Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/February 1896/The Young Draughtsman




A CHILD'S first attempts at drawing are pre-artistic and a kind of play, an outcome of the instinctive love of finding and producing semblances of things. Sitting at the table and covering a sheet of paper with line-scribble, he is wholly self-centered, "amusing himself," as we say, and caring nothing about the production of "objective values."

Yet even in the early stages of infantile drawing the social element of art is suggested in the impulse of the small draughtsman to make his lines indicative of something to others' eyes, as when he bids his mother look at the "man," "gee-gee," or what else he fancies that he has delineated,[2] And this, though crude enough and apt to shock the aesthetic sense of the matured artist by its unsightliness, is closely related to art, forming, indeed, in a manner a preliminary stage of pictorial design.

We shall therefore study children's drawings as a kind of rude embryonic art. In doing this our special aim will be to describe and explain childish characteristics. This, again, will compel us to go to some extent into the early forms of observation and imagination. It will be found, I think, that the first crude drawings are valuable as throwing light on the workings of children's minds Perhaps, indeed, it may turn out that these spontaneous efforts of the childish hand to figure objects are for the psychologist a medium of expression of the whole of child-nature hardly less instructive than that of early speech.

In carrying out our investigation of children's drawings we shall need to make a somewhat full reference to the related phenomena, the drawings of modern savages and those of early art. While important points of difference will disclose themselves, the resemblances are important enough to make a comparison not only profitable but almost indispensable.

I have thought it best to narrow the range of the inquiry by keeping to delineations of the human figure and of animals, especially the horse. These are the favorite topics of the child's pencil, and examples of them are easily obtainable.

As far as possible I have sought spontaneous drawings of quite young children—viz., from between two and three to about six.[3] In a strict sense, of course, no child's drawing is absolutely spontaneous and independent of external stimulus and guidance. The first attempts to manage the pencil are commonly aided by the mother, who, moreover, is wont to present a model drawing, and, what is even more important at this early stage, to supply model movements of the arm and hand. In most cases, too, there is some slight amount of critical inspection, as when she asks, "Where is papa's nose?" "Where is doggie's tail?" Yet perfect spontaniety, even if obtainable, is not necessary here. The drawings of men and quadrupeds of a child of five and later disclose plainly enough the childish fashion, even though there has been some slight amount of elementary instruction. Hence I have not hesitated to make use of drawings sent me by kindergarten teachers. I may add that I have used by preference the drawings executed by children in elementary schools, as these appear to illustrate the childish manner with less of parental interference than is wont to be present in a cultured home.

A child's drawing begins with a free, aimless swing of the pencil to and fro, which movements produce a chaos of slightly curved lines. These movements are purely spontaneous, or, if imitative, are so only in the sense that they follow at a considerable distance the movements of the mother's pencil.[4] They may be made expressive or significant in two ways. In the first place, a child may by varying the swinging movements accidentally produce an effect which suggests an idea through a remote resemblance. A little boy, when two years and two months, was one day playing in this wise with the pencil, and happening to make a sort of curling line, shouted with excited glee, "Puff, puff!"—i. e., smoke. He then drew more curls with a rudimentary intention to show what he meant. In like manner, when a child happens to bend his line into something like a closed circle or ellipse, he will catch the faint resemblance to the rounded human head and exclaim, "Mamma!" or "Dada!"

But intentional drawing or designing does not always arise in this way. A child may set himself to draw, and make believe that he is drawing something when he is scribbling. This is largely an imitative play-action following the directions of the movements of another's hand. Preyer speaks of a little boy who in his second year was asked when scribbling with a pencil what PSM V48 D577 Concept of a cat by a four year old child.jpgFig. 1. he was doing and answered, "Writing houses." He was apparently making believe that his jumble of lines represented houses.[5]

The same play of imagination is noticeable in the child's first endeavors to draw an object from memory when he is asked to do so. Thus a little girl in her fourth year, referred to by Mr. E. Cooke, when asked to draw a cat, produced a longish, irregularly curved line crossed by a number of shorter lines, which strange production she proceeded quite complacently to dignify by the name of "cat," naming the whiskers, legs, and tail (Fig. 1, a); compare the slightly fuller design in Fig. 1, b.

Here it is evident we have a phase of childish drawing which is closely analogous to the symbolism of language. The representation is arbitrarily chosen as a symbol and not as a likeness. This element of a nonimitative or symbolic mode of representation will be found to run through the whole of childish drawing.

Even this chaotic scribble shows almost from the beginning germs of formative elements, not merely in the fundamental line elements, but also in the loops, and in the more abrupt changes of direction or angles. A tendency to draw a looplike rudimentary contour soon emerges, and thus we get the transition to a possible outlining of objects. With practice the child acquires by the second or third year the usual stock in trade of the juvenile draughtsman, and can draw a sort of straight line, curved lines, a roughish kind of circle or oval, as well as dots, and even fit lines together at angles.[6] When this stage is reached we begin to see attempts at real though rude likenesses of men, horses, and so forth. These early essays are among the most curious products of the child-mind. They follow standards and methods of their own; they are apt to get hardened into a fixed conventional manner which may reappear even in mature years. They exhibit with a certain range of individual difference a curious uniformity, and they have their parallels in what we know of the first crude designs of the untutored savage.

It has been wittily observed by an Italian writer on children's art that they reverse the order of natural creation in beginning instead of ending with man. It may be added that they start with the most dignified part of this crown of creation, viz., the human head. A child's first attempt to represent a man proceeds, so far as I have observed, by drawing the front view of his head. This he effects by means of a clumsy sort of circle with a dot or two thrown in by way of indicating features in general. A couple of lines may be inserted as a kind of support, which do duty for both trunk and legs. The circular or ovoid form is, I think, by far the most common. The square head in my collection appears only very occasionally and in children at school, who PSM V48 D578 Concept of a figure by a five year old child.jpgFig. 2. presumably have had some training in drawing horizontal and vertical lines. The accompanying example (Fig. 2) is the work of a Jamaica girl of five, kindly sent me by her teacher.

This first attempt to outline the human form is, no doubt, characterized by a high degree of arbitrary symbolism. The use of a rude form of circle to set forth the human head reminds one of the employment by living savage tribes of the same form as the symbol of a house (hut?), a wreath, and so forth. Yet there is a measure of resemblance even in this abstract symbolism: the circle does roughly resemble the contour of the head: as, indeed, the square or rectangle may PSM V48 D579 Concept of a figure drawn by a congolese adult.jpgFig. 3. be said less obviously to do when hair and whiskers and the horizontal line of the hat break the curved line.

But it is not the mere contour which represents the face: it is a circle picked out with features. These, however vaguely indicated, are an integral part of the facial scheme. This is illustrated in the fact that among the drawings by savages and others collected by General Pitt Rivers, one, executed by an adult negro of Uganda, actually omits the contour, the human head being represented merely by an arrangement of dark patches and circles for eyes, ears, etc. (Fig. 3).[7]

Coming now to the mode of representing the features, we find at an early stage of this schematic delineation an attempt to differentiate and individualize features, not only by giving definite position but by a rough imitation of form. Thus we get the vertical line as indicating the direction of the nose, the horizontal line that of the mouth, and either a rounded dot or a circular line as representative of the curved outline of the eye—whether that of the iris, of the visible part of the eyeball, or of the orbital cavity. A precisely similar scheme appears in the drawings of savages,[8]

At first the child is grandly indifferent to completeness in the enumeration of features. Even "the two eyes, a nose, and a mouth" are often imperfectly represented. Thus, when dots are used, we may have one or more specks, ranging, according to M. Perez, up to five.[9] The use of a single dot for facial feature in general has its parallel in the art of savage tribes.[10] It is, however, I think, most common to introduce three dots in a triangular arrangement, presumably for eyes and mouth—a device, again, which reappears in the art of uncivilized races.[11] Even when the young draughtsman has reached the stage of distinguishing the features he may be quite careless about number and completeness. Thus a feature may be omitted altogether. This funnily enough happens most frequently in the case of that one which seems to us "grown-ups" most self-assertive and most resentful of indignity, viz., the nose. These moon-faces with two eyes and a mouth are very common among the first drawings of children. The mouth, on the other hand, is much less frequently omitted. The same thing seems to hold good of the drawings of savages.[12] The eyes are rarely omitted. The single dot may perhaps be said to stand for "eye." Some drawings of savages have the two eyes and no other feature, as in the accompanying example from Andree (Fig. 4, a). On the other hand, a child

PSM V48 D580 Concepts of faces drawn by children.jpg

Fig. 4.—c, Mustache = horizontal line above curve of cap.

will, as we have seen, sometimes content himself with one eye. This holds good not only where the dot is used but after something like an eye-circle is introduced, as in the accompanying drawing by a Jamaica girl of seven (Fig. 4, b).

In these first attempts to sketch out a face we miss a sense of relative position and of proportion. It is astonishing what a child on first attempting to draw a human or animal form can do in the way of dislocation or putting things into the wrong place. The little girl mentioned by E. Cooke on trying, about the same age, to draw a cat from a model; actually put the circle representing the eye outside that of the head. With this may be compared the drawings of den Steinen and other Europeans made by his Brazil Indian companions, in which what was distinctly said by the draughtsman to be the mustache was in more than one instance set above the eyes (Fig. 4, c). When dots are inserted in the linear scheme they are apt at first to be thrown in anyhow. The two eyes, I find, when these only are given, may be put one above the other as well as one by the side of the other, and both arrangements occur in the drawings of the same child. And much later, when greater attention to position is observable, there is a general tendency to put the group of features too high up—i. e., to make the forehead or brain region too small in proportion to the chin region (see Fig. 2).[13]

The want of proportion is still more plainly seen in the treatment of the several features. The eye, as already remarked, is apt to be absurdly large. In the drawing of Mr. Cooke's little girl, mentioned above, it is actually larger than the head outside which it lies. This enlargement continues to appear frequently in later drawings, more particularly when one eye only is introduced, as in the accompanying drawing by a boy in his seventh year (Fig. 5 a, and Fig. 4, b). The mouth is apt to be even more disproportionate, the child appearing to delight in making this appalling feature supreme, as in the following examples, both by

PSM V48 D581 Grownups drawn by children.jpg

Fig. 5.

boys of five (Fig. 5, b and c). The ear, when it is added, is apt to be enormous, and generally the introduction of new details, as ears, hair, hands, is wont to be emphasized by an exaggeration of their magnitude.

Very interesting is the gradual artistic evolution of the features. Here, as in organic evolution, there is a process of specialization, the primordial indefinite form taking on more of characteristic complexity. In the case of the eye, for example, we may often trace a gradual development, the dot being displaced by a small circle or ovoid, this last supplemented by a second circle outside the first,[14] or by one or by two arches, the former placed above, the latter above and below the circle.

The evolution of the mouth is particularly interesting. It is wont to begin with a horizontal line (or what seems intended for such) which is frequently drawn right across the facial circle. But a transition soon takes place to a more distinctive representation. This is naturally enough carried out by the introduction of the characteristic and interesting detail, the teeth. This may be done, according to M. Perez, by keeping to the linear representation, the teeth being indicated by dots placed upon the horizontal line. In all the cases observed by me the teeth are introduced in a more realistic fashion in connection with a contour to suggest the parted lips. The contour—especially the circular or ovoid—occasionally appears by itself without teeth, but the teeth seem to be soon added. The commonest forms of tooth cavity I have met with are a narrow rectangular and a curved spindle-shaped slit with teeth appearing as vertical lines (see the two drawings by

PSM V48 D582 Supposed movement towards realism by five year olds.jpg

Fig. 6.

boys of six and five (Figs. 6, a and b). These two forms are improved upon and more likeness is introduced by making the dental lines shorter, as in Fig. 5, c. With this may be compared a drawing by a boy of five (Fig. 6, c), where, however, we see a movement from realism in the direction of a freer decorative treatment.

A somewhat similar process of evolution is noticeable in the case of the nose, though here the movement is soon brought to a standstill. Thus the vertical line gives place to an angle, which may point to the side, as in the drawing of a country boy between three and four (Fig. 7, a), but more frequently, I think, points upward, as in the drawing of a boy of six (Fig. 7, b). This in its turn leads to an isosceles triangle with an acute angle at the apex, as in the drawing of a boy of six (Fig. 7, c). In a few cases a long spindle-shaped or rectangular form similar to that of the mouth is employed, as in a drawing of a nervous child of six (Fig. 7, d). Refinements are introduced now and again by an attempt at the nostrils, as in the accompanying curious drawing by a seven-year-old Jamaica girl (Fig. 7, e).[15]

PSM V48 D583 Gradual introduction of human features.jpg

Fig. 7.

The introduction of other features, more especially ears and hair, must, according to my observations, be looked on as occasional only, and as a mark of an advance to a more naturalistic treatment. Differences of treatment occur here too. Thus the ears, which are apt to be absurdly large, are now inserted inside the PSM V48 D583 Concept of gender differences.jpgFig. 8. head circle, now outside it. The hair appears now as a dark cap of horizontal strokes, now as a kind of stunted fringe, now as a bundle or wisp on one side, which may either fall or stand on end (see Fig. 7, d, and the accompanying drawing by a girl of nearly four. Fig. 8, a). These methods of representation are occasionally varied by a more elaborate line device, as a curly looped line similar to that employed for smoke, as in the annexed drawing by a girl of seven (Fig, 8, b).

As implied in this account of the facial features, a good deal of conventionlike agreement of method is enlivened by a measure of diversity of treatment. Perhaps one of the most striking instances of daring originality is seen in the attempt by a girl of four—who was subjected to a great deal of instruction—to give PSM V48 D584 Concept of facial features.jpgFig. 9.Fig. 10. separate form to the chin (Fig. 9). This may be compared with the attempt of the Uganda negro to indicate symbolically the cheeks (see Fig. 3).

As I have remarked, to the child bent on representing "man" the head or face is at first the principal thing, some early drawings contenting themselves with this. But in general the head receives some support. The simplest device here is the abstract mode of representation by two supporting lines, which do duty for legs and body. These are for the most part parallel (Fig. 2), though occasionally they are united at the top, making a kind of target figure. This same arrangement, fixing the head on two upright lines, meets us also in the rude designs of savages, as may be seen in the accompanying rock inscription from Schoolcraft (Fig. 10).

The comparative indifference of the child to the body or trunk is seen in the obstinate persistence of this simple scheme of head and legs, to which two arms attached to the sides of the head are often added. A child will complete the drawing of the head by

PSM V48 D584 Concepts of additional detail.jpg
Fig. 11. Fig. 12.

inserting hair or a cap, and will even add feet and hands, before he troubles to bring in the trunk (see Fig. 2 and Fig. 7, d, also the accompanying drawing by a boy of six, Fig. 11, a). With this neglect of the trunk by children may be compared the omission of it—as if it were a forbidden thing—in one of General Pitt-Rivers's drawings, executed by a Zulu woman (Fig. 11, b).

From this common way of spiking the head on two forked or upright legs there is one important deviation. The contour of the head may be left incomplete, and the upper occipital part of the curve be run on into the leg lines, as in the accompanying example by a Jamaica girl of seven (Fig. 12). I have met with no example of this among English children.

The drawing of the trunk may commence in one of two ways. With English children it appears often to emerge as an expansion or prolongation of the head contour, as in the accompanying drawings of the front and side view (Figs. 13, a and b).[16] Or, in the second place, the leg scheme may be modified, either by drawing

PSM V48 D585 Adding trunk to the human form.jpg

Fig. 13.

a horizontal line across them and so making a rectangle, as in the accompanying drawing by a boy of six, or by shading in the upper part of the space, as in the other figure by a girl of five (Fig. 13, c and d). A curious and interesting variant of this second mode of introducing the trunk is to be found in the drawings of den Steinen's Brazilians, where the leg lines are either kept parallel for a while and then made to diverge, or are pinched in below what may be called the pelvis, though not completely joined (Fig. 13, e and f).

When the trunk is distinctly marked off, it is apt to remain small in proportion to the head, as in the following two drawings by boys of about five (Fig. 14, a and b). As to its shape, it is most commonly circular or ovoid like the head. But the square or rectangular form is also found, and in the case of certain children

PSM V48 D586 Circular and triangular representations of the body.jpg

Fig. 14.

it is expressly stated that this came later. A triangular capelike form also appears now and again, as in the accompanying drawing by a boy of six (Fig. 14, c).[17] The treatment of the form of trunk often varies in the drawings of the same child.

At this stage there is no attempt to show the joining on of the head to the trunk by means of the neck. The oval of the head is either laid on the top of that of the trunk, or more commonly cuts off the upper end of the latter. The neck, when first added, is apt to take the exaggerated look of caricature. It may be represented by a single line, by a couple of parallel lines, or by a PSM V48 D586 Oval torsos.jpgFig. 15. small oval or circle, as in the accompanying drawings by a girl of six and a boy of five respectively (Fig. 15, a and b; also Fig. 7, b).

It is noticeable that there is sometimes a double body, two oval contours being laid one upon the other. In certain cases this looks very like an expansion of the neck, as in the following drawing by the same boy that drew the round neck above (Fig. 16, a). In other cases the arrangement plainly does not aim at differentiating the neck, since this part is separately dealt with (Fig. 16, b). Here it may possibly mean a crude attempt to indicate the division of the trunk at the waist, as brought out especially by female attire, as may be seen in the accompanying drawing, where the dots for buttons on each oval seem to show that the body is signified (Fig. 16, c; cf. Fig. 7, c).[18] This, along with the triangular cape-shape of the trunk, is one of the few illustrations of the effect of dress on the first childish treatment of the figure. As a rule, this primitive art is a study of Nature in so far as the artificial adjuncts of dress are ignored, and the rounded forms of the body are, though crudely enough, no doubt, hinted at.

Coming now to the arms, we find that their introduction is very uncertain. To the child, as also to the savage, the arms are what the Germans call a Nebensache—side matter (i. e., figuratively as well as literally)—and are omitted in rather more than

PSM V48 D587 Representations of the arms and their lack of.jpg
Fig. 16. Fig. 17.

one case out of two. After all, the divine portion, the head, can be supported very well without their help.

The arms, as well as the legs, being the thin, lanky members, are commonly represented by lines. The same thing is noticeable in the drawings of savages.[19] The arms appear in the front view of the figure as stretched out horizontally, or at least reaching out from the sides; and their appearance always gives a certain liveliness to the figure, an air of joyous self-proclamation, as if they said in their gesture language, "Here I am!" (see Fig. 5, a, and the accompanying drawing of a boy of six. Fig. 17).

In respect of shape and structure a process of evolution may be observed. In certain cases the abstract linear representation gives place to contour, the arm being drawn of a certain thickness. But I find that the linear represenation of the arm often persists after the legs have received contour, this being probably another illustration of the comparative neglect of the arm; as in the accompanying drawing by a boy of five (Fig. 18, a). The primal rigid straightness yields later on to the freedom of an

PSM V48 D588 Representations of the arms.jpg

Fig. 18c, A miner.

organ. Thus an attempt is made to represent by means of a curve the look of the bent arm, as in the accompanying drawings by boys of five (Fig. 18, b and c). In other cases the angle of the elbow is indicated. This last comes comparatively late in children's drawings, which here, too, lag behind the crudest outline sketches of savages.

  1. From advance sheets of Studies of Childhood, by James Sully, M. A., LL. D., in press of D. Appleton & Co.
  2. This indicative or communicative function of drawing has, we know, played a great part in the early stages of human history. Modern savages employ drawings in sand as a means of imparting information to others—e. g., of the presence of fish in a lake. See den Steinen, Unter den Naturvölkern Braziliens, Kap. x, S. 243 f.
  3. Only a few drawings of older children above seven have been included.
  4. E. Cooke gives illustrations of these in his thoughtful and interesting articles on Art. teaching and Child-nature, published in the Journal of Education, December, 1885, and January, 1886.
  5. Preyer, op. cit., p. 47.
  6. I am much indebted to Mr. Cooke for the sight of a series of early scribbles of his little girl. Cf. Baldwin, Mental Development, chapter v, where some good examples of early line-tracing are given. According to Baldwin, angles or zigzag come early, and are probably due to the cramped, jerky mode of movement at this early stage. Preyer seems to me wrong in saying that children can not manage a circular line before the end of the third year (op. cit., p. 47). Most children who draw at all manage a loop or closed curved line before this date.
  7. These drawings, of the highest interest to the student of child-art as well as to the anthropologist, are to be seen in the general's museum at Farnham (Dorset) (seventh room).
  8. Schoolcraft has a good example of this facial scheme in the drawing of a man shooting (The Indian Tribes of the United States, vol. i, plate 48).
  9. L'Art et la Poésie chez l'Enfant, p. 186.
  10. For an illustration see Andree, Eth. Parallelen und Vergleiche, plate 3, Fig. 19.
  11. See, for an example, Schoolcraft, vol. iv, plate 28.
  12. According to Stanley Hall, the nose comes after the mouth. This may be an approximate generalization, but there are evidently exceptions to it. On the practice of savage draughtsmen see the illustrations of Australian cave drawings in Andree, op. cit., p. 159. Cf. the drawings of Brazilian tribes, plate iii, 15. In some cases there seems a preference for the nose, certain of the Brazilian drawings representing facial features merely by a vertical stroke.
  13. M. Passy calls attention to this in his interesting note on children's drawings, Revue Philosophique, 1891, pp. 614 ff. I find, however, that though the error is a common one, it is not constant.
  14. In one case I find the curious device of two dots or small circles, one above the other within a larger circle, and this form repeated in the eye of animals.
  15. It is possible that in this drawing the two short lines added to the mouth are an original attempt to give the teeth.
  16. A drawing given by Andree, op. cit., plate ii, 11, seems to me to illustrate a somewhat similar attempt to develop the trunk out of the head.
  17. The opposite arrangement of a triangle on its apex occurs among savage drawings.
  18. On the other hand, I find the button dots sometimes omitted in the lower oval.
  19. For examples, see Andree, op. cit., plate 3. Cf. the drawings of den Steinen's Brazilians.