What Can Children Teach Us About Art


Friday, 10.02pm

Sheffield, U.K.

When children draw or do rudimentary painting, the whole human being develops an interest in what is being done. This is why we should allow writing to develop from drawing. – Rudolf Steiner

I have been thinking about art and drawing and images for a few weeks now and realized that I should park my other book project and have a go at a new one – because there is lots to learn and uncover about the world of the unwritten – the not-word.

And the place to start is the beginning, the way children draw. I always learn most when I work with my children and as the latest lockdown has enforced home schooling again, this seems like a good time to watch and learn from them. So, what kinds of things do we see?

I am fascinated by the way kids work with colour and ink and paper. My younger one is at the upper end of the age range where one draws unselfconsciously. On the 27th of December, 2020, he drew a picture and, for the first time, said, “It isn’t very good,” and scratched over it. I rescued the image and put it in my files because that was the point, that is the point, for all of us, when we start to worry about making good art, rather than just making. And when we worry about whether we make good art or bad art then the easiest thing to do is stop making art at all and that is what happens to most of us.

But, on the whole, there is still that childish desire to make marks and when I watch him draw the lines are bold and go over each other and have jagged edges and the bad guys are clear and the point is clear and I wonder what is it that a child has that we adults don’t when it comes to the paper and the marks they make.

And that’s not a new question, but it’s not one that appears to be very well answered. For example, there is a chapter in the book Understanding Children edited by Robert Grieve and Martin Hughes titled “Children’s pictures.” What they say is that children seem to develop about the same way through the ages – there is an age-stage thing happening. You have a range between random mark making, on the one hand, and exact representation on the other. Children start off by trying to represent what they see and they focus on the characteristics that are most prominent – the ones they notice. They are less worried about getting the image right than getting the thing they want on there. For example, in my picture above, things like a sword or a cape or a red face are the elements that are important, not wrinkles or shadows. Recently, cute eyes have been a feature of drawings, though…

They get better at representing as they get older, with perspective entering the picture. But also, along the way, we have the entry of symbols, representations of what we think rather than what we see. So you have the inclusion of stick figures to represent people rather than the main features of a particular person. For example, in early pictures you will see the exact colour of your granny’s jumper but later, it might just be a granny like person.

Eventually, the symbols become a more compact and efficient way to represent meaning. The logical conclusion of using symbols is to end up using written language and much “visual” thinking these days is really a symbolic representation of complex concepts in the world. We’re not really thinking visually but instead taking advantage of a different symbolic language to capture elements that are harder to show in normal language patterns, most significantly relationships between things. For example, you could create a numbered list of things but it’s easier to show interrelationships between the elements on that list with a flow chart.

So what does it mean when an adult tries to draw like a child, like I’ve done with the image that starts this post. Is it doing what Lynda Barry was asked if she did – being faux naive – faking naivety? Is it simply poor representation of a child that hasn’t learned how to either draw something so it more closely approximates reality or replace the image with words? Or is there a child-like way of seeing – something that sees what is there rather than what you expect or hope to be there. A kind of seeing that points out that the Emperor has no clothes?

If children draw in a way that sees what is there – that looks at reality unblinkingly then what can we learn from that as adults? We know the world is not simple, that isn’t all about goodies and baddies and that baddies sometimes win and get away with it and goodies sometimes lose and are forgotten. And in real life who is good and who is bad depends on who you are and what you think and what your point of view and history happens to be.

So, we’ve looked at art as a form of representation and as a form of symbolic language and sort of as a way of seeing what’s actually there but we need to try and not miss the most important point, the one staring us in the face and stamping the floor impatiently, waiting to be noticed.

Art is fun.

It’s fun playing with colour and paint and paper and getting it messy and not worrying – and it makes everything more interesting.

For example, no one wants to do maths or English home study, I don’t and my child doesn’t. The small person had no intention of doing any work – which included writing a story and doing some exercises. So, rather than argue we got the paints out and suggested painting the words for the story and painting the numbers and when you get pot of water and a brush and get some colours and start painting fractions they get a lot more interesting than doing it with a pencil and neatly getting it all down. The homework is a riot of colour and that’s not how it would have been done at school but it’s been done, the child will probably remember it better for a whole host of reasons and I enjoyed it more as well.

So there’s something there – something missed in all the talk about representation and symbols – something about the raw power of making to invigorate us as human beings. I’ve filled three quarters of a composition book in the last week with stuff and flipping through it the image above just feels more alive somehow. And I want to figure out why.

Maybe Ivan Brunetti’s method has a clue somewhere.

Let’s look at that in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

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