DRAWING AS ART: FOR CHILDREN AND EVERYONE ELSE
The message the Drawing Network has been spreading for over 25 years is
that spontaneous drawing is a language medium, one without a code and
relatively easy for children to use. We know that it is also an art form.
There is a problem here: by soft pedaling the language function - which we
educators have done as long as I can remember - and labeling it “art
education”, we assume that when children are using the materials and some
of the techniques and strategies, they must indeed be making art, even when
the product is clearly neither art nor language. Only authentic art can give
the child the opportunity of using drawing as a language and an art form.
We owe it to children and, on a larger scale, to the evolution of our
species, to define, practice and teach authentic art while avoiding its
opposite, phony or spurious art.
The plan is to use a scrapbook format in which the material is broken into independent units leaving the final synthesis to the reader’s imagination. Please be patient if this results in some repetition of key points. As you read, keep in mind that everything stated about making art is meant to apply to responding to it as well and everything about drawing applies to all the arts.
This paper comes to an end with the detailed analysis of a work of art by 5-year-old Brendan. The season moved him to illustrate the Santa myth and create a composition of exceptional detail and formal unity. We wonder what goes on in a child’s mind when he makes such a drawing. We wouldn’t expect to learn much from his conversation, even if that were possible, but his drawing is a rich source of information. The theory and practices discussed in this essay are based on the analysis of hundreds of such drawings and making deductions and assumptions based on their study. Because drawings are without code they can be far more complex and subtle than texts. When a drawing is made in response to an evocative motivation and is discussed later with a caregiver, the drawer’s vocabulary and syntax are expanded. The child’s efforts to explain the narrative follow the drawing’s intricate path. When this happens, two languages are working in tandem. The child-artist has indeed invented graphic symbols in the service of language but these symbols have their origin in the common perceptions of childhood. Thus, every child “invents” the “happy face” as a portrait symbol for “MY MOM”. This may be his first printed word and first work of art.
* A PSYCHOLOGY OF LEARNING: Years ago, a book by Dr. Lawrence Kubie gave me what I needed for evolving a teaching practice that made psychological sense. “Neurotic Distortion of the Creative Process,” outlined a psychology/philosophy which turned out to be an inspiring platform for my own writing and teaching. It still is. Kubie writes passionately on ‘creativity’ in general and while his illustrations tend to be literary, they apply very well to making visual art and appreciating it. A caveat: he is brilliant on the role of the preconscious but appears not to have considered the conscious intellect to be important to creative thinking and expressive feeling. The Drawing Network advocates a model that includes both, i.e. preconscious intuition and conscious intellect. Creative activity in any medium calls for alternating episodes of these two mental conditions.
* THE PRECONSCIOUS/INTUITIVE SYSTEM: Here I must freely admit that I am
not a psychologist; as an artist and art teacher, however, I’m interested in
how the mind works while making and/or responding to art. I am also
interested in the role empathy plays in the process of producing “aesthetic
energy”. Kubie placed the seat of creative thought, feeling and performance
in the preconscious, a function of the brain/mind located just below
conscious rationality but above the unconscious. Mental functions in the
preconscious are rapid, holistic, and intuitive; in the rational system,
slow, step by step and logical.
* How does Brendan’s drawing support the theory of the preconscious with its power to integrate mental operations? What exactly is ‘integrated’ in the drawing, “Santa and His Reindeer”? Pictorial analysis suggests the answer to both questions is the four principal functions of mentation: perception, thought, feeling and memory. Repeated drawings designed to address personal encounters (whether perceived, remembered or imagined subject matter), enhances mental health and promotes a broadly humanistic view of life. Rational thought is at a primitive stage of development but children’s drawings provide easy access to the preconscious where apparently significant relationships are manufactured, even in the drawings of the very young. This mental process is the source of “aesthetic energy”, the prerequisite of art. It will be illustrated in the analysis of “Santa and His Reindeer”.
* THE CONSCIOUS/RATIONAL SYSTEM: Children have been prevented from enjoying the full integration of the arts in their schooling because they, the ARTS, are commonly thought to belong to the “affective domain” and are therefore lacking in cognitive and intellectual significance. The supporting authority for this view has been (and continues to be) a document called Bloom’s Taxonomy which was meant to be helpful but which has had a negative effect on the balance of subjects in school curricula. Without intending to, perhaps, it supports those educators predisposed to favour the maths, sciences and technology, i.e. STEM, at the expense of the visual arts, dance, drama, creative writing, i.e. the ARTS. For whatever reason, the ARTS have been kept on the periphery, easily sacrificed when there is thought to be a need for more STEM. This serves industry and commerce well enough, but it severely limits the arts from contributing to holistic schooling and the goal that should be at the top of the list, i.e. schooling for citizens of high moral and ethical standards with a disposition towards democratic citizenship, who are mentally and physically healthy, self-actualized citizens! A diet of STEM alone will not achieve this: a balanced diet of STEM, ARTS, and PHYSICAL CULTURE will!
* Bloom’s Taxonomy doesn’t divide subjects into affective and cognitive entities but simply identifies intellectual and affective modes of thinking. It does seem to have STEM subjects in mind when it makes the case for “cognitive” (did they really think there’s no ‘cognition’ in music, art and the rest?) and ARTS subjects when they refer to “affective”. By the way, if you Google ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy’, you will find that it is alive and well and not just a burr in one retired prof’s saddle.
* AN HISTORICAL EXAMPLE: It is a painful memory but Germany and other European countries in the pre-WW2 years, had an outstanding traditional schooling of which they were very proud. It heavily favored the maths, sciences, and technology, much as we do today. And yet for all its excellence it paved the way for fascism, the rise of Hitler, and made possible the Holocaust. Indeed, it very nearly finished the possibilities of democratic governance in the Western world.
*The value of the ARTS collectively is in their more or less equal and balance treatment of affective and cognitive elements. The value of STEM subjects is in their concentrated focus on the intellect.
* If you think about it, the arts are really as much ‘intellectual’ as
they are ‘affective’! Ask any artist! It would be logical to bring
preconscious intuition - as revealed in Brendan’s drawing and indeed all
authentic art - under the cognitive/intellectual umbrella and this would
not detract from its effectiveness as an agent of holistic learning. In
other words, the preconscious serves both spheres. (We cannot fail to see
the importance of intuition in maths, for example). The ARTS demand an
equal place because they bring feelings, emotions and an empathic response
to humankind and nature, into the equation. Without the ARTS we get
recurring struggles against right wing fascism and/or left wing
collectivism, totalitarianism or anarchy.
* Spontaneous drawing (the “daily draw) engages the conscious intellect in the following ways:
** when thought is given to choosing a theme from competing themes;
** when a chosen theme is researched
** when a chosen theme is reviewed to discover what is already known about it;
** when decisions are made about what is to be included and what excluded;
** when alternative points-of view are considered and one is chosen and another rejected;
** when there is a mid-drawing review of progress;
** when there is post-drawing analysis and evaluation;
** when any of the above stimulate conversation with another person.
* ‘AESTHETIC ENERGY’ IS A PRODUCT OF SYNTHESIS: CONTENT, FORM AND TECHNIQUE: it appears as endless configurations in response to the artist’s experience and the interplay of the conscious and preconscious systems. The Jungian “collective unconscious”and transformative consciousness will also be engaged in a balanced curriculum:
** CONTENT: is the focus in the art of children, beginners and amateurs of all ages. Remember that all four are probably operating in each drawing but one is likely to dominate. The primary importance of content gives a special urgency to motivation:
*** TO STIMULATE PERCEPTION: pose a model; draw a traditional still life; a toy brought from home; a self portrait in a mirror; what you see out a window; a window view combined with a window ledge.
*** TO STIMULATE THOUGHT: draw a theme related to an issue or a problem; discuss a problem and draw a solution.
*** TO STIMULATE FEELINGS AND EMOTIONS: draw your worst fear; your favorite person; a summer activity that turns you on; the death of a friend or loved one.
*** TO STIMULATE MEMORY: Draw a memorable party; trip; a person no longer living
(PARENTS, TEACHERS AND CARE GIVERS: these examples are meant to stimulate your
imagination. There are many possibilities.)
** FORM: While it is not good form to motivate a drawing to teach an aspect of Form (e.g. “...today we will study repetition as a design principle ...” or even to have such a goal in the back of your mind.) but it’s not a bad form to share your post-drawing findings with the artist. This will build a conceptual framework and a working vocabulary. As we see in “Santa and His Reindeers”, the dynamics of Form are the result of tackling authentic subjects and bringing a state of empathy or semi-empathy to the drawing performance.
**TECHNIQUE: Children instinctively draw with ‘classical’ line, the contour line of Greek and Roman art and some Picasso graphics (e.g. the Vollard Suite of etchings). Post-naives tend to use a jiggly line which comes from a perceived failure to achieve the false goal of naturalism. It is a sign of uncertainty, tentativeness, approximation. ‘Classical’ line is the quality which signifies that empathy has been achieved and has guided the drawing tool. It springs directly from the artist’s perception of contour edges. Metaphors help older students: “... draw as though you know how to draw”. Or “...draw as though you are a jet airliner and to stop or even slow down is fatal.”
* THE COLLECTIVE UNCONSCIOUS: Kubie makes no mention of this level of consciousness but as the location of myths it should not be left out. We humans share meaningful and heartfelt stories, fairy tales, religious parables, archetypes and myths. When artists illustrate these universal stories which act to bind us as a human family, we become more tolerant and more empathic. In the drawing we are about to look at, Brendan was moved to illustrate the myth of Santa. Myths are good for us even after we come to see through their literal truth.
TRANSFORMATIVE CONSCIOUSNESS: It is now possible to speak of spiritual transformation in the context of schooling without arousing the suspicions of religious folk. Those who are religious and those who are atheists should know that spiritual transformation is not the same as religion. The truth is that the experience of art is itself spiritually transforming. It works this way: spontaneous drawing produces “aesthetic energy” by integrating all modes of thought and feeling and this is holistic in effect and spiritually transformative. A “daily draw” is not the same as or necessarily as powerful as daily meditation but it produces a similarly holistic effect.
“SANTA AND HIS REINDEER” AN EXEMPLARY DRAWING by Brendan, age 5
* The mythic Santa and his amazing reindeer with a load of presents for
kids who have behaved well. The old shopworn story as it appears in
Brendan’s Drawing is as fresh as a roof of fresh snow.
** The basic building block is a loaf-like form which serves with variation as body parts for human and animals.
** The shapes are abstract but consistent with life: each reindeer has four legs, two eyes, a smiling mouth, four hoofs, a horn set. Six animals are drawn in realistic detail. Children take their myths literally!
**An interesting detail places and keeps Santa and his reindeer in the air: of the 24 legs only 3 are actually touching the roof! The old saint has just arrived apparently and still shows a sliver of sky beneath him. At this moment he is ‘touching down’. Or ‘taking off?
** Consider the reindeer as a collective: it is filled with movement as forms relate to forms. The general movement is upwards. One feels an invisible ‘axis’ running through the centre of certain groupings like a supporting skeleton. It begins with the tiny sleigh (lower left), performs a graceful “U” with the first set of harness and proceeds to the top in a series of flattened “U” shapes until the top is reached.
** Children typically show little awareness of the optical rule that “things get smaller the farther away they are” but notice Brendan starts the rising journey of the reindeer low with the sleigh, makes the first team the largest and optically the closest, draws the next two teams smaller by turn (thus creating the illusion of depth and recession). Is that tiny projection at the very top a fourth team? If not, what is it?
** The composition of this drawing is an essay on the dynamics of tension and poise, two conditions of life and art: notice 1) the arching form made up of the entire cast draped over the roof peak which acts as a fulcrum 2) the weight of the assembly supported by the two house pillars 3) the downward pull of the sleigh supported by the upward pull of the reindeer 4) the feeling that Santa might fall except that his right foot is hooked into the complex of the second team’s legs.
** As noted, a curved axis moves upwards from the sleigh to the lead team; another upward curve begins at the left side of the house (under Santa) and ends again with the lead team. These hidden axes cross at a point on Santa’s right leg which happens to be dead centre in the composition, vertically and horizontally! This spot is already of central importance to Santa’s safety. We have a pinwheel composition with a daredevil Santa’s foot hooked safely at the very centre of the drama!
** The figure of Santa plays another role in the pictorial dynamics of this drawing: he is indeed a daredevil in his bold step dance on an icy roof shouting “LOOK AT ME!” His arms and legs repeat the cross-over motif which threatens to send him to the hospital but for the moment, he displays the tension of the high wire performer. He won’t fall and he will hold the pose as long as the paper lasts! In a final touch, his hat provides another ‘hook’ into the relatively stable reindeer parade.
Bob Steele, Associate Professor, (Emeritus) UBC for the Drawing Network June, 2015