Thursday, January 04, 2007
Art as Imitation
When I was in college, I minored in Child Development. Repeatedly, it was emphasized how important it was not to "model" art for a child, i.e. make an example for them to follow when teaching an art project. It was stated over and over again that a stick figure person did not occur in the natural artistic development of a preschooler....they learned it from a grown-up. Instead, a child would naturally go from an egg shaped face with arms and legs, to a head developing on top of that, into finally drawing a body. Coloring books, too, supposedly taught children what characters were supposed to look like, and gives them unrealistic expectations and makes them feel bad about their abilities. Children were supposed to be naturally inspired, not "taught" what creativity is supposed to be.
I have to admit, I completely bought into it. I definitely have enough memories of my school art projects not being 'up to snuff" according to the teachers and myself. And I seemed vindicated in that when I one time whispered in church to my bored two-year-old, "Why don't you draw a picture of Daddy?" And Daddy indeed appeared on paper as an egg with arms and legs. Since my husband is decidedly not egg-shaped, things seemed on target. This was Chris's first recognizable person ever. I was pretty excited.
From that point forward though, I rarely saw a person, animal, or anything animate reflected in my children's artwork. Both Chris and Maggie seem to enjoy putting color to paper, making swirls and patterns, but not really imitating life. It has gotten me thinking.
On the one hand, why is it drawing is something that naturally develops, but no other art does? Music, for instance, requires learning to read notes, understanding how they come together, and how to play an instrument to really be able to effectively use it to express any sort of creativity. Sure, early exposure to music, and even music play is wonderful, but that is only part of instilling appreciation. Chris learned to play the melody of any number of songs on the piano by ear, but even he could tell you there was a complete difference in learning to play "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring" with his right hand by ear, and when he actually learned to interpret those notes on the paper and make the piano do his bidding, both with melody and harmony. It is like the difference between seeing in one dimension and seeing in three.
Poetry or composition, likewise require learning to make letters, learning to read, understanding nuances of words, and a growing development in English language and familiarity with the writing of others' before a person is really able to write something that conveys something to the reader.
Drawing is so many things...some of it is developmental, as in developing fine motor skills. Some of it is talent, there obviously are those better than others. But most of it is skill. Learning to manipulate lines and colors into imitation of life; learning how to develop shadows and depth. It isn't necessarily a pat and dry checklist of how a person's artistic ability develops.
It was just yesterday that I mused with my husband that maybe the reason why I don't have children who draw things is exactly because I never did draw with them. Maybe this is something they are supposed to learn by example. After all, really it is a bit of arrogance on preschool researcher's part to think that this all happens in a vacuum. Just because they monitor what seems to be natural artistic development in the classroom doesn't mean that mom isn't drawing at home, that preschoolers aren't following their siblings example of what's on the fridge, or that kids aren't looking at each other's papers and getting ideas from them on good ideas to shade in someone's shirt of a great way to make the whiskers on a kitty cat. In particular, I remember that my godsister colored with me when I was little, and I particularly liked how she would color the outline of the image on the coloring book darker, then shade in the whole space more lightly. It was striking, and I imitated it. My kids never have been in a classroom. They don't have that environment of constant comparison. Maybe for kids who are not exposed to examples of other kids drawings, there is nothing to push them to develop.
After all, isn't music imitation also? The musician learns to imitate what the composer reflects on the paper and does it over and over again until they become skilled at it, and some of their own self becomes reflected in their playing. Then, when they are well-versed in that and come to understand the theory behind it, they learn to create also. Writing really is based on the same premise. Kids learn by imitation and sharing of ideas. We all learn by imitation and sharing of ideas. That's the very definition of learning.
Since I had this discussion with my husband experessing these concerns, right on cue, my son who almost never draws, and who of course, never draws "things" whipped out his new pack of Christmas markers that his cousins got him, and began drawing today, drawing THINGS....rainbows, ducks, dogs, and the scenic landscape you see above. You'd almost think it was intentional. But I don't think it came out of nowhere. He's spent the last two years in Miss Christine's Sunday School class experimenting with these things and watching his peers, because free-art time came after lesson time, and they were almost always done early. But all of those stages that were supposed to come in between didn't come. Instead, he is creating based on things that he saw his peers create....uniquely and originally Chris, but very typical 8-10 year old....and beyond. And today, four year-old Maggie was right beside him, imitating his efforts all the way.