This essay was inspired by an Australian mother whose son, age eight, was feeling discouraged and wanted help in learning to draw better. She wanted to know how to help him. Observation drawing provides the method of choice. Of course observation drawing is not the only form of good drawing practice, but it is often the best way to develop drawing skills. Drawing from remembered experiences and drawing based on imagination are good to develop those aspects of thinking. Copy work drawing is not encouraged, but only tolerated if it is self-initiated. Many self-taught artists have learned by copying because it was the only alternative they knew about. However, copywork is not the best way to learn to draw actual objects, animals, scenes, and people.
For an attractively printed version of a previous version of this article with additional photographs, consider ordering a copy of the March, 2007 issue of Homeschooling Horizons Magazine.
DRAWING and CHILDREN
Children who know me sometimes ask me how to draw better.
Many children do not know that artists have learned to draw by doing observation-drawing practice. They often assume that you can draw or you can't. Of course this is true, but it is also true that nearly anybody can learn to draw at any age. Many children feel inferior about their own ability to draw. Too often no teacher or adult has ever helped them learn to make a proper observation. Most teachers have not been educated about teaching drawing. Some generalist teachers even say, "That's okay, I can't draw either." This is the opposite of good motivation. They would never dare say, "That's okay, I can't read and write. I just don't have the talent for it."
I explain that drawing ability comes from practice. I call it "practice" so it isn't as intimidating as final products. This essay explains some practice processes that lead to better drawing skills. Sometimes children want to develop their practice into more elaborate finished work. I encourage their desire to finish some works, but I also affirm the need to do lots of practice that does not have to be finished work. I explain it by using music analogies. We practice piano a long time to learn some pieces. We don't worry two much about mistakes while we are learning, but eventually it is good to play a recital. Then I give them some proven ways to practice and encourage them to make a many choices as possible as they learn to draw.
I never draw to show a child how to draw do something.
If I would show a child how something is drawn, the child would get the idea that my drawing is the answer. The child would think that her job is to copy my drawing. Looking at my drawing is a very poor way to learn to see for yourself.
I go over to the thing being observed. I run my finger slowly along the edge of the thing. While doing this, I encourage the child to begin drawing in the air (by pointing a finger toward my finger) as preliminary practice following the edge contour slowly as my finger moves. After practice in the air, the child practices on paper with a slow deliberate contour while NOT looking at the paper.
I never draw on the child's paper. Learning to see is done by studying the thing, animal, or person being drawn - not by getting the teacher to correct the work. The student should own the whole process and product.
I never ask a child to copy a picture made by me, by another artist, or by a camera. I have them practice from actual objects or models. When children do copy work for fun on their own, I do not condemn them for this, but I do withhold compliments for copied work, and I withhold all encouragement related to copy work. I encourage them to practice from actual objects - never working from pictures.
Eliciting a careful description from the student
We cannot draw what we do not notice. Before starting I take extra time to discuss some details of a small area where the student will start. This gives focus, familiarity, and confidence. Visual information is useless unless you notice it.
I give instruction in the form of open questions rather than directions. "How much of this edge is straight and how much is curved?" "How much longer is this side than the top edge?" "What are the different lengths you get when you extend your arm and measure by holding the pencil across it in the air?" "How do the lengths compare?" "Isn't this a silly line? Can you see how it wiggles?" If I use questions, it implies that the teacher will not be needed in the future. Once the student knows the questions, the student can practice alone. If I give commands, the student might not feel empowered to work alone.
Simplify but never dumb it down
Sometimes we start with a small part of something that would otherwise seem much to too complex and overwhelming. Adding a bit at a time, I am often amazed at some of the elaborate drawings that a child can make. Think about the amazing thinking habits that are being fostered by this approach.
Mistakes are normal
I prepare them in advance for what to expect so that they can be pleased with what works rather than disappointed by what does not work. In blind contour line (drawing the outer edge of objects without looking at the paper) I let them know that I do not expect to get a better line, but I also expect that my line probably will not end up at the right place when it comes around to where it started. If it comes around and meets, it means that I just got lucky, or maybe I peeked at the paper (treat with humor). "Blind" contour drawing means drawing without looking at the paper, but only looking at the object.
Blinders as drawing helpers
I use a large blinder card on our pencil so we cannot see what is being drawn. I generally allow looking at the paper only when the pencil is stopped (when it is placed to start a new line). While the pencil moves, I do not allow looking down at the paper, but only looking at the edge of the object being observed and drawn. It is good to move the pencil very slowly and deliberately so that each little change of direction, notch, bump, zigzag, etc. can be included (as slow as and ant crawling). Not every drawing experience needs to be blind contour practice, but some regular practice using blind contour is a good way to discipline the mind to develop the skill of observation.
With young children I often encourage them to use a blinder helper while they practice all the lines of the edges without concern for making a picture. This practice session is their preparation prior to drawing a picture on another paper or elsewhere on the same paper. This part is simply a jumble of practice lines. After this rehearsal, when they draw the picture, all the lines are already familiar and easier.
Viewfinders as framing helpers
A viewfinder, which can be a simple 2x2 inch empty slide frame, is useful to view the scene. For drawing, the viewfinder can be a piece of 8x10 inch cardboard with a rectangle cut out as a window about 3x4 inches.
This student is using a viewfinder taped on a stick placed to frame some sunflowers. In the second view she is adding tomatoes seen from her position as she looks through the viewfinder window.
This can be held at arms length or closer to help the student decide what to include in the drawing. We use it the same way you would frame a picture with a camera viewfinder. It can zoom closer (bending the arm) to give a wide angle. It can zoom out to create a telephoto framing (holding it with an extended arm). The window in the viewfinder (also called isolator) makes it easier for the student decide on what to include, how to arrange things, how to fit the paper, which way to turn the paper, and how large to make things in a drawing. A more advanced viewfinder might have black thread taped across the window to form a grid through which to view the scene, still life, animal, or person that is being observed.
Most of us need to get more comfortable with mistakes. I do not point out mistakes because the effect is not helpful. It works better to emphasize the things that are working well. However, children often notice mistakes themselves. I believe it is helpful for children to learn that the mistakes they see in their drawing are useful for learning and for getting new ideas. I tell children it is okay to erase and fix major mistakes, but I make a point to explain that I like to learn new things from my mistakes. I tell them that I often leave my mistakes until I am nearly finished with the whole thing. I first add the corrections until I figure it out. Sometimes the mistakes add some interest and expressive qualities that are hard to appreciate at first.
Mistakes in drawing are often very perplexing. The child can see that something looks wrong, but does not know why. It would be easy for me to explain how I think it should be drawn. It would be easy for me to draw it for them. I must never do this. It is much more useful to use this as an opportunity to teach the child how to learn. When a child is puzzled is not the time to solve the puzzle for the child, it is the time to teach puzzle solving strategies. Learning how to build our own ability makes us much more capable than if we are handed answers.
To make it easier, artists often practice with small sketches when they are planning the arrangement for a major work. Once they have decided on the layout, artists often practice details by making sketches that are about the actual size needed. Preliminary practice makes the final drawing easier to do. To solve a drawing mistake, I might ask a child to practice a certain part of the drawing on another paper. Often it helps make a discovery if a blinder is used. If they will repeat the practice three times they will have choices. I can ask the student to look at the three results and pick the idea that looks best to them (not to me).
Often mistakes are lucky gifts leading to creative ideas that we would otherwise have missed. When we approach this like we approach playing a game, we can even learn to enjoy it. This principle works for drawing and it works for teaching about mistakes as well. Truth is often found by mistake when we are open and alert enough to consider new possibilities.
I did a web search for the word "serendipity". You can find a long list of extremely useful discoveries and inventions that nobody would have thought of had they not made a mistake or had an accident. We have all benefited from antibiotics. Antibiotics were first discovered because Alexander Fleming saw something unexpected but true in a careless mistake. He was a careful observer. Few things teach observation as well as drawing. As a potter, a soft clay vase accidentally fell on the floor from a board as I was carrying it. I looked at it, and it led me to a new class of work made to hang on the wall. Many mistakes in drawing can actually help the drawings take on an expressive, mysterious, or spontaneous quality that can be very evocative.
How to respond to a child's drawing
I look for some places where the lines or shapes work well. I enthusiastically affirm improvements and successes. I know that most children will stop drawing if I make any negative comments or tell them that they need to make corrections. Practice and learning only happens when there is a fair amount of satisfaction. I look for and point out improvement - not perfection. I use positive comments and questions that remind them of things to notice - not judgment. Instead of judging, I learn more about the thinking of children when I ask them to verbally elaborate about an area in their work. It helps me understand where they are in their perception of what they are observing. With observation questions I may be able to help them move to the next level. I can use this information in the next lesson because I can design a practice session that is more appropriate to their individual needs.
Fear of drawing makes things come out smaller. I accept whatever size they produce, but I will encourage them to see if they can draw small things extra big. A child's shoe might be drawn large enough for a grown man. Sometimes I simply say, "How big do you need to draw it in order to fill the paper with this?" or "How big do you need it to fill the framed area with this?" When I see that something is too small, it lets me know how to plan the next practice session.
MORE ADVANCED LEVELS?
From contour drawing, we often move to shading. When doing this I make sure the lighting is fairly dramatic. It is important have the child take time do some detailed advance planning before starting to do the shading. Otherwise, the act of shading becomes automatic, and they forget to make observations as they work.
I ask the child to find several levels of shaded tone on the thing being observed. I ask the student to identify the lightest places. We name these "highlights". The highlights are very lightly framed with a pencil line. These areas are generally left totally white. I ask the student to find the darkest places. In most cases the shadows at the base of objects. These become the darkest part of a shaded drawing.
This page has some detailed instructions to practice for shading.
For variety and fun, I sometimes have them start with a light pencil outline sketch and then shade by stippling the drawing with the points of small colored markers, intermixing colors. When the stippling is dry we erase all the pencil to show only pointillist form and color without line. Stippling is easy and does not ruin the picture if the child has a chance to practice it first in very small practice samples. I encourage them to practice by always combining several colors together making very close dots for darker tones and less frequent dots for lighter tones.
What is shading about?
If you want to see ideas about shading, turn off the lights and set an egg or a grape on a piece of white paper on a table near a window (not in direct sunlight). Sit and study it for several minutes to see the light changing the tones of the object. You may see light being reflected from the paper back into the shadow near the bottom of the object. Now look at the white paper under it and look for tone variations. Some people have never noticed these things. At a young age most children have never done this. We cannot expect to draw what we have not noticed.
Why do some people appear to have drawing talent?
A brain that learns to observe when it is young grows visual neurons that other brains lack. This is why we have a common misconception that drawing is an inborn talent. It is true that the drawing brain is different, but the difference has been learned and the brain has developed in response to being needed in these particular ways. When this happens at a young age, the child appears to have inherited talent. We now know that adult brains can also grow new neurons and foster new talents, but it can be to be slower and more difficult. As adults many of us have lost our love of learning for its own sake. Young children find these simple tasks to be new and fascinating. Elizabeth Layton began to develop her drawing talent when she was 68 year old.
Gesture drawing is an opposite form of observation drawing. While blind contour drawing begins with edges and requires slow deliberate drawing, gesture drawing starts in the center and the drawing tool very rapidly fills (coloring in) the body of the object with no outline, but the drawing still tries to follow the form of what is being observed.
Gesture drawing is fast, intuitive, and expressive. This is the opposite of blind contour drawing (outline observation) that is very deliberate. Where blind contour drawing is slow, gesture drawing needs to be very very fast. Alternating sessions of gesture drawing with sessions of blind contour drawing will add greatly to the expressive quality of a child's work. Eventually, both styles can be combined to create some very effective, moving, expressive, and artistic outcomes.
More gesture drawing details are described on this Portrait and Figure Drawing page in the section on Inside-Out Figure Gesture drawing.
Kathe Kollwitz combined outline, shading and gesture drawing very expressively in this self-portrait where her arm motion is expressed as gesture.
Here she used pen and brush in her Mothers from 1921 (in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts) to enhance expressiveness with gesture.
WHAT TO DRAW?
Gesture drawing is good for drawing people, animals, and objects that are active and in motion, or for content that is charged with emotional quality. Models are posed as though they are in action, playing in sports, or doing something with emotional content. It good to show joy, grief, dancing, sliding into first base, and so on.
For all observation drawing, both contour drawing and gesture drawing, I want things to draw that are not part of the child's previously learned symbol set. A new observation requires more careful looking and should not allow for drawing a remembered shape or symbol that has been drawn many times before. A new observation employs a different part of the brain than drawing something that has been memorized. It helps to select something interesting to the child. Children can be encouraged to find toys, pets, and things around the house and garden that they have not used for drawings before. If it looks too simple, turn it different or move to a different position to make it a little challenging to draw. Sometimes I turn a familiar thing upside down to make it new again.
We start with things that are not very complex, but also include a bit of uniqueness. As I write this I am having a snack. An apple with a bite removed is so much more interesting than a plain apple. You have to look at it to draw it. An apple that still has a leaf on the stem is more unique. However, if the leaf has a defect, it is even better. You have to look at it to draw it. An apple that is not all the same color is better. A deformed apple from a neglected tree is wonderful to draw.
Some of the best subject matter comes from everyday common experiences such as the food we eat, our homes, our toys, our families, the neat stuff we collect, our friends, our games, our work, our animals, our neighborhoods, a trip to a zoo, a trip to a farmyard, and so on. A half eaten snack is evidence of life around it.
Drawings do more than represent what is seen. They imply what is happening in a child's life. Drawing is a diary. Taste, touch, sound, and smell are all great multi sensory motivational enhancements. Eat some. Draw what is left. Eat what you drew. Practice. Express. Grow. Be.
NOT EVERY DRAWING IS FROM OBSERVATION
Children also learn some great thinking skills by working from imagination, from inventing, from designing, and so on. Children are often interested in creating persuasive work related to social causes such as wild life protection, peace and justice, poverty, drug abuse, and so on. Some children love to design houses, machines, boats, cars, etc. Many children love to illustrate imagined stories. Imagined things are excellent for development of their creative thinking ability.
Creative work is not all practical or utilitarian. Arranging color in an abstract beautiful way is very enjoyable and expressive for children. Musicians also use the word "play" when they "perform" with an instrument. We like the words "play around" when we are exploring and making thumbnail sketches for an idea in drawing or when designing something. Some people also make word lists to get ideas.
Children often use drawings to tell stories from memories. With young children, I use lots of questions to get them to think of more memories related to the subject. If they are overly self-critical of their ability to do this, I tell them that I like to see their own special way of drawing things. As they get a bit older, I encourage the use of mirrors, models, and objects to work from to practice the parts of the compositions needed to tell or illustrate the stories. Artists often combine observation, imagination, and invention.
Transfer of drawing skills
An important type of creativity is the ability to transfer what we have learned in one situation to an appropriate application in another situation. I do not expect what is learned in observation drawing to immediately and naturally transfer and be reflected while drawing from imagination and experiences. Teachers are frequently disappointed to see children who can do impressive observation studies revert to simplified stereotype representations when they do not have something there to observe. What is achieved in observation drawing takes time and practice to be remembered and called up from memory when there is nothing to observe. It is natural for children to revert to their old habits, not remembering that they have learned a new way to represent something.
A sensitive adult can ask them, "Do you remember when you drew that while you were looking at it? Do you remember the shape of it? Do you remember how the lighting changed the way it looked?" In some cases, when remembering to remember, the child will show significant changes in how things are rendered. Transfer of learning from one kind of drawing (observation) to other kinds of drawing (imagination and experience) is often improved by questions that create an expectation of transfer. Remembering new ways to represent while being imaginative and expressive may seem like a lot to ask, but many children are quite capable of multitasking when they enjoy learning, and if they are gently reminded of their own new skills. Developing habits of thinking that facilitate transfer of learning can be an important way to foster creative thinking. What better gift is there than to help a child learn that what is learned in one situation is often useful in many new and unexpected situations? This is very likely another thinking talent that is developed by growing neurons for this purpose.
A three-year-old was drawing a picture of herself. When she was working on the fingers I noticed that she was typical in that she made multiple fingers without any concern for how many she drew. I knew that she was learning to count. Like most children of her age, she had never associated counting with drawing. I asked her: "Do you like to count the fingers as you draw them?" Without answering my question she started counting the fingers on her real hand, then after several attempts at counting the fingers in her dawning, she found that she had drawn six fingers on the hand. She reassuringly told herself, "Oh, that's okay." I told her that I agreed. I thought she had a wonderful attitude. When she drew the other hand, she naturally counted and made five digits. This one simple question, asked in a neutral way, may have helped her transfer knowledge. She started to make a connection between counting and drawing. Perhaps now her drawings from imagination could help her develop greater awareness of numbers and math--making her more talented at both of these things easier latter in school because of the new neurons that began to grow in her brain.
HOW TO RELATE TO THE WORK OF OTHER ARTISTS
Even though the work of other artists may be very inspirational and very educational, I avoid showing the work of other artists as an introduction to doing artwork. I feel the suggestive power of the work may prevent them from doing as much of their own observing, thinking, imagining, remembering, etc. I feel it may lead them to feel their own work is not good enough to measure up. I believe that we as a species are programmed by instinct to imitate. This is a powerful instinct in all children. It is a good instinct for many things, but it runs counter to creativity. Children also have other good instincts such as imagination and curiosity. In my opinion, we do not need to encourage more imitation, but we do need to nourish the instincts of imagination, curiosity, and the natural instincts to search for truth.
To encourage children to learn innovation and original observation may be a challenge, but the life-long benefits are well worth the effort. They will still learn many important things by imitation - but unless they are encouraged, many will not learn the joy, thinking habits, and rewards they get by learning the methods of thinking used in innovation.
Art history shows the heights to which artists have aspired. It exemplifies high quality and it helps us learn about other cultures we can scarcely imagine. Art history reminds us of the many important purposes for art. I teach art history, museum visits, and so on after children have done similar work, or we do these activities completely independent of creative work. By studying the other artist's work as an independent activity or after doing the media work we do not diminish the importance of their own experience as being foremost as content for their own art.
During the viewing of art history exemplars, I use lots of open questions phrased to help children look for more things in the historic work. If I want them to do related work, they do their own related artwork first (based on their own observations, experiences, or imaginations). This provides an immediate and relevant frame of reference for the other artist's work. Their own work makes them more interested in the work. They can identify with the minds of the artists better. The same questions used during their work can be asked while viewing the historical work. Even though they are doing media work prior to the study of art history, I often see influences from other artists in their work if they have had positive museum and art history experiences in the past. This is no problem so long as their primary thinking is based on their own observations, imaginations, and experiences.
WHAT TO DO WITH YOUR CHILD'S COMPLETED WORK
I suggest saving a child's drawings in a folder in order to keep a record. Periodically, look back to see progress. Point out and affirm progress to the child. I try to make specific points when using compliments or praise. Connect it to some specific qualities that are explained to the student. When children are very young, I simply invite them to tell me about their drawings. I feel that the story telling is very good practice for them. Even children who are only two and are simply scribbling are able to tell me a story about their drawings. I think this practice in verbal improvisation grows verbal neurons that help make them talented at reading, writing, and speaking.
Be sensitive about exhibiting the work. In a school setting it is better to display all or none of the work of an assignment. Teachers should put the lesson objectives with the displays. Student artwork may have some artistic merits, but learning is the main purpose of it.
So far as exhibiting things at home, some feel that exhibiting something that is particularly strong could create fear in the child. The child might fear that it is too hard to always do as well as the one that was selected. I would be sensitive to this, but I also think it is encouraging when children see the work being displayed.
On BECOMING TALENTED
In my experience, most parents need to be more affirmative and less critical of their children's drawings. Correcting a child's drawing mistakes can easily stop their interest in drawing. Children who get affirmation often continue to practice much more on their own. In drawing, just as in most other aspects of discipline, education, and child rearing, we need to stop saying no (unless there is an immediate hazard). It has been found that parents that use a preponderance of prohibitions are more apt to have children who fail in school. They lack attention span because they gave up on trying to imagine good things to do. On the other hand, those with positive choice conditioning, seem to be better prepared to make healthy choices as teens.
Learning to draw is only a small part of growing up. There are many other important talents. In good parenting, I believe we need to change every negative behavior to a positive with choices. We need to provide awareness questions that suggest better alternatives from which children can learn to make their own good choices. When we say no or when we criticize, we discourage, we destroy motivation, we shorten the child's attention span, and we handicap their capacity for self-learning. Unless they are self-motivated, which happens most when they feel some assurance that they are doing well, brain neurons for abilities and talents will not develop.
In good parenting we try not to declare absolute answers, but we use open ended questions to encourage good ideas. We offer positive alternatives and options. Children are encouraged to choose from between positive alternatives. Instead of being discouraged by prohibitions, kids grow up enjoying wholesome participatory creative play alone and with friends, they make things, they play games, they participate in sports, they engage in music, they invent recipes, and they spend lots of time in art activities becoming talented way beyond their parents.
I know this works because it happened in our home. It happened by chance because our kids had a mother who had an amazing parenting instinct. She never said, "Stop it!" She did not say, "No!" unless they were in immediate danger. Whenever the kids were behaving badly she coached them with interesting and enjoyable ideas and asked them to select better positive alternatives. Some were suggested by her, but they also learned how to invent good activities on their own. They became better players. They became conditioned to imagine and self-initiate positive choices as a part of their personalities. One chose writing and the others chose science. They use their talents well as they search and express the truths they find. They have the ability to imagine ways to do things better--making the world a better place for all.
If you like this essay, send the URL to friend. Have a discussion about it at the playground or over coffee. It's more fun to learn together and discuss positive alternatives with good friends.
More on Observation Drawing
Teaching Shading in Drawing
Planning Art Lessons
Dragonfly Innovation Award Winning Drawing Kit now available on line
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first posted: March 29, 2002
This version was updated on June 11, 2007
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