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.

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Marie N. said...

I think my kids would be better at drawing also if they had more practice. I do not set a good example. I never did a lot of drawing as a child and I never particularly enjoyed drawing anything but ballet slippers.

My 9-year old loves to draw. I think, inspired by your post, I'll begin having her copy some works. Art appreciation is much more my bag!

We don't know yet if the almost 5-year old has flair for ddrawing. When I ask him to draw a bunny, he draws B-U-N-N-Y on his paper. He is somewhat a concrete thinker!

Jane said...

I think that there is something to letting young kids draw and color without leading, but more importantly, without criticism. Patrick had a Kg teacher who was very controlling when it came to colors that could be used, etc., and children's artistic attempts were often held up for ridicule. He is the only one of my children who doesn't draw or color. (Of course, part of that is also due to the same sensory issues that made writing painful for him.)

As they get older though, I think that instruction is quite valuable. I always thought that I was not artistically inclined because I couldn't just draw things, even though I lways colored beautifully and made some incredibly intricate doodles. Later I had classes in perspective drawing and in graphic design. I learned that there is more to art than being able to draw a good puppy. :)

Jon and Andrew both got art supplies from my mom for Christmas: acrylic paints, palettes, palette knives, brush sets, paper & canvas, sketch books and pencils and books on using acrylic paints. It was great to see their different approaches today to getting started. Andrew meticulously covered his paper with background color as he had seen his great-grandmother do. Jon started mixing colors and painting some randomness that ended up looking like a tree.

Rebellious Pastor's Wife said...

Good points, Jane. And I also know that there is a difference between the artwork that a child does from skills learned, and a drawing that kids do that is cathartic..that expresses what is in the mind that they can't find words for...and no matter what level of skill they've learned, those tend to look more like a 4 or a 6 or whatever age drew it. Giving the opportunity to create freely is very important...and without criticism. The fact that it might be their emotions out on that paper (whether you can tell or not) is just one of the reasons not to offer commentary!

Chris's drawing has also happened at the same time that he has become less averse to writing. That has been another thing that Sunday School and confirmation class have provided him...a desire to "catch up" with that. He wrote Christmas cards to family this year. Last year, he was feeling very sensitive about how his handwriting would look and how overwhelming the task seemed. This year, he acquired 7 blank cards and wrote them, then asked me for addresses!

One thing I learned recently and that I also think is good is to not just come out and say "I like it" for everything. Van Gogh didn't like every painting he produced, and scrapped many of them, as does every artist. Often, kids aren't satisfied with their drawings, and our saying "Oh, that's beautiful" takes away their freedom to not like it...or to trust us if they really think it stinks and we are praising it right and left. Saying "interesting choice of colors" or "tell me about this part here," can do more. At least, that hit me pretty strongly when an art teacher was saying it at a training I was at. It makes sense to me. It could be overthinking things again, since I feel so unversed in this area anyway.

Kelly Klages said...

I can't wait to start drawing and writing and playing/singing music with my kids. Hubby and I are creative freaks; we love that kind of stuff, and we have lots of fun experimenting.

I love the Dover coloring books that have intricate artworks displayed in them, like images from the Book of Kells, or works from the great masters, or medieval images. Some people might think that in some of the pictures, such detail in all those lines would frustrate a child to the point of craziness ( I guess time will tell). Though I doubt it-- lots of children will just pick four colors and color everything with them, not feeling bound to make every individual compartmented area a different color. I just think it seems like a great teaching tool.

Rebellious Pastor's Wife said...


I like the Dover coloring books, too. But as I have kids that aren't interested in coloring books, I can't test out your theory. Maybe sometime!!!