DRAWING FOR GIFTED CHILDREN: A MESSAGE TO PARENTS
Some kids are brilliant in bodily movement (kinesthetically gifted), others are poets, mathematicians, musicians or visual artists and isn’t it wonderful that one cannot make a box to describe the quantity or quality of each gift or separate it from the others or limit children to one. There is room for all. Diversity in each child is the key.
From a letter to the Drawing Network
Parents of gifted children have understandable concerns that they may not be getting a fair shake in a school system very much overloaded with extra responsibilities. The Drawing Network believes that a ‘daily draw’ regime at home plus spontaneous drawing throughout the home/school curriculum would help solve this problem.
Our current drive is to promote spontaneous drawing for all children which we view as a natural and frequently neglected language, natural because drawing, unlike literacy, is without code and permits a spontaneous response to the many noteworthy events that children experience ‘growing-up’. Our attention extends to all age groups and all children whatever their innate ability or specific learning problems but this paper focuses on the gifted child. We feel certain that for this group of young citizens a drawing regimen would be intellectually rewarding and good for mental health. Much that we have written and published in other pamphlets would apply here so let’s start with our on-line address: http://drawnet.duetsoftware.net/ . Particularly we draw your attention to a three-part piece," ‘Aesthetic Energy’ In the Astonishing Drawings of Children" which we believe you will find of particular interest.
An important point before going on: we assure you that drawing is a universal language and not a special skill possessed by a few kids with talent. All children have the potential to use drawing as a language medium. When we neglect it, we deprive children of their birthright.
A close relationship exists between drawing and literacy and any drawing your child makes will help with the acquisition and refinement of literacy whatever the basic skill level in either language. The Drawing Network definition goes like this: Language gives the user the power to articulate, express, and communicate ordinary, subtle, and complex perceptions, thoughts, and feelings with empathy and imagination. This is indeed a complex definition, but every one of the eleven parts is important and drawing addresses them all but not necessarily in any one drawing. Indeed, if you want your special child to have the full advantage of language, start at age-two with a ‘daily draw’ routine or as soon after as possible, and make sure daily drawing, or something like it, continues throughout the years to the end of middle school. However, it’s never too late to start: it just takes older children longer to get into the swing of it.
Here are further notes on how spontaneous drawing can contribute to the home/school education of gifted children.
* Examine any drawing by a child and ask yourself could the content (i.e. its perceptual acuity, its meaning, and emotional impact) have been conveyed by words alone even by an advanced word -user? Apply this test to the drawings you will find in "Aesthetic Energy In the Astonishing Drawings of Children". We believe this exercise will convince you that drawing gives children a special tool for expressing a content beyond the reach of words. The Drawing Network position follows: there are really three emergent languages which enable children to sort out their varied life experiences: 1) words alone 2) drawing alone - that is, without audible or visible words and 3) oral and written words combined with spontaneous drawing. If there are helpful suggestions from the presiding adult, the combination of literacy and drawing will frequently prove to be the most language productive.
* We recognize, of course, the immediate superiority of words for conversation and practical communication and the superiority of words for expressing abstract concepts and metaphoric expression, i.e. poetry. Drawing plays its most important role in the years when the codes of literacy have not yet been internalized but, to repeat, we see an important role for it right through the middle school years. From the beginning (if drawing is daily) words and drawings act and react in symbiotic relationship: oral expression stimulates drawing and drawing stimulates oral expression, both stimulate writing and what is written is automatically read.
* To carry it further, uncoded drawing acts as a pathfinder leading the word-user into challenging situations and words stimulate the invention of new graphic forms and more complex pictorial organizations. To summarize: Conversations between parent and child about complex drawings are a major tool for the achievement of literacy.
* The values of language, however, go deeper than aiding literacy, important as that is. When emergent language is conceptualized as having four interlocking parts - oral expression, writing, reading and spontaneous drawing - the following values are gained: 1) intellectual development 2) improved mental health and mental healing 3) a more engaging and happier learning environment 4) a habit of relating with empathy to the human community and the natural environment 5) a closer bonding with parents and adults and, 6) as already stated, the easier acquisition of literacy. We cannot afford to ignore these values and yet we do ignore them when we neglect spontaneous drawing in the early schooling of children!
* The home/school curriculum tends to be imbalanced in favor of left hemispheric mental activities which are rational, intellectual, and prone to self-consciousness. A rational education is essential but if intellect and mental health are to be nurtured equally there must be a balance of left and right hemispheric thinking and feeling. The supreme value of drawing is its ability to integrate perception, thought and feeling. The performance of drawing involves the child in alternating moments of conscious analysis and preconscious synthesis. The happy out come is empathy for subject matter, the healthy union of intellect and feeling, a psychology of balance and integration.
* A five-year old in a summer school class made a perfectly lovely painting of a lion which looked real enough to him and to his teacher. He proudly took it home to his father who said, “...that’s fine, now let’s go to the encyclopedia and see what a lion really looks like.” Studying pictures of lions in an encyclopedia is fine at any age providing it is recognized that a drawing of one is not a lion, rather a symbolic reduction and if it has the essential features, which our five-year-old’s drawing had, the conditions of language are satisfied and the benefits will be reaped. (For an example of how symbolic representation grows towards ‘empathic realism’ see "Three Swimming Pool Drawings By Nicole" on our website.)
* We associate gifted children with higher math scores, creativity in science projects, superior literacy skills or a special talent for music. It seems that there are two kinds of giftedness, a cross-discipline kind and a specialized kind. There are children born with a special talent for drawing, but just as gifted children are generally quick to gain mastery over word-language, so do they have the potential for using drawing as an auxiliary language.
* Every drawing is a language artifact and therefore in some way of value to the drawer. If you find evidence of perceptual involvement, (a line drawing of a flower or a posed model) or intellectual content (a drawing of an intricate structure or to solve a problem) or an emotional content (a memory of a bullying incident or a first successful run down a ski-hill) the drawing experience will be worthwhile. Every drawing is a combination of these three - perception, intellect and feeling - but usually one dominates. Our responsibility as parents and teachers is to motivate themes that create a balance of these three.
* We believe that the "daily draw" is best undertaken in contour line which carries the essence of language better than tone, texture, and color. Line is the medium closest to the specificity of words, closest to literacy, is the art medium most language-like. And from a practical perspective, in the time it takes to develop a drawing in tone/texture/color, a dozen line drawings are possible, each a language artifact, each generating the values of language listed above. We think of line as belonging to language; tone, texture, and color as belonging to art. This, of course, is an arbitrary distinction.
* Few children are sufficiently self-motivated that they can maintain a drawing program on their own: most require the sustained interest and involvement of a caring adult. The role of the adult is not to show children "how to draw" but to motivate themes that get them drawing. Children have their own graphic language which unfolds with frequent use when themes are meaningful and interesting. The childlike nature of this language must be respected. It is entirely negative to introduce how-to-draw books, formulas for achieving good design, correct proportion, or making it look "more real". Coloring books, stereotyped art projects for seasonal decoration, coloring-in contests - however well-meaning, they may be - simply weaken authentic language expression. There is no getting away from this. It is unreasonable to incorporate drawing into the morning program as language and formula crafts in the afternoon as art. The function of language does not change and children need all the authentic practice they can get. Moreover, gifted children will understand this if you explain it.
* There may be a problem with older gifted children who believe that ‘photographic naturalism’ is the primary goal of drawing. The real excitement for children comes when the goal of drawing is defined as ‘empathic realism’. (Again, refer to the Swimming Pool drawings.) The focus of naturalism is on finished product; the focus of ‘empathic realism’ is on process and it is process which generates ‘aesthetic energy’ which contributes to mental development and to literacy. Older gifted children may be more critical of their deficient skills than ordinary kids but are also easier to persuade that ‘empathic realism’ is the worthy goal. Still, it may be a problem: older children may lock themselves into the "I can’t draw" syndrome. Here are some ways to tackle it should it happen to your child.
** Gifted children will understand why an empathic drawing of a compelling subject is more interesting to the maker than the surface polish of a literal copy. The one goes deep inside the psyche, the other stays on the surface. Children and young people who are initially infatuated with skill will come to appreciate the ‘aesthetic energy’ that begins to appear in their drawings. They will recognize how distortion and exaggeration increase feeling, how details increase complexity, how lines create interesting patterns, and shapes, and function as a vehicle of intense feeling. They will recognize how forms fit together to express content in neat ways and appreciate that a drawing is an organic whole, a complex puzzle of interlocking shapes that mysteriously conveys perceptual acuity, emotional intensity, and the unity of many parts as a new whole. A new and higher level of appreciation emerges and understanding is internalized and reappears as superior drawings.
** Older children will benefit from remedial strategies like the continuous line ‘drawing game’. We have written about this elsewhere - "An Open Letter to Parents" on our website. Stated briefly, a theme is motivated and the ‘rules’ of the game explained. The drawer is required to respond to the theme using a continuous empathic contour line , that is a line that does not lift or stop moving from beginning to end. Later, when the continuous line rule has been absorbed, occasional lifting to relocate is allowed. The drawer is asked to imagine ‘touching’ the form on the paper as though touching the object. (Simulated touching and empathy are closely related.) If ‘touching’ is to be effective the tempo must be "not too fast and not too slow". (This is not gesture drawing where rapidity is a feature, but ‘empathic realism’ where simulated touching is a feature!) Empathy is experienced when the process becomes uncritical and automatic, "drawing on automatic pilot", surrendering to the preconscious.
** Motivate themes that engage perception: a member of the family poses; a still life subject is set up and drawn from several angles, perhaps on the same sheet of paper.
** Motivate themes for empathic memory drawing that require advanced preparation: "Tomorrow you will be asked to draw your room in all its glorious clutter so prepare by studying it tonight."
** Motivate themes for memory drawing of past events: summer holidays, a narrow escape, a bullying experience, a spectacular sport event.
** Motivate themes that require invention, imagination, fantasy: life on another planet, vehicles for traveling in outer space, a utopian vision.
Note on "Boat Holiday:
I include only one drawing in this pamphlet, "Boat Holiday" by Zion, a sampler from "Aesthetic Energy In the Astonishing Drawings of Children" . All twelve drawings in that pamphlet are by gifted children which I urge you to visit on our website. When Zion drew "Boat Holiday" he was six and aside from practical communication, the language he used to express his deeper and more complex thoughts and feelings was line drawing. His parents informed me that he drew every day and typically, several times a day. When other children went off to play at a family outing, Zion asked his Mom for his ballpoint pen and sketch book and spent a quiet moment drawing before joining his cousins. One might have expected him to become a graphic artist but I believe in later years he stopped drawing, studied the violin and went on to university to study mathematics. Drawing served him well at a time in his life when the mysterious codes of literacy and math were unknown to him. I will close this essay by summarizing what I wrote about "Boat Holiday" in the aforementioned pamphlet.
The ride on his uncles’s boat had been special and very exciting and his impressions were fresh. ... The drawing contains many parts organized like a well-designed machine ....every line pulling its weight, nothing needing to be added, or removed - a perfect balance of pictorial energies.
A solid shape, the boat, is unconsciously repeated in the fretted shape of the flock above. A row of fluffy clouds is ranged still higher ...Aesthetic energy seems to increase when images operate spatially and symbolically: here one level deals with a family event and the other concerns itself with nature. Nature rules the upper half with gulls, summer clouds and a larger-than-life sun, while humans and their boat occupy the lower. And here is an astonishing detail which never fails to amaze me: the two parts, Nature and Human Family are joined by a single person, a sunbathing aunt. ....We assume that the symbolism was not intended, but isn’t it astonishing that Mother Nature and the Human Community are symbolically linked by a sun worshiper!
(The unusually large sun!) The child-artist seems to understand, and take for granted that a cosmic energy bathes all living and non-living things. There is support for this view in Wordsworth’s opening lines to "Ode on Intimations of Immortality": "There was a time when meadow, grove, and/stream,/ The earth, and every common sight/ To me did seem/ Appareled in celestial light."
Bob Steele, Associate Professor (Emeritus UBC)