Drawing at Home and School

  One morning my two-year-old niece, Mary, was drawing on the kitchen floor while her mother prepared lunch. Exploring the mark-making possibilities of pencils, pens, and brushes loaded with paint was a daily adventure. She was still at the 'scribbling stage', but on this particular morning she would discover that marks on paper can stand for 'things' and emotions and evoke memories of past events. The day before she had been taken to visit her grandparents and her grandfather had carried her out to the back garden to see the single peach on his new peach tree. They had discussed its roundness, colour and furry texture. And now, next morning, she called her mother over to see what she had found in the scribble she had just made. Pointing to a circular form on the newsprint sheet, she said with delight in her voice, "Grandpa's peach!" A conversation followed recalling the previous day's visit and the pleasant memory of her grandfather and his garden. The conversation turned to the drawing and how a randomly made shape could stand for the real thing and bring back pleasant memories.

Although she was unaware of it, Mary had stumbled on a new language. She knew it was fun to use, but didn't know that it was also enriching her use of words and contributing to her literacy. Her mother decided that language was too important to leave to chance. She set up a 'daily draw' in which themes would be discussed and drawings would emerge shaped by her daughter's intelligence, feelings, visual perceptions, and memories. She would face life's challenges with four languages to help her make sense of it all: 1) spoken words 2) written words 3) drawings (with words playing a background role) and 4) words and drawings as equal partners. The connection between Grandpa's peach and a randomly made circle was an important moment in Mary's mental and linguistic development. With the casual participation of her mother, drawing would become purposeful, not accidental, and themes would be the by-product of conversations.

The adult role is important and Mary's story illustrates more or less how it works. It begins with a conversation, moves to the drawing activity and finishes with a brief conversation about the new drawing. Two kinds of themes can be identified: those that grow out of the interest and experience of the drawer and those that are 'mind stretchers' and would not likely be thought of by the child. They might be based on a story, read or told, unfamiliar or otherwise, or based on a current concern such as bullying on the playground, or a news item on television, or on subject matter taken from social studies, science, language arts and art. Children left on their own fall back on easy pop stereotypes and the language spinoffs are insignificant.

The following points are meant to be of practical assistance to parents and teachers planning a 'daily draw'. They are dealt with in more detail in my books and on our website, but let me summarize them below:

*  CONTOUR LINE: When they draw on their own, children use contour line. Line, and only line, should be encouraged because: 1) it generates language values by encouraging detail (every line is cognitive; the more complex the drawing, the richer the language experience 2) it produces the most intense empathy. Tone, colour, and texture are techniques that belong in the art class; line is the technique for language.

* VISUALIZATION AND GUIDED IMAGERY: These are techniques to make motivation more vivid and provocative. Visualization encourages children to 'see' images on the 'inner screen' of their imagination. The drawer is encouraged to visualize a story as it unfolds and again before tackling the most dramatic moment. Guided imagery explores possibilities and is a way to restructure a weak first attempt. (How can we make this drawing more interesting? Can you visualize the main characters as being closer to you the drawer? Can you look down on the event from above? Play with possibilities! Learn to expand horizons by practising 'guided imagery'. )

* DOING SECOND VERSIONS: If it's a provocative theme, but a weak drawing, tackle it a second time after using 'visualization' and 'guided imagery' to work out changes.

* SOURCES OF IMAGERY: Seek a balance of themes that favour 1) perception (e.g. I've asked the Principal to come in for ten minutes to pose.) 2) the intellect and problem solving (e.g. Draw a rough draft of a poster advocating solar energy) 3) an emotional response (e.g. We have new refugees in our school. Can you imagine what it would be like to arrive at school for the first time with limited knowledge of the language?) 4) memory (e.g. Tomorrow I will ask you to draw your bedroom from memory, so study it tonight for details) 5) imagination (e.g. Could you imagine, and then draw, what it would be like to live in a space ship?) Of course, sources of imagery and how they are handled, will depend on the drawer's age, past experience, and background.

* THE DRAWING GAME: Establishing a 'daily draw' with young children is not a problem as drawing is their natural language. As children get older, they are increasingly burdened with self-consciousness and this makes spontaneity and empathy difficult to achieve. Younger children draw with empathy because they draw with an intense identification with subject matter. The Drawing Game is a remedial technique aimed at helping older children, indeed, post-naives of all ages, to draw spontaneously and with the empathy children feel. It may help to demonstrate that drawing is not only representational, but symbolic. (This takes the pressure off the false goal of photographic naturalism. A stick man is both representational and symbolic) My teaching has been mostly to adolescents in high school and adults in university and I have found the Drawing Game to be a valuable remedial technique. I emphasize that you don't have to be an art teacher to teach the Drawing Game to post-naives. A classroom teacher or a parent can manage it easily.

We follow the example of children who seem to instinctively know that if you want to turn forms into a symbolic language, the drawing tool must follow the contours or edges of the subject. The problem for self-conscious post-naives is that they find this nearly impossible to achieve. It will help if drawing is presented as a game with two simple rules. Everyone likes games and remembers how awkward they were at first. The most important rule then is that the line must be kept moving along the contour path no matter what is happening on the paper. (The metaphor of the jet aircraft is helpful: if it stops in mid-air, it crashes.) The second rule is that you must imagine the drawing tool actually touching the contours of the form when it is actually touching the paper. These rules apply whether the form is real, remembered, or imagined. With practice, they will help the drawer experience empathy and empathy produces 'aesthetic energy' (see below) and this is the key to achieving authenticity. The payoff ? The drawer will realize the values of language. These are intellectual growth, emotional health, enhanced learning, communication, and a more pleasurable way of achieving literacy. Let me repeat: the line must be kept moving forward, and the contour must be felt as though real.

This is more or less the way children draw (i.e. with continuous empathic line). It is also the way many accomplished artists draw. (We could use another metaphor here: children and educated artists alike draw on 'automatic pilot'.) A word of caution: to make this strategy work, you will need to keep your mind focussed on the act or performance of drawing, and be careless about the results on paper. It will take time and practice, but in a few weeks, you will be a drawer who feels empathy for the form and content of your drawings. If children and professionals achieve this, why not you and your students?

The four language powers are present in every drawing but with different degrees of emphasis. Some will focus on perceptions, others on emotions, still others on the intellect and others still on memory, but all are integrated in the act of drawing. Indeed, a 'daily draw' can be thought of as an exercise in mind integration, and perhaps this is the secret of its power to integrate mental functions.

* AESTHETIC ENERGY AND WORK OF ART: In the traditional home/school curriculum drawing rarely appears as an aid to literacy or as a language in its own right. Perhaps, briefly in the preschool, kindergarten/primary years. As literacy gains, drawing is conceptualized as art where it must compete with other visual arts media. For most children it disappears entirely.

I have found it possible to subject children's drawings to pictorial analysis as one might with works in art galleries or art books. Indeed, this is what I do with the drawings in my latest book, A PICTURE BOOK OF CHILDREN'S DRAWINGS. I have found that most drawings by children have at least a measure of 'aesthetic energy' and others surprise me with the incredible level of sophistication their drawings reach which, I believe, qualifies them as works of art, albeit, 'child art'. This phenomenon seems to peak in the years 4 to 7. These are the years before self-consciousness sets in. If we search for it in the verbal expressions of this same age-group, it will be hard to find because children are still struggling with the codes of literacy and are less able to experience it using words alone. They do occasionally impress us with their poetic metaphors, but, in the end, this is rare because teaching and learning the literacy codes is not conducive to expressing the poetic impulse.

* DRAWING AS AN AID TO LITERACY: Drawing is closely related to literacy from the first scribble, as we observed in the story of Mary and her grandpa. There are close parallels, most interesting perhaps, the similarity of verbal syntax and pictorial composition, i.e. how the elements of language are organized for optimum effectiveness. Composition in drawing, as we have pointed out, is a natural and unself-conscious outcome of empathy. Verbal syntax requires years of dedicated teaching and learning. I would speculate that achieving pictorial composition paves the way for verbal syntax. One thing is certain, drawing with a caring adult encourages conversation and conversation with a person further along the road to literacy is one way to achieve it for oneself. Text will be added to the drawing, single words first, later, sentences and paragraphs.

Literacy is a gift of one's culture and must be learned. Drawing is spontaneous, the product of individual invention and creativity. Literacy, a language of inestimable value, of course, encourages conformity; drawing, with its emphasis on inventing one's own language, promotes individuality. The challenge is to use drawing to forge a personal image. I am reminded that the goal I set for my students in graphic arts studio classes was to find their API, which stood for, Authentic Personal Imagery. This is precisely what children are doing when they draw spontaneously, but alas, not all children get the opportunity. This begs the question: we do our best to give every child a superior literacy. Is there any reason we shouldn't do the same for spontaneous drawing?

Bob Steele, Associate Professor (Emeritus) UBC, for the Drawing Network, July 2013