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A couple months ago, we posted an article written by my dad, a retired art professor, about developing your child’s artistic side. In this second article of the series on a child’s artistic development, he provides illustrations to give a visual idea of what to expect when your child begins exploration of visual media.

At around one-and-half to two years old, children begin mark-making activity (it’s not quite drawing yet). They usually can hold a marking device (felt marker, pencil, pen, chalk or charcoal) in their fist by gripping it with all the fingers closed around the palm of the hand with the tip pointed downward, away from the thumb. Also, they generally understand that the marker is not something to eat or put in their mouth.

Unfortunately, the child will use the marking device indiscriminately on walls, table tops, furniture, cupboards and various other surfaces that may not be appropriate. But with gentle guidance from you they will quickly learn the proper context for their activity.

At this early stage it helps your child to have all the art materials in place before starting the creative activity. Large sheets of paper are an excellent first surface for the child to work with. Quite often it’s good to place a large sheet of butcher paper or newsprint on the floor, with the child seated on the paper or immediately next to it. They will eventually learn which surfaces are drawing surfaces and which ones are not appropriate.

Secondly, large marking surfaces are important because your child will be using the large muscle groups in his or her arm and shoulder area. The arm will be used to pull and push the marking device on the paper. Quite often, your child will watch the trailing mark as if fascinated by the way the marker leaves a visual trail.  Some art educators have stated that the kinesthetic movement of the arm muscles simply “feels good,” and makes an exciting visual effect, which further stimulates the senses. These kinesthetic movements are what adults call “scribble marks.” But for your child, they may be quite exciting visual stimuli.

The following illustrations (numbered 1 – 8), are composites from children’s work, drawn by me to help the parent understand when and what to expect from this stage of visual development.


Illustration 1

These marks appear totally random; however, the large mark on the left, going from corner to corner, is an example of kinesthetic motion of the forearm as it pivots at the elbow. The smaller random marks are likely to be visually exploratory marks indicated by a fascination with the marker. Note the dashed lines I made around the edge of the paper to indicate that the child had an awareness of the edge of the paper as a boundary not to be crossed.  Some researchers have claimed that adult insistence on staying within the boundaries is similar to staying within the lines in a coloring book, and consequently an infringement on the child’s creativity. Others would say that teaching awareness of boundaries is part of what disciplined learning is about in order to be creative.  Generally, the larger the paper (24” x 36” or more), the easier it is to avoid edge of paper problems.


Illustration 2

This is an illustration of a “fan pattern.” The straight or slightly curved marks radiate from a corner of the page, indicating some elbow motion as above, but with a fascination with the corner of the page. This fan pattern is quite common when the paper size is 9” x 12” or 12” x 18” and the child holds the marker in their right hand. The left-handed child will place the fan in the right lower corner.  This is what is meant by “kinesthetic” motion. You may want to try this yourself.  If you are right handed, hold the pencil point down with fingers around it in the palm of your hand. Make a fan in the lower left corner of the paper, swinging your forearm from the elbow. Then, using the same right hand, try to make a fan in the lower right corner. Note it is very difficult to do in the right hand corner.  This is because kinesthetically, your arm crosses over the body and makes it easy to control the large muscle groups in your arm as it moves to the left corner. The child quite often will not only choose the easiest motion but the motion that “feels” best. This is the kinesthetic choice.

Notice that the fan pattern goes off the edge of the paper because large muscle groups do not lend themselves to fine motor coordination at this age.


Illustration 3

This is an example of multiple marks on the same page. It’s not unusual for the child to use many different marking patterns at once. It’s like they want to rehearse all these marks at once. Notice that most of the marks stay within the bounds of the page except at the top where their enthusiasm takes them off the page.

The dots here are representative of a stabbing motion with the forearm, especially when the marker is held with the point down.


Illustration 4

These concentric curved marks, while not quite circles, are also part of the kinesthetic motion begun earlier. Some researchers say this is the beginning of the closed circle as a two-dimensional shape, which indicates the beginning of a search for the rationality of a closed circle. This idea of a search for rationality has been a source of debate in art education for some time and I would encourage those interested to see the suggested readings and web sites at the end of this article. Note that the dotted lines are inserted to show that the marks are mostly centered on the page which adds to the idea of a growing awareness of space on the page and the rational positioning of marks.

While I have spoken here of “circles,” it is quite often the case that the vocabulary of the child may not include the word or concept of circle.


Illustration 5

This drawing could be included with illustration 4, because the “spiral” is also a beginning exploratory symbol. Some would say it’s an early circle but the child does not yet know how to bring the ends of the line together. The spiral symbol has been shown to occur cross-culturally not only in children’s art but in adult murals, paintings and ceramic work.


Illustration 6

The idea of a continuing search for visual rationality as the child matures shows here in the deliberate crossing of lines at right angles placed among other random marks. Again, the child seems to recognize the notion of quadrants or right angles.   The angles may not be a perfect 90 degrees and perpendicular and vertical may not be a part of their vocabulary yet but there is a visual fascination with the crossing of lines. Many times the crossed lines are combined with spirals or circles.


Illustration 7

This combination of marks, when consistently made, lends weight to the notion of the inherent search of rationality. Notice that the circles may be irregular but that the lines are “closed,” either by crossing over or meeting end to end. The end-to-end closing is usually a chronologically later phenomenon.


Illustration 8

We now arrive at the most complex part of this early stage of development.  The child’s vocabulary will usually allow them to “name” a combination of circles and lines, particularly when they understand that smaller circles can be placed inside larger ones. Such drawings are named by the child and the symbol “stands for” Mommy, Daddy, the dog or perhaps their own “face.” The child will quite often make a verbal statement like “It looks like you,” or “I drew you.”  Usually the adult takes pride in knowing the child has chosen to draw a symbol representing them and hopefully will make a complimentary comment to the child.

The complex part begins now for the adult. Notice above I used the phrase “symbol representing them.” Often this phrase is simplified and becomes “the drawing looks like you.” The difference is that the “symbol” itself stands for the person depicted; it does not “look like,” that person. One of the concepts that art educators try to avoid is imposing adult standards of art on the young child.  Struggling to master the discipline of “likeness” is not something the child wants to do at this stage.  It is up to the adult to accept these symbols for what they are in the child’s mind and not expect a more literal, artistic portrait.

A second part of this issue is the temptation of the adult to want to see the figure or face in a context or environment, for example, asking “Where is Mommy?”  The child has already made a lot of progress putting together facial features in a visual symbol, which they now call a “face.” There is no need to also ask for a complete scene or context around the figure or face. This development will take place as the child matures and begins to realize the visual qualities of their environment and how they move around in that space.

While the child’s verbal ability allows them to name multiple symbols, their visual ability has matured to enable them to recognize the visual features of the environment. It is at this juncture of the verbal and visual that we can say art begins. It’s a complex time of cognitive and affective development of the child’s total understanding and knowledge of the world.

For more information about children’s artistic development, visit these websites:

Learning Design: Child development in art from ages two to 12. Various researchers in stages of development are summarized in chart form with written summaries of stages which provide good overview.

Art Program at Indiana State: Indiana State University site of child art archive. It has 4,083 images of child art which may be sorted by various categories. It’s added to and updated on a regular basis.

Art Junction: Discussion and illustrations are well organized with many references. There is a blog with archives and a gallery with suggested projects.

Oasis for Art Educators: Excellent tracing of all major researchers characteristics of development, ages 2 -12.  Two galleries of student art work.  A very extensive bibliography.

Harvard: This is a laboratory for developmental studies including visual clues, language relations.