Drawing with the D’Aulaires

Cora is in second grade now. It’s hard to believe how fast she’s growing up. She’s reading and writing with greater confidence. And, much to my delight, she’s starting to draw more as well. As regular readers know, children’s independent drawings are one of my passions (see, for example, “Thinking Drawings”).

Sadly, even at her tiny alternative school, kids seem all too eager to judge. She has reported one girl repeatedly mocking her work, calling her drawings “weird.” I tell her to ignore this, that “weird” isn’t a very specific critique, that it’s probably just jealousy, but that only goes so far. Alternately, Cora can name the “best artist” in her class, and often compliments her style.

At the beginning of this school year, Cora was drawing a lot of anime-style eyes – a reflection of the graphic novels that are so popular in her crowd. One classmate taught her to draw eyes like those found in their beloved Amulet series and she learned another strategy by copying the work of a friend. With each of these technical infusions, we saw a proliferation of drawing at home.

The most recent addition to her repertoire came from a study of the D’Aulaires’s Book of Greek Myths. We used the D’Aulaires work last year as part of our homeschool studies of ancient history and were all captivated by the imagery as much as the stories. Recently Cora asked me to help her copy some of their portraits. We started with Cronos and moved on to Persephone.

As she worked we talked about the shapes and angles of the features. She quickly accepted that her drawings wouldn’t look exactly like the originals.

She said she wanted to copy the D’Aulaires entire gods and goddesses family tree, but I anticipated that idea would loose steam. I was happily surprised to see her quickly move on to making her own characters, drawing from a few basic graphic strategies she learned from the D’Aulaires’.

All this reminded me of Paul Duncum’s (1988) survey of ongoing debates about copying in art education. Duncum outlines at least five positions on the copying debate in art education, citing literature and drawing out intermediary positions between the traditional polarities of to copy or not to copy. He writes, “According to one position, copying is utterly undesirable under any circumstances. Indeed all forms of graphic influence are bad” (p. 204). Limiting all forms of graphic influence would be impossible, of course, unless a child is raised in a cave with no outside stimulus. Certainly, children growing up with picturebooks and cartoons and museum visits (or just in the 21st century culture of constant media bombardment) are exposed to various styles of representation, some of which will make it into their own doodles and more formal works of art.

Duncum cites others who advocate copying as a “necessary part of learning to draw because all drawing is based on previously acquired representational schemata” (p. 205). Brent and Marjorie Wilson (1982) and Olivia Gude (2004) have argued that some copying, referred to respectively as “borrowing” and “appropriating” which both sound a lot better and more thoughtful than copying, can build confidence and provide children with fodder for their own creative inventions. My husband concurred in a recent commentary on Cora’s work: “I freaking love the confidence in her lines. Go for it Cora Lena!”  

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