent, just as edges are nonexistent in open, real space.
Pictures that tell stories
Around age four or five, children begin to use drawings to tell stories and to work out problems, using small or gross adjustments of the basic forms to express their intended meaning. For example, in Figure 5-6, the young artist has made the arm that holds the umbrella huge in relation to the other arm, because the arm that holds the umbrella is the important point of the drawing.
Another instance of using drawing to portray feelings is a family portrait, drawn by a shy five-year-old whose every waking moment apparently was dominated by his older sister.
Even Picasso could hardly have expressed a feeling with greater power than that. Once the feeling was drawn, giving form to formless emotions, the child who drew the family portrait may have been better able to cope with his overwhelming sister.
By around age five or six, children have developed a set of symbols to create a landscape. Again, by a process of trial and error, children usually settle on a single version of a symbolic landscape, which is endlessly repeated. Perhaps you can remember the landscape you drew around age five or six.
What were the components of that landscape? First, the ground and sky. Thinking symbolically, a child knows that the ground is at the bottom and the sky is at the top. Therefore, the ground is the bottom edge of the paper, and the sky is the top edge, as in Figure 5-7. Children emphasize this point, if they are working with color, by painting a green stripe across the bottom, blue across the top.
Most children’s landscapes contain some version of a house. Try to call up in your mind’s eye an image of the house you drew. Did it have windows? With curtains? And what else? A door? What was on the door? A doorknob, of course, because that’s how you get in. I have never seen an authentic, child-drawn house with a missing doorknob.
You may begin to remember the rest of your landscape: the sun (did you use a corner sun or a circle with radiating rays?), the clouds, the chimney, the flowers, the trees (did yours have a convenient limb sticking out for a swing?), the mountains (were yours like upside-down ice cream cones?). And what else? A road going back? A fence? Birds?
At this point, before you read any further, please take a sheet of paper and draw the landscape that you drew as a child. Label your drawing “Recalled Childhood Landscape.” You may remember this image with surprising clarity as a whole image, complete in all its parts; or it may come back to you more gradually as you begin to draw.
While you are drawing the landscape, try also to recall the pleasure drawing gave you as a child, the satisfaction with which each symbol was drawn, and the sense of rightness about the placement of each symbol within the drawing. Recall the sense that nothing must be left out and, when all the symbols were in place, your sense that the drawing was complete.
If you can’t recall the drawing at this point, don’t be concerned. You may recall it later. If not, it may simply indicate that you’ve blocked it out for some reason. Usually about ten percent of my adult students are unable to recall their childhood drawings.
Before we go on, let’s take a minute to look at some recalled childhood landscapes drawn by adults. First, you will observe that the landscapes are personalized images, each different from the other. Observe also that in every case the composition—the way the elements of each drawing are composed or distributed within the four edges—seems exactly right, in the sense that not a single element could be added or removed without disturbing the rightness of the whole (Figure 5-9). Let me demonstrate that by showing you what happens in Figure 5-10 when one form (the tree) is removed. Test this concept in your own recalled landscape by covering one form at a time. You will find that removing any single form throws off the balance of the whole picture. Figures 5-9 and 5-10 show examples of some of the other characteristics of childhood landscape drawings.
After you have looked at the examples, observe your own drawing. Observe the composition (the way the forms are arranged and balanced within the four edges). Observe distance as a factor in the composition. Try to characterize the expression of the house, at first wordlessly and then in words. Cover one element and see what effect that has on the composition. Think back on how you did the drawing. Did you do it with a sense of sureness, knowing where each part was to go? For each part, did you find that you had an exact symbol that was perfect in itself and fit perfectly with the other symbols? You may have been aware of feeling the same sense of satisfaction that you felt as a child when the forms were in place and the image completed.
The stage of complexity
Now, like the ghosts in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, we’ll move you on to observe yourself at a slightly later age, at nine or ten. Possibly you may remember some of the drawings you did at that age—in the fifth, sixth, or seventh grade.
During this period, children try for more detail in their artwork, hoping by this means to achieve greater realism, which is a prized goal. Concern for composition diminishes, the forms often being placed almost at random on the page. Seemingly, children’s concern for where things are in the drawing is replaced with concern for how things look, particularly the details of forms. Overall, drawings by older children show greater complexity and, at the same time, less assurance than do the landscapes of early childhood.
Also around this time, children’s drawings become differentiated by sex, probably because of cultural factors. Boys begin to draw automobiles—hot rods and racing cars; war scenes with dive bombers, submarines, tanks, and rockets. They draw legendary figures and heroes—bearded pirates, Viking crewmen and their ships, television stars, mountain climbers, and deep-sea divers. They are fascinated by block letters, especially monograms; and some odd images such as (my favorite) an eyeball complete with piercing dagger and pools of blood.
Meanwhile, girls are drawing tamer things—flowers in vases, waterfalls, mountains reflected in still lakes, pretty girls running or sitting on the grass, fashion models with incredible eyelashes, elaborate hairstyles, tiny waists and feet, and hands held behind the back because hands are “hard to draw.”
Figures 5-11 through 5-14 are some examples of these early adolescent drawings. I’ve included a cartoon drawing: Cartoons are drawn by both boys and girls and are much admired. I believe that cartooning appeals to children at this age because cartoons employ familiar symbolic forms but are used in a more sophisticated way, thus enabling adolescents to avoid feeling that their drawing is “babyish.”
Fig. 5-12. Complex drawing by Naveen Molloy, then ten years old. This is an example of the kind of drawing by adolescents that teachers often deplore as ’tight” and uncreative. Young artists work very hard to perfect images like this one of electronic equipment. Note the keyboard and mouse. The child will soon reject this image, however, as hopelessly inadequate.
Fig. 5-13. Complex drawing by a nine-year-old girl. Transparency is a recurrent theme in the drawings of children at this stage. Things seen under water, through glass windows, or in transparent vases— as in this drawing—are all favorite themes. Though one could guess at a psychological meaning, it is quite likely that young artists are simply trying this idea to see if they can make the drawings ”look right.”
Fig. 5-14. Complex drawing by a ten-year-old boy. Cartooning is a favorite form of art in the early adolescent years. As art educator Miriam Lindstrom notes in Children s Art, the level of taste at this age is at an all-time low.
The stage of realism
By around age ten or eleven, children’s passion for realism is in full bloom (Figures 5-15 and 5-16). When their drawings don’t come out “right”—meaning that they don’t look realistic—children often become discouraged and ask their teachers for help. The teacher may say, “You must look more carefully,” but this doesn’t help, because the child doesn’t know what to look more carefully for. Let me illustrate that with an example.
Children aged ten to twelve are searching for ways to make things ’’look real.” Figure drawing in particular fascinates adolescents. In this drawing, symbols from an earlier stage are fitted into new perceptions: Note the front-view eye in this profile drawing. Note also that the child’s knowledge of the chair back has been substituted for the purely visual appearance of the back of the chair seen from the side.
At this stage, children’s main effort is toward achieving realism. Awareness of the edges of the drawing surface fades and attention is concentrated on individual, unrelated forms randomly distributed about the page. Each segment functions as an individual element without regard for unified composition.
Say that a ten-year-old wants to draw a picture of a cube, perhaps a three-dimensional block of wood. Wanting the drawing to look “real,” the child tries to draw the cube from an angle that shows two or three planes—not just a straight-on side view that would show only a single plane, and thus would not reveal the true shape of the cube.
To do this, the child must draw the oddly angled shapes just as they appear—that is, just like the image that falls on the retina of the perceiving eye. Those shapes are not square. In fact, the child must suppress knowing that the cube is square and draw shapes that are “funny.” The drawn cube will look like a cube only if it is comprised of oddly angled shapes. Put another way, the child must draw unsquare shapes to draw a square cube. The child must accept this paradox, this illogical process, which conflicts with verbal, conceptual knowledge. (Perhaps this is one meaning of Picasso’s statement that “Painting is a lie that tells the truth.”)
”The painter who strives to represent reality must transcend his own perception. He must ignore or override the very mechanisms in his mind that create objects out of images. The artist, like the eye, must provide true images and the clues of distance to tell his magic lies.”
— Colin Blakemore
Mechanics of the Mind, 1977
From childhood onward, we have learned to see things in terms of words: We name things, and we know facts about them. The dominant left verbal system doesn’t want too much information about things it perceives—just enough to recognize and to categorize. It seems that one of its functions is to screen out a large proportion of contextual perceptions. This is a necessary process and one that works very well for us most of the time, enabling us to focus our attention. The left brain, in this sense, learns to take a quick look and says, ”Right, that’s a chair (or an umbrella, bird, tree, dog, etc.).” But drawing requires that you look at something for a long time, perceiving lots of details and how they fit together, registering as much information as possible— ideally, everything, as Albrecht Durer apparently tried to do in Figure 5-19.
“By the time the child can draw more than a scribble, by age three or four years, an already well-formed body of conceptual knowledge formulated in language dominates his memory and controls his graphic work. Drawings are graphic accounts of essentially verbal processes. As an essentially verbal education gains control, the child abandons his graphic efforts and relies almost entirely on words. Language has first spoilt drawing and then swallowed it up completely.”
— Written in 1930 by psychologist Karl Buhler
”I must begin, not with hypothesis, but with specific instances, no matter how minute.”
— Paul Klee
”Art is a form of supremely delicate awareness … meaning at-oneness, the state of being at one with the object…The picture must all come out of the artist’s inside… It is the image that lives in the consciousness, alive like a vision, but unknown.”
— D. H. Lawrence, the English writer, speaking about his paintings
“The development of an Observer can allow a person considerable access to observing different identity states, and an outside observer may often clearly infer different identity states, but a person himself who has not developed the Observer function very well may never notice the many transitions from one identity state to another.”
— Charles T. Tart
Alternate States of Consciousness, 1977
If verbal knowledge of the cube’s real shape overwhelms the student’s purely visual perception, “incorrect” drawing results— drawing with the kinds of problems that make adolescents despair (see Figure 5-17). Knowing that cubes have square corners, students usually start a drawing of a cube with a square corner. Knowing that a cube rests on a flat surface, students draw straight lines across the bottom. Their errors compound themselves as the drawing proceeds, and the students become more and more confused.
Though a sophisticated viewer, familiar with the art of cubism and abstraction, might find the “incorrect” drawings in Figure 5-17 more interesting than the “correct” drawings in Figure 5-18, young students find praise of their wrong forms incomprehensible. In this case, the child’s intent was to make the cube look “real.” Therefore, to the child, the drawing is a failure. To say otherwise seems as absurd to students as telling them that “two plus two equals five” is a creative and praiseworthy solution.
On the basis of “incorrect” drawings such as the cube drawings, students may decide that they “can’t draw.” But they can draw; that is, the forms indicate that manually they are perfectly able to draw. The dilemma is that previously stored knowledge— which is useful in other contexts—prevents their seeing the thing-as-it-is, right there in front of their eyes.
Sometimes the teacher solves the problem by showing the students how—that is, by demonstrating the process of drawing. Learning by demonstration is a time-honored method of teaching art, and it works if the teacher can draw well and has confidence enough to demonstrate realistic drawing in front of a class. Unfortunately, most teachers at the crucial elementary level are themselves not trained in perceptual skills in drawing. Therefore, teachers often have the same feelings of inadequacy concerning their own ability to draw realistically as the children they wish to teach.
Many teachers wish children at this age would be freer, less concerned about realism in their artwork. But however much some teachers may deplore their students’ insistence on realism, the children themselves are relentless. They will have realism, or they will give up art forever. They want their drawings to match what they see, and they want to know how to do that.
I believe that children at this age love realism because they are trying to learn how to see. They are willing to put great energy and effort into the task if the results are encouraging. A few children are lucky enough to accidentally discover the secret: how to see things in a different (R-mode) way. I think I was one of those children who, by chance, stumbles on the process. But the majority of children need to be taught how to make that cognitive shift. Fortunately, we are now developing new instructional methods, based on recent brain research, which will enable teachers to help satisfy children’s yearning for seeing and drawing skills.
How the symbol system, developed in childhood, influences seeing
Now we are coming closer to the problem and its solution. First, what prevents a person from seeing things clearly enough to draw them?
The left hemisphere has no patience with this detailed perception and says, in effect, “It’s a chair, I tell you. That’s enough to know. In fact, don’t bother to look at it, because I’ve got a readymade symbol for you. Here it is; add a few details if you want, but don’t bother me with this looking business.”
And where do the symbols come from? From the years of childhood drawing during which every person develops a system of symbols. The symbol system becomes embedded in the memory, and the symbols are ready to be called out, just as you called them out to draw your childhood landscape.
The symbols are also ready to be called out when you draw a face, for example. The efficient left brain says, “Oh yes, eyes. Here’s a symbol for eyes, the one you’ve always used. And a nose? Yes, here’s the way to do it.” Mouth? Hair? Eyelashes? There’s a symbol for each. There are also symbols for chairs, tables, and hands.
To sum up, adult students beginning in art generally do not really see what is in front of their eyes—that is, they do not perceive in the special way required for drawing. They take note of what’s there, and quickly translate the perception into words and symbols mainly based on the symbol system developed throughout childhood and on what they know about the perceived object.
What is the solution to this dilemma? Psychologist Robert Ornstein suggests that in order to draw, the artist must “mirror” things or perceive them exactly as they are. Thus, you must set aside your usual verbal categorizing and turn your full visual attention to what you are perceiving—to all of its details and how each detail fits into the whole configuration. In short, you must see the way an artist sees.
Fig. 5-19. Albrecht Durer, Study for the Saint Jerome (1521).
One of the L-mode functions is to screen out a large proportion of incoming perceptions. This is a necessary process to enable us to focus our thinking and one that works very well for us most of the time. But drawing requires that you look at something for a long time, perceiving lots of details, registering as much information as possible— ideally, everything, as Albrecht Durer tried to do here.
Given proper instruction, young children can easily learn to draw. These examples are by third-grade children, age eight.
Again, the key question is how to accomplish that cognitive L->R shift. As I said in Chapter Four, the most efficient way seems to be to present the brain with a task the left brain either can’t or won’t handle. You have already experienced a few of those tasks: the Vase/Faces drawings and the upside-down drawing. And to some extent, you have already begun to experience and recognize the alternate state of right-hemisphere mode. You are beginning to know that while you are in that slightly different subjective state of mind, you slow down so that you can see more clearly.
As you think back over experiences with drawing since you started this book and over experiences of alternative states of consciousness you may have had in connection with other activities (freeway driving, reading, etc., mentioned in Chapter One), think again about the characteristics of that slightly altered state. It is important that you continue to develop your awareness and recognition of R-mode state.
Lewis Carroll described an analogous shift in Alice’s adventures in Through the Looking Glass:
”Oh, Kitty, how nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking Glass House! I’m sure it’s got, oh! such beautiful things in it! Let’s pretend there’s a way of getting through into it, somehow, Kitty. Let’s pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it’s turning to a mist now, I declare! It’ll be easy enough to get through. . .”
Let’s review the characteristics of the R-mode one more time. First, there is a seeming suspension of time. You are not aware of time in the sense of marking time. Second, you pay no attention to spoken words. You may hear the sounds of speech, but you do not decode the sounds into meaningful words. If someone speaks to you, it seems as though it would take a great effort to cross back, think again in words, and answer. Furthermore, whatever you are doing seems immensely interesting. You are attentive and concentrated and feel “at one” with the thing you are concentrating on. You feel energized but calm, active without anxiety. You feel self-confident and capable of doing the task at hand. Your thinking is not in words but in images and, particularly while drawing, your thinking is “locked on” to the object you are perceiving. On leaving R-mode state, you do not feel tired, but refreshed.
Our job now is to bring this state into clearer focus and under greater conscious control, in order to take advantage of the right hemisphere’s superior ability to process visual information and to increase your ability to make the cognitive shift to R-mode at will.