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Drawing in Art Education Research: A Literature
Paul Duncum
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, USA
University of Tasmania, Australia
Drawing remains a central part of many K-12 art curricula, both in Australia and
overseas, and research continues on what children draw in their own time. This
paper contextualizes current approaches to research on drawing as part of art
education by examining the history of research on drawing. Five major theoretical
approaches are examined, including their relationship to the concept of art and their
primary methods. These five approaches are described according to their
chronological appearance. The approaches are named as mental operations,
aesthetic expression, mental and emotional health, procedural, and social practice.
Art, children’s development, drawing, research, stages
Although contemporary art educators are increasingly, and rightly, interested in
young people’s take up of digital technology, both inside and outside the classroom
(e.g., Sakr, 2017; Stokroki, 2014), drawing remains a central part of many K-12 art
curricula, both in Australia and overseas (e.g., Hickman, 2005). Research also
continues to be conducted on what children draw in their own time (e.g., Richards,
2014). This paper contextualizes current approaches to research on drawing as part
of art education – what is referred to here as social practice approaches – by
examining the history of research on children’s drawing. Five major theoretical
approaches are examined, including their primary methods and their relationship to
the concept of art. The five approaches are described according to their
chronological appearance and named as mental operations, aesthetic expression,
emotional health, procedural, and social practice.
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Preliminary Considerations
However, before describing these approaches, it is necessary to consider two
factors. First, the subject of most of the research, irrespective of approach, has
been on children’s drawing, especially young children, with less attention paid to
the drawing of adolescents. Consequently, in what follows the term children is used
unless adolescents are specifically intended, and the term youth is used when
referring to both children and adolescents. Secondly, what follows is only a small
representative sample of the very extensive amount of research conducted since
systematic research began. The references provided are merely examples of the
many studies that could have been used as exemplars.
Mental Operations
An interest in children’s drawings can be traced to the 13th century, with anecdotal
commentaries and many pedagogical recommendations offered thereafter
(Fineberg, Ivashkevich & Rizk, 2006), but it was only at the end of the 19th century
that children’s drawing was first subject to systematic study. Beginning in the 18th
century, many anecdotal commentaries and many pedagogical recommendations
were offered, but as part of the Child Study movement, surveys were conducted
with hundreds of drawings (e.g., Maitland, 1895). They were undertaken with the
assumption that the drawings were indicators of children’s developing cognition.
The drawings were understood in terms of children’s interests and abilities at
different ages, as if they were direct evidence of children’s minds (Machon, 2013).
Researchers assumed that children’s drawing, being unrealistic, indicated errors of
perception. What children drew was considered a representation of their immature,
internal mental states (e.g., Luquet, 2001/1927; Piaget & Inhelder, 1956). As their
mental operations matured, their drawings became increasingly realistic.
Researchers distinguished between what they called intellectual realism and
perceptual realism. Intellectual realism described drawings that were the result of
what children knew of an object rather than what they saw and where the results
were consequently unrealistic. Perceptual realism described drawings that were the
result of what children could actually see.
The primary motivation for this approach was to classify children’s drawings in
terms of what were assumed to be universal developmental stages and to match
these stages in other areas of cognition such as mathematics and logical and
ethical reasoning. Development in drawing was considered a linear, step-by-step,
age-related series of stages that coincided with other developmental stages.
Children were fixed in a stage, possessing its characteristics, until at some point
they acquired the characteristics of the next stage. Development was teleological,
a series of upward rising steps that moved inexorably forward, a matter of
maturation, a naturally unfolding and universal process. Many such developmental
models were proposed with different numbers of stages and different
characteristics, although Burt’s (1921) 7-stage model was highly influential in
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volume 39 number 2
British Empire countries through its adoption by art educator Read (1943), while
Lowenfeld’s 6-stage model (1957) was especially influential in the United States.
Being regarded as universal, the stages were used to both prescribe and proscribe
Despite their influence in art education, these stage-by-age models were deeply
flawed (Wilson & Wilson, 1981). Drawings are often between stages or contain
multiple stages, making a mockery of neat categorization. The stages address figural
accuracy and spatial arrangement, but not the narrative content of many unsolicited
drawings, or their subjects or themes, let alone children’s intentions. Cross cultural
studies also demonstrate that the stages are culturally specific (e.g., Lindstrom,
2000). In short, the stages established only the norms at a particular place and time.
Furthermore, the drawing stages do not relate to general cognitive stages, but
represent only certain norms within the specific medium of drawing (Feldman,
1980). Nevertheless, these models, and many like them, were popular among
teachers because they appeared to establish the kind of norms teachers could expect
from their students.
Another major manifestation of this approach was Goodenough’s (1926) “Draw-aMan-Test” that was later refined by Harris (1963). Children were asked to draw a
human figure that was scored according to the number of features, with the higher
the number, the more intelligent children were assumed to be. Again, the equation
of details with intelligence was far too simple to be reliable.
The focus on realism is understandable given both the dominant Western art style
of the time and attitudes towards the art of so-called “primitive” peoples. Child
Study researchers worked in an age when the primary art style was realistic.
Although avant garde artists were challenging the by-then often photographically
realistic style of the art academies, the popular view of art was that it was realistic;
the higher the degree of realism, the better the art. Consequently, some Child Study
researches regarded children’s drawings as immature scrawls as alike to the pictures
of indigenous peoples (Machon, 2013). They rightly pointed to some of the
distinguishing characteristics of children’s drawings that are identical to nonwestern art. Wilson and Wilson (1981) refer to these as innate graphic principles,
such as a concern for symmetry, avoidance of overlapping, and simplicity, each of
which take precedence over a reach towards realism. Influenced by Social
Darwinism, the conclusion Child Study researchers drew was that children’s
development in drawing, from abstraction to realism, reproduced the evolution of
our species from “primitive” peoples to the “civilized” West. Younger children’s
drawings were either not art, or being poor approximations of western art, poor art.
The Child Study movement relied principally upon large surveys of drawings
collected mostly from schools. Some surveys involved multiple countries and
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hundreds of drawings. Maitland’s (1895) study involved 1,570 drawings. Some
surveys identify the origins of the drawings according to three general categories
but group them together (Machon, 2013). Children’s drawings fall into three basic
kinds. They have often been called free, directed, and spontaneous (Lark-Horovitz,
Lewis & Luca, 1974). Children produce directed drawings when they are told what
to draw, either as required in schools or by researchers. Children produce free
drawings when they are required to draw but allowed to choose what they draw.
Spontaneous drawings are initiated by children themselves, drawn of their own free
will, although since the term spontaneous often suggests an artless or unconstrained
style, the term unsolicited is preferred here (Thompson, 2007).
Since school art and unsolicited drawing is usually quite different (Wilson, 1976),
the surveys tell us only what schools permitted by way of subject matter, not what
children were actually interested in. Even the collections of unsolicited drawings
allow us only to speculate about intent.
Aesthetic Expression
The second major approach to emerge stood in direct opposition to mental
operations. The aesthetic expression approach assumed that children could see the
world perfectly well. According to its advocates, children drew as they did because,
like indigenous peoples, their intentions were expressive, and, moreover, their
expressions found favorable aesthetic forms (e.g., Arnheim, 1956; Kellogg, 1969;
Lowenfeld, 1957; Read, 1943).
The approach was grounded in modernist, philosophical aesthetics and avant garde
art practice of the early 20th century in which value lay, not in the imitation of
nature but personal expression through pleasing, formal, visual qualities of line,
color, shape, size, balance, and so on. While the mental operations approach had
valued the drawings of older children who could approximate realism, this approach
valued the drawings of younger children and focused primarily upon them. The
drawings of older children were seen to be contaminated by the wider culture whose
influence was decried.
Consequently, the developmental model of the aesthetic expression approach
differed radically from the step-by-step, linear model of mental operations. The “U”
shaped curve model, later popularized by Gardner (1980) and Davis (1997), focused
on the same limited aspects of drawing as the linear model, but regarded middle
childhood drawing, not as an improvement on younger children’s drawings, but a
decline because this was the time children attempted realism but usually failed.
Children’s drawings only improved upon entering adolescence, and only where some
adolescents were instructed in the ways of modernist, abstract styles. Where early
childhood drawings possessed energy, a fresh exploratory flavor and playfulness,
drawings lost their aesthetic appeal during middle childhood. They become wooden
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and lifeless, stiff and clichéd. The trough of the U curve was acknowledged to be
necessary to gain the culturally approved skills of realism, but it was depreciated on
aesthetic grounds. Essentially, the U curve model conflated children’s graphic
development as a mode of thinking and communication with a preference for
Fauvism, Expressionism, and Surrealism (Duncum, 1986; Pariser & Berg, 1997).
As different as the aesthetic expression approach was to the former mental
operations approach, the two approaches were united in the belief that children’s
drawings were evidence of a universal aesthetic sensibility. Arnheim (1956)
employed gestalt theory to demonstrate that children’s love of patterns conformed
to human perception, and Read (1943) and Kellogg (1969) thought they observed
Jungian archetypes, especially the use of mandalas, in young children’s drawing.
Kellogg was influential in art education, though her the desire to find universal
patterns overrode her evidence (Jolly, 2010). Other researchers relied upon case
studies of individual children who were prolific unsolicited drawers. Unfortunately,
the studies were highly circumscribed by their modernist assumptions about art
(e.g., Beck, 1928; Eng, 1957; Hildreth, 1941). Despite the evidence often provided
by the subjects and styles of the drawings produced by these children, the influence
of popular sources of imagery was either ignored or explicitly denied.
Facilitating Mental and Emotional Health
Drawing upon psychoanalysis and psychology, drawing has been used to support
mental and emotional health, both as a diagnostic tool in clinical settings (e.g., Di
Leo, 1973; Handler & Thomas, 2014) and in art education as a form of art therapy
(e.g., Lowenfeld, 1957; Read, 1943). The two are linked by virtue of Lowenfeld’s
art therapy approach being derived from his clinical practice.
While the mental operations approach regarded children’s drawings as a simple print
out of children’s mental states, used as a diagnostic tool, children’s drawings were
considered simple revelations of children’s emotional states. The assumption was
that children drew what they were otherwise either unwilling or unable to express;
for example, if a child drew a dark cloud above a person’s head it indicated the
presence of depression. In some countries, such projective psychiatric methods
continue but evidence is lacking of either their validity or reliability (Jolly, 2010),
and in many parts of the world it is assumed that, following the post-structural idea
that meaning resides in relationship, drawings should be considered in combination
with conversation with children (Malchiodi, 1998) as well as other observations and
tests (Jolly, 2010).
Facilitating mental and emotional health through children’s drawing was the prime
goal of the creative self-expression movement in art education. It began with Cizek
(Viola, 1936) in Vienna in the early 20th century. It was thereafter popularized by
Read (1943) in British Empire countries and Lowenfeld (1957) in the United States.
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These art educators were influenced by Freudian and Jungian psychotherapy, as well
as Rousseauian notions of children as graphic innocents and modern art as a form of
personal expression. Society was viewed as mechanistic and oppressive in which
drawing was critical in allowing children the opportunity to express their unique
individuality. The approach was like the aesthetic expression approach in valuing
the drawing of younger children for their apparent free and original expression, and
the work of older children was decried for their cultural contamination.
Conceived under the expression theory of art, children were encouraged to draw
from their imaginations, not their observations. “All copied things are worthless,”
declared Cizek (Viola, 1936, p. 37). Whether from nature, their peers or adult work,
copying was banned. Lowenfeld (1957) also warned against colouring books and
advised teachers that all they needed to do was provide the materials suitable to
whatever a child appeared to need at any one time and to facilitate a happy
The procedural approach emerged during the 1980s, and is so named here because
it focused on the real-time unfolding process of drawing, of drawing-in-action (e.g.,
Cox, 1992; Freeman, 1980; von Sommers, 1984). By contrast to the three previous
approaches, which typically examined only the finished drawings, usually well after
they were drawn, and even without a knowledge of the children who drew them,
the procedural attended to the act of drawing. Grounded in cognitive psychology,
the procedural approach emphasized children’s planning and problem solving.
Children were considered to be making a range of strategic choices as they drew.
Similarly to the aesthetic expression approach, so-called errors were conceptualized
as due to neither aesthetic interest nor of psychological difficulties, but the
consequence of children’s knowledge of the world. These so-called ‘errors’ were
understood as performance factors, one drawing solution following from another.
For example, an out-of-proportion figure was the inevitable result of poor planning,
not the result of poor perception or emotional challenges.
The approach was based on experimental studies that fine-tuned the earlier work of
the psychologists who had been concerned with children’s mental operations. The
studies offered an unprecedented amount of detailed data based on multiple cases
that challenged long held assumptions about children’s abilities. In one classic
example, children were asked to draw a cup placed before them in a position that
occluded the handle and instructed to draw only what they could see. Children who
drew the cup without the handle were regarded as having suppressed intellectual
realism in favor of perceptual realism.
However, since young children rarely draw from direct observation such tests were
artificial. Furthermore, like the draw-a-man test, greater realism does not
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volume 39 number 2
necessarily equate to maturity. Children may include a cup’s handle because they
feel that to exclude it would make it difficult for anyone else to identify it as a cup
(Matthews, 2004). Thus, the experiment may say more about drawing as a
communicative act than a cognitive operation.
The procedural approach only nominally considered children’s drawings to be art.
Researchers were primarily interested in children’s ability to communicate rather
than express themselves, and relying upon semiotics they saw drawing as a pictorial
sign system, a mode of thinking and communication. Unlike the other approaches
that were invested in the cultural capital of art, the procedural approach considered
children’s drawings to possess only the cultural capital of ordinary speech.
Social Practice
Today, the dominant approach among art education researchers is drawing as social
practice (Pearson, 2001). It is principally informed by both sociology and postmodern
art theory. The approach focuses on the sociocultural context in which drawing takes
place, rejecting the assumption of most of the previous approaches that assumed
children’s inadequacy in favor of valuing children’s agency.
Social practice has been bolstered by the rejection of universalistic assumptions by
cross-cultural studies. What was previously considered innate, often turns out to be
culturally specific; for example, children from different cultures not only emphasize
different subjects – figures versus everyday objects (Lindstrom, 2000) – but children
from individualistic cultures draw figures larger than children from collectivist
cultures (Cox, 2000). Recently this has been shown to be true where one would least
expect it, with infant’s tadpole figures, which previously would have been
considered to be the result purely of genetic fuel (Gernhardt, Rubeling & Keller,
The social practice approach is currently taking three different directions. First,
social practice embraces but goes beyond the procedural approach of drawing-inaction to consider what accompanies drawing, such as verbalizing, dramatic gestures
(e.g., Schulte, 2015; Sunday, 2015; Thompson & Bales, 1991), and the inclusion of
words (e.g., Mavers, 2011). It assumes that without these additional contextual
features it is impossible to know with any certainty what children, especially very
young ones, both intend by their drawing and what they manage to achieve.
Unfortunately, being regarded as universal, the stages were used to both prescribe
and proscribe development. Very detailed observations of individual children and
children drawing together have brought to light many intentions and nuances of
meaning previously unidentified.
Secondly, as so …
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