Drawing with children [Updated]

January 11th, 2007

Earlier we came to an informal consensus that children’s art is not real “art.” I don’t see that as a problem, but it makes me curious: what are children doing when they draw? To try to get some insight, I’ve been drawing together with Nino and Fran.

This is a drawing that Nino (three years old) and I made together. The starting point was to draw circles using a roll of scotch tape as a template. Then we drew larger shapes and colored them in.

What were we doing here? It was a bit like playing a game. Most of all, it was fun. The obvious finally occurred to me: children’s art is art done for fun. If they stopped enjoying what they were doing, they wouldn’t go on with it. I found it fun and also relaxing to do the coloring, seeing how I could fill up the spaces. At an artistic level, I was pleased with the different texture results we got when using a fresh marker (the green for example) as compared to half-dried out markers (pink and blue, for example).

Later I made this drawing together with Fran (four and a half years old). We didn’t use any templates here, simply worked free-hand. The dynamic here was something of a dialogue in coloring: she colored in the areas I established, and I colored in her areas.

Magic marker has not been my drawing medium for at least twenty five years. It took me some time to enjoy working with them, but now I am hooked on them, just as I was as a kid!

Do you draw with your kids? Do you ever draw like a kid — as in, just for fun? What are the limitations of this approach? Is a certain amount of “pain” necessary to create real “art”?

UPDATE, 12 January

Sunil pointed out that young children have an ability called ‘perceptual closure’ that allows them to understand drawings like these. I was surprised that my kids didn’t recognize these as faces. Do yours?

We seem not to have as much of a “consensus” as I thought. David said “I totally consider children’s art to be real art.” Leslie and Colin agreed,” but Arthur remained skeptical (which is why we love him so much).

What about “no pain, no art?” Pain does not seem to be a requirement for art, but fun seems to be a useful ingredient — at least this seems to be the consensus from the comments so far . . .

. . .

26 Responses to “Drawing with children [Updated]”

  1. Sunil Says:

    I draw with Hari (my two year old son) and it is mostly squiggles and splotches, but it is nevertheless an important part of the learning experience. Not only does drawing improve their skills of perception, it also improves their motor control abilities. Hari draws a circle without any issues and calls a squiggly line a snake. It is also seen that children at a very young age are endowed with an ability called ‘perceptual closure’ where they are innately able to discern clear perceptual details based on minimally drawn outlines. Mooney faces are an example of this kind and I have seen my son to be adept at recognizing Mooney faces. This might be a good starting point for toddlers to practice figure drawing… (in a very crude way of course).
    Please see here for more details on Mooney faces: http://www.princeton.edu/~artofsci/gallery/view.php%3Fid=77.html

  2. birgit Says:

    This is my comment #29 to the Interview with Walter Bartman earlier on A&P:

    I introduced Karl to drawing 3-D when he was tiny. He was fond of drawing trains driving from the right to the left on his easel. One day, I added a street light in front of his train and Karl had a fit. “Mom, the light cuts through the train”. “No, Karl, the light is in front of the train.” Karl fought hard but then suddenly caught on. It was a special moment. From then on, we drew trains that started in the foreground and became smaller as they disappeared into the distance. Karl continued drawing while I became distracted with other activities.

    Question: Do you ever draw with your parents?

  3. Karl Zipser Says:

    Children drawing is about as far from Mooney faces as it is possible to get. Mooney faces are produced by a thresholding operation of an image of a real face. Children draw by constructing faces without any reference to light source or three-dimensionality.

    I showed the Mooney face page to Fran. She didn’t see the faces, but she asked me to click on them to enlarge them. Nino said they were “a wolf”. Interesting result.

  4. Sunil Says:

    I tend to agree with you on the drawing aspect, but on the recognizing aspect, I still think that children do a great job of recognizing a Mooney face… It is just the way we are designed innately. Just my opinion (and having tried this out with my son, I know that it works atleast in some cases)…

  5. Karl Zipser Says:


    I was surprised that the kids didn’t recognize the faces as faces. They were not very focused on the task, having just come home from school. I’m sure with a bit of learning they could see them every time. Perhaps they are just used to these kind of images?

  6. David Says:

    I must not have voted. I totally consider children’s art to be real art.

    Pretty much all kids draw, and then they go to school where they are taught not to. Some of them keep drawing anyway, and those are the ones that are still artists when they are adults.

    Fun may characterize the original motivation for starting most things that don’t have some external reward attached. Most kids will stop drawing when some other fun activity grabs their attention. But some of the kids that start drawing for fun will become increasingly obsessed with it over time, and will keep doing it even when it feels like work. I don’t think there’s some point where they turn from kid artists into real artists, or that their work stops being “kid” art and starts being “real” art.

    Maybe you could say it’s kid art if they just draw when they’re little, and then stop. But if someone starts drawing as a little kid and never stops, then as far as I’m concerned it’s all just art. Hopefully it keeps getting better the longer they do it.

  7. Karl Zipser Says:

    “Most kids will stop drawing when some other fun activity grabs their attention.”

    David, you certainly got that right. That fun activity has a name too, “computer games on the internet.”

    Karl: Okay kids, we’re not playing internet games tonight, we are going to draw!

    Nino: Nooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. David Says:

    Maybe they’ll become computer artists :)

    Drawing was never something my parents did with me or told me to do (though they were encouraging). It’s just something I always did. I’m not even sure I would ever have characterized it as fun, exactly; I was obsessed with doing it as far back as I can remember.

  9. Karl Zipser Says:


    You joke, but I’ve been thinking about the computer issue. My feeling is that videos and computer games are art, or could be. And of course, the computer is a major component of photography these days. Maybe trying to channel kids toward old fashioned paper art is misguided.

    In your own experience with drawing, have you ever gone through “dry periods” where you didn’t draw anything for a long time?

  10. David Says:

    In your own experience with drawing, have you ever gone through “dry periods” where you didn’t draw anything for a long time?

    I’ve gone through periods when I didn’t do a lot of actual drawing, but I don’t think of them as dry periods. My journals have been pretty continuous for the past 30 years, and there are periods when they are filled with more writing than drawing. But much of what’s in there is ideas about visual work, it’s just notated verbally sometimes rather than visually. Also, there have been significant periods where I’ve put more energy into writing songs than doing my own painting or drawing, but that’s an ongoing juggle that I haven’t solved. And during most of those periods I’ve had day jobs that involved drawing and/or painting.

    My idea of artistic work is very fluid and encompasses pretty much any medium, so in order for me to think of something as a dry period it would have to be a time of no creative activity. I can’t think of any that I’ve experienced.

    As far as channeling your kids’ energy toward drawing, I think it’s best to let them follow their interests. I was only half-joking about them becoming computer artists. I mean I was serious about it, but thought it was funny too.

  11. Arthur Whitman Says:

    A tablet is a good way of combining hand-drawing and our culture’s fascination with all things digital. I would think kids would enjoy it.

  12. Arthur Whitman Says:

    I had the chance to watch my two young cousins draw mazes around last Thanksgiving. Judging from this–and from my own memories of drawing as a child–children’s art involves struggle and problem solving, just like adult art does. Its “fun”, but also obsessive and work-like. I suspect the distinction between work and play is a product of adult culture, not a distinction that comes naturally.

  13. Arthur Whitman Says:

    I totally consider children’s art to be real art.

    I do too, but I think people can and do make a distinction. Compare these two sentences:

    a) Chuck Close is an artist.

    b) My ten year old daughter is an artist.

    It seems like the the word ‘artist’ is being used in two different ways. But I think being an artist in the sense of a) requires being an artist in the sense of b).

  14. Leslie Says:

    “I totally consider children’s art to be real art.”

    Me too. It goes back to our personal definitions of art. Does a real artist have to show their work to qualify? Does a real artist have to do it full time? Does a real artist do it everyday? Does a real artist play? I hope so =)

  15. David Says:

    a) Chuck Close is an artist.
    b) My ten year old daughter is an artist.

    c) My ten-year old son is an artist. His name is Chuck Close.

    As you suggest, Arthur, the adult artist Chuck Close started out (I assume) as the ten-year-old artist Chuck Close. I doubt that there was any one point when the one became the other. It just happens a day at a time. Though a big transition probably occurred when he was fired (or quit under duress) from his teaching job at UMass and moved to NYC.

  16. Colin Jago Says:

    I must not have voted. I totally consider children’s art to be real art.


    Exploring their world and having fun. Sounds like art to me.

  17. Arthur Whitman Says:

    I have both books and magazines with me in the room I’m in. I also have a few things that I could call either a book or a magazine. It doesn’t follow that ‘book’ and ‘magazine’ mean the same thing.

  18. Colin Jago Says:


    Chuck Close is an artist.

    This defines an occupation, career, or lifestyle

    I am (this child is) doing art

    Defines an activity

  19. Arthur Whitman Says:

    Its based on activity either way, isn’t it?

  20. Angela Ferreira Says:

    My kid is not into drawing at all. When we do some colouring she scribbles it fast without any patience and prefers to line the colours like blocks or throw them in the air like aeroplanes! Nop! Definitely not an artist for her!

  21. Angela Ferreira Says:

    By the way Karl how’s your kids with computer skills?
    I think I have a little prodigy.
    Mine is been controlling the mouse since she’s 2, she can now play elaborate computer games and kids interactive sites. Even simple computer tasks like maximize or close a window to her needs. She’s 3.

  22. hanneke Says:

    Hi Angela,
    Francesca loves to work on the computer too but yesterday we came upon a game that really really scared the hell out of her I was rather shocked that it had such an impact on her . She thought that she was going to die herself and could not see the difference between the virtual world and the real world.Even the crying of her brother(because he wanted to go on with the game) made here scared She hasn’t been asking for the computer anymore wich I think is not so bad after all. I rather have here drawing or any other kind of play .But for how long ?( she was very focussed on the computer before and made a lot of crying and wining about it)

  23. June Says:

    Hanneke, FRancesca’s experience may be part of the development of the brain — or maybe the “heart.”

    The opposite side of this is my granddaughter, who took up wrestling at age 16. She had been a computer-game junkie for years, and something about combat appealed to her. But after a couple months of wrestling, she admitted she was shocked to learn that the object of the activity was to inflict as much pain as possible without breaking the rules. The whole reality of pain suddenly became part of her knowledge base. She quit the sport.

    My theory is that she had had only virtual knowledge of physical pain before and so its “reality” didn’t impact on her. Francesca’s reality is just the opposite; she feels viscerally that what is on the screen is happening to her. Eventually she’ll stop feeling that, but right now, developmentally, this could be important in some way I can’t put my finger on.

    An aside: granddaughter, watching the Wizard of Oz when she was 3 or so, startled all of us by screaming (about the Wicked Witch of the West) “Poopy-butt old witch.” Like Francesca, she was convinced of the reality of the screen character.

  24. sue stack Says:

    There’s a great book by Howard Gardner (of Multiple Intelligences fame) called “Art Education and Development”. The ‘visual intelligence’, like all the other intelligences, goes through development stages of pre-conventional, conventional and then post-conventional. Art moves through intuitive, symbolic (pre-school) into formal/notional at school.

    We may see post-conventional artists (who know the rules and knowingly break them) creating stuff like little kids…. but there is a difference in the intent behind what is being done.

    Personally I think everybody doing art is an artist – they are just doing it at different stages. My 6 year old neice has been making clay sculptures now for 2 years with me in my studio and is intending to exhibit and sell her work. We had a discussion about what makes you an artist and she has decided that if you create art then you are an artist. If you sell art then you are a professional artist.

    Meanwhile, Gardner suggests some strategies to help young children develop as artists – expose young children to artworks or people doing art, but don’t provide formal knowledge – allow them to experiment and discover – allow their intuitive selves to be expressed.

    So those of you who are doing your art alongside your children are doing exactly the right thing – the child will look at what you do and ask and then try something out that may be inspired by your process, techniques or reasons. You can suggest experiments for them to try rather than saying “this is how you do it.”

    For school age children Howard Gardner suggests initiating students systematically and conceptually into Art culture – usually these younger students are very curious about their culture and how it operates.

    What do you think of Gardner’s theories?

    BYe, Sue

  25. Karl Zipser Says:


    I have noticed that our kids Nino and Fran (3 and 4.5 years old) are pretty resistant to direct technical influence on their work if it is from adult art — for example, if Hanneke is drawing a still life with pencil, the kids never get interested in doing something similar. We have tried printing some of Hanneke’s still life drawings from digital images, but the kids show little interest in coloring these in with markers.

    The kids like to color in things that we make for them by hand, outlines of animals or plant. Hanneke has often drawn various things like flowers or cats and they will color these. When I draw with them, I do so in “child mode” and I just draw abstract shapes. We work together, but they bring me more into the realm of children’s art than I bring them into grownup art.

    It is as if the kids have some barrier that keeps them from being interested in the grown-up art process.

    Thus, Gardner’s suggestion not to provide formal knowledge to the younger kids seems to be on target for our kids, at least. But even if she gave different advice, it wouldn’t seem to matter. The kids know what the want to do, it seems.

    As for initiating school age children into Art culture, that is a fascinating idea. But what art culture does she have in mind?

  26. sue stack Says:

    Hi Karl,

    Regarding kids not taking up processes that you might be doing… I have noticed the same with my own neices.

    So while I might give them both palletes with primary colours to mix… the 3 year old will just mix them all together making various shades of brown (and did this for over a year). But the 5 year old is systematically mixing one colour with another and being delighted in discovering the results. She watches me mix colours and then asks… “how do I make purple?”

    Now a year later, I am surprised to see the younger neice is wanting to mix particular colours. She watches her older sister and now asks how to get a certain colour. It was like she had to go through her “anything goes”, “smudge it altogether” phase before moving into a more control based phase.

    It is impossible to come to any conclusions from this small sample size, but I suspect that doing art together with a range of ages opens kids up to possibilities, even if they are not taking them up at the immediate time… it is all about exposure.

    Just a week ago, the 6 year old niece looked at one of my pieces and said that each picture had an outline, and what had I used to get it? Then she tried doing that as well. A year ago when she looked at the piece she saw something different.

    How do we initiate young children into art culture and What art culture might be suitable for young kids…

    …and that begs the question what really is art culture??? A can of worms, or a great new discussion topic!

    I think most big ideas about discplines can be put quite simply and concretely for young students (between 5 and 9 years) …. perhaps it is about selecting themes… what is the purpose of art, what does it mean to be an artist, what does it mean to look at art, how do different people see art, how has art changed our lives… etc…

    So what might be concrete experiences of each of these? 5-7 year olds are into black and white thinking and love stories which have morals and lots of humour and intrigue. What great art stories are there? Why aren’t there children’s picture books on “the great art mystery of …”, or “Count Dracula decides to be an artist”.

    I have actually got a Delauney children’s picture book which looks at how colours change when you put them next to each other – using one of his Eiffel Tower pics as a context. While educational it really needs a story to make it more interesting.

    As students get older (7 – 13) they are more intrigued by real stories, heroic figures on epic and transformational journeys, exploring the weird and edges, going deep, getting technical.

    Meanwhile, I think taking kids to art exhibitions is a great start as well as encouraging them to exhibit their own work, title it and look at how an audience interacts with it.

    As for what Howard Gardner says….. well you might like to order the book from Amazon.com… there are lots of suggestions.