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Earlier this spring and summer, I posted two articles on your child’s developing artistic skills by my dad, a retired art professor. You can see them here and here.

Today, I am bringing you the third installment of this series. In this article, my dad is featuring MY artwork! Yep, that’s right, he saved it all—just kidding! However, he did turn a few of my masterpieces into slides, which he used as tools to teach college students about children’s artistic development.

He recently dug up those old slides to use in this article. The visuals are a great way to see how a child develops artistically.

In this third installment on the characteristics of artistic development of children, I am using art work from my daughter, Laurel.

These paintings and drawings were done from ages three to five. The only supervision or adult “help,” during these sessions was to provide materials like paper, paint and markers, as well as a table and chair to work on. There was no adult giving “instruction” or direction of any kind. Also, there was no limitation of time spent on any of the work.  Laurel started and stopped when she was ready and was only spoke up when she was done with any given work.

I’m telling you this because it reflects the analysis and interpretation of each of the eight representative works below. Please note there were many more works created during these two years, and the ones chosen here are for the purpose of illustrating certain characteristics, and were not chosen as good or bad examples of any stage of development.

In the earlier articles on this web site, I referred to stages of artistic development, such as scribbling, pre-schematic, schematic and pre-adolescent, all of which were defined against a chronological time line from about two to 14 years of age.

While the chronological approach lends clarity to what the child may be doing in their mark making activity, there is not much mention of how the child looks back on memories of visual stimuli and turns those memories, daydreams and reveries into visual metaphoric images. Thus, the creative process of development seems to be more complex than simply labeling age differences based on symbol-making ability. We also need to look at what it means for the child to generate visual metaphors as well as technique in media.

It is the purpose here to show that Laurel’s paintings and drawings were created as being a part of art, rather than apart from art. The latter is what adults see, while the former is what parents and art teachers should seek to develop in the child. Yes, there is some sense of an inherent search for rationality in visual imagery of the young child, but of more importance is the nurturing of the search for metaphoric meaning as the artistic process develops.

One example of this metaphoric exploration can be seen when the child crosses out some image and just starts another right beside the first. The fact that we do not as adults, normally see crossed out images in the observable environment is not relevant to the child. Their search for a way to express their experience is more direct and true to their understanding of how the world works. (See example # 7.  Are the upper left marks clouds, smoke or something scribbled out?)

With the young child, there is a freedom to cross out parts of a drawing or painting because the surface is not a sacred space to the child. It is no problem for the child to go on as if the crossing out did not exist, and is perhaps an archetypal ability to deal with an empty nothingness of what they pretend not to see. Perhaps this is an ability to deal visually with a metaphor for nothingness. A definitive emphasis on chronology keeps adults from understanding that removing an image is part of the child’s artistic presentation.

As the child develops the will to form, one notes that the chronological stages of development may provide a verifiable visual base for comparison with earlier art products from the child. However, it does not allow for a prescription of what the child may want to do next. The growth and development of root metaphors of symbolization provide visual and expressive nourishment for the myths and imagery of most children.

Many parents ask about techniques to teach the child to make art products. Technique, (how to draw a dog, for example) does not in and of itself generate new concepts for art products. Technique is only a visual tool, which brings an image to fruition making an object look real. The child must eventually go beyond the rules of technique to the significance of the metaphor of personal expression in the art object. (For example, what unique vision do they have of the dog, rather than, what does the dog look like?) Yes, the child must know technique as a tool built into their particular developmental stage, but they must also be able to transcend it to express their own artistic metaphor.

As parents we should not try to bind the child to our way of seeing and creating, rather we should erase the slate of old presentations and expressions to make way for new metaphors and myths as art.

With these ideas in mind, let us now look at Laurels’ drawings and paintings from ages three to five:

EXAMPLE 1: Age three years, two months.

The drawing above shows the early recognition of overlapping circles as a face. It was one of the earliest for Laurel. It was not named as being anyone in particular. Note that the eyes are also circles as opposed to dots and that the image is placed in the center of the page.  There is no context around the face to identify where it is located in the environment.


EXAMPLE 2: Age three years, six months.

This crayon drawing was an early exploration of color as applied to “flowers.” Note the repetition of shapes that designate the flower symbols. While they are all basically the same, they are all in different colors. The flower and stem seemed to be important to the visual metaphor, but the leaves of the plants were not.


EXAMPLE 3: Age three years, six months.

This was the first drawing (above) identified by Laurel as specifically another person, “Mom.” The oversize head being the major way the child identifies adults with the very small body in a different color below the circular head. As stated earlier, there was no directive given to draw a picture of “Mom,” nor were there any questions after about who this was.  The label “Mom,” was Laurel’s own comment. It is important to note that there was no comment from adults who saw this drawing that it “looked like,” any one. The concept of resemblance is more closely associated with much later stages of development.


EXAMPLE 4: Age three years, seven months.

Approximately a month later, the “Mom,” image has defined hair, arms with hands and legs with feet. Typical of this age, there is no defined torso; the head oval serves as both head and torso, to which arms and legs are represented as single lines.  The second typical characteristic is the lack of background. We do not have any indication of where the figure is in space. This is sometimes called a “floating” figure due to a lack of background and/or a base line for the figure to stand upon. In a short time, “Mom,” has become a more complete figure due to additional details added to the circle seen in example 3.


EXAMPLE 5: Age four years, two months.

Seven months later, the “family” as a whole idea begins to appear  along with a background context made up of a sun, in the upper right corner and a flower in the lower left. Note that only the two right hand images have faces and legs. The two left hand images appear to be flowers due to the decorative circles placed on the edges of the larger circles. Even though there is a context, there is not enough background imagery to identify where the figures are located. Also, note that Laurel was learning to print her name at the bottom center of the paper.


EXAMPLE 6: Age four years, 11 months.

In the intervening nine months since example 5, Laurel was working with a new media to her. With brushes she chose (perhaps too wide) and a runny tempera paint, she chose to use the brush as if it were a pencil—to draw lines. This building was her “school.” Note that the building is located on the bottom edge of the page which is the baseline supporting the building in space. Other details like doors, windows and chimney are typical for this age. Note the way the smoke comes out and then is pulled to the right.  This directness to solving the problem of running into the top of the page is a first step in solving techniques of representing three dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface.


EXAMPLE 7: Age four years, 12 months.

This drawing was titled “A Turkey.”  We now see in Laurel’s work as an entire “context.”  The figure, the turkey and the building are anchored to the ground as a baseline across the page. The building is substantially larger than the figures, indicating an early understanding of size differentiation to depict depth in space and to locate objects in an environmental context. While this was not understood by Laurel as “depth” or “context,” it was a part of her developing perceptual ability. This ability is quite often mixed with the use of stereotyped symbols at this age. An example is the sun in the upper left corner as a circle with radiating lines typical of this age.


EXAMPLE 8: Age five years, three months.

This is an example of mixed media. The crayon drawing was done first, then the white tempera paint was applied. The baseline was established first and the snowman, trees and building added to that base. The background space between ground and sky is still ambiguous and without a skyline or sun in this work. Note the flower at the left in a winter scene gives credence to the idea of uninhibited artistic freedom within this age group. Drawing first, then filling in with paint, can be a good substitute for coloring books, because it encourages the child to provide their own ideas and contexts for the entire painting, which ultimately encourages the notion of self expression uninhibited by imagery from an outside source.


Having viewed these examples, I would like to return to the earlier discussion about chronology of development and the child’s understanding of metaphor. Looking at examples 1 and 3, there does not seem to be a lot of difference other than adding some details in example 3, approximately four months later. However, note that example 2 is a named work called “Flowers.” This “naming” process begins to illustrate an understanding of the environment and a visual way to represent it as a drawn metaphor of that understanding. This is the beginning of what the adult world defines as “Art.”  The drawing becomes the root metaphor of symbolization providing visually expressive nourishment for the child’s personal metaphoric and myth making processes.

In example 5, about eight months later, note that the lone face has developed into a “family.” Again, the metaphor has expanded to include a context of several people as a related entity. This is another example of the growth of visual expression as metaphor, which happened in a short time span.

In examples 6, 7 and 8, the visual understanding (perception) of the environment has grown from a single building in outline form, to a complete “scene,” with snowman, trees, building and a flower. Specifically in examples 7 and 8, the ground is illustrated by a line and area at the bottom of the paper rather than using the bottom edge of the paper itself. This was not due to any instruction. These were visual experiences that Laurel expressed on her own. Techniques were not stressed at this age level. As can be seen in examples 7 and 8, many of the actual marks made on the drawing and painting still appear to be exploratory and not directly or identifiably recognizable to the subject matter at hand. In some cases, like tree foliage, for example, it seems like Laurel only wanted to quickly identify that something was there, and hence, we see a quick random circle or a scribbled mark. However, notice the flower in example 8 is complete down to individual petals. By the age of five, we can say that she has learned to express her visual experiences and that she is also experiencing the ability to express her personal vision.


This site has a very large data base of children’s art for viewing.

The Construction of Reality in the Child by Jean Piaget.

I would like to mention two recent books, reviewed by Ellen Handler Spitz, in The New York Times, Book Review section, Sunday, August 26, 2012. Both are for children ages five to nine: I Gotta Draw by Bruce Degen and Dog Loves Drawing by Louise Yates.