Thinking Drawings

My niece and nephew were here last month and their representational drawing skills blew my mind. I have always been a sucker for the observational drawings of children. These are serious works of art, and thinking. Citing Rudolph Arnheim, Winner (1993) noted that children’s drawings “are not just clumsy attempts to draw what they see, but are rather attempts to show the relevant structural features of what they are trying to draw” (p. 32).

This was clearly evident to me in Sebastian and Samantha’s drawings.

Seb_airplane copy

Sebastian (5 1/2 years old): After the flight to my house during which he got to go into the cockpit of the plane. I love the x-ray view and jet engine attached to the lower wing.

sam_backyard copySamantha(7 years old) made this drawing after playing in the backyard with the dog and chickens. My favorite parts are the pulley she included on the left side of the playset and the two-person swing which she drew from a birdseye view, inserted into a human perspective drawing. She was thinking through the structure of the swing – the opposing sets of handlebars with a seat in between – and found a way to document it.

Sebastian made a number of drawings like this over the course of thsi visit. He has been increasing his interest in drawing over the past year. His ability to represent what he sees on paper has advanced at a rapid speed that has been interesting and amazing for me to watch, as his doting aunt and as an art educator.

It’s also been hard at times. For, as I’ve written before, Cora (age 5) has not displayed consistent interest in drawing. Coloring yes. Drawing not as much, though she has been gaining momentum lately. (See “First I Yelled, Then I Kvelled.”)

She made these drawings this week. I guess there was some hand-turkey and stuff happening in her classroom and she took the idea and rolled with it to make a book full of portraits of our chickens. She started with the traditional outline of her hand* but worked carefully to depict Runt’s black and white striping, red comb and waddle and R2D2’s scalloped feathers. I was impressed with how she appropriated the hand-bird format to suit her own needs for representation.

I’m looking forward to continuing to observe and document all the kids’ drawing development. We’ve started a family picture pen pal club – sending drawings back and forth. Will let you know how it goes.

Are your kids making “thinking drawings?” Of what? I’d love to see them!

* I wrote about Cora’s first hand-turkey three years ago. Check out: “When It’s Your Kid’s Hand Turkey, Things Get Complicated.”

Winner, E. (1993). “Exceptional Artistic Development: The Role of Visual Thinking.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 27(4), p. 31-44.


Photo of the Day: First I yelled, then I kvelled

 Cora found a stain on the coffee table today and turned it into a lion. With red Sharpie.

Naturally I was livid. What on earth was she thinking drawing on the furniture? With a marker she knows she isn’t allowed to use? But once I got a good look at what she did I could’t help but be proud. She found a mark and turned it into something entirely new. Truly A+ work.

Still Drawing Outside the Lines, But Getting Clearer


“That’s daddy, me, and mommy” (from left)

I’ve been following Cora’s mark-making development for almost five years now, nearly three on this blog. Like any academic art educator parent, I muse over pretty much any mark she makes with some intention; from her first experiments with blackberry juice at her highchair and water drenched paintbrushes on the driveway to magic marker tatoos and family portraits. But despite my affection for alternative forms of artmaking, those that stray outside the lines, I’m still a sucker for representational drawing. (Read this post from last year from more this.) I’m not talking about realism, but drawings that demonstrate careful observation and reflection of objects and experiences in our world.

So it was with great amazement that I watched, and listened, to Cora complete this (5″ x 8″) drawing the other morning.

IMG_20150613_0001“This is what I want for a snack, Mommy,” she declared as she sat on the floor busily drawing. “A carrot!”

“Of course you can have a carrot,” I told her. “But first, can you tell me about the one you are drawing?”

Cora narrated her drawing for me in great detail. The horizontal line was the ground and the little oval under it towards the center of the page was the carrot. She was actively drawing its leaves and then moved on to the squiggly line to its right which is a shark trying to steal the carrot. I’m not sure about the other squiggles (maybe just the shark’s movement), but the dots are definitely raindrops.

I was happy to be there to capture the moment and document it here. I was happy to know that our work at Over the Fence Urban Farm has helped her learn that carrots come from the ground, not the grocery store. I wish more people could appreciate the process of drawing and not be so fixated on the product. This ought to be the case for folks drawing at any age or stage of life. Drawing is a way of thinking, not just a form of making.

This summer, I promised myself I would write a one-page information sheet this summer for the parents who volunteer in Cora’s cooperative pre-school about documentation and children’s learning, an idea that comes from the Reggio Emila approach to early childhood education. Sometimes I take for granted my professional knowledge of learning and development and assume other parents have this knowledge and training as well. But they don’t, and while I LOVE our school, I think it could do more to develop our parents as reflexive volunteers in the classroom, and teacher researchers in their own homes. This will be my contribution.Teaching parents about documentation, which the teacher’s assistant does a fair amount of, will help them better understand and appreciate Ms. N’s work, and enable them to help her when they are in the room.

Cora’s carrot drawing drawing was just the inspiration I needed to get off my duff and get started. Without my documentation of her narration, the drawing would just look like a series of squiggles and dots. It’s a perfect example of how we can all make learning, and creativity, visible with just a few lines of annotation.

Here’s one more from dinner last night. (Never go to a restaurant with kids and without paper and something to draw with, if only a ballpoint pen, which just happens to be one of my favorite media for drawing.)


“This is a sting turtle. Their bodies are completely red because they are made of hot lava.”


Cats with Whiskers

Crafty Cora hasn’t shown much interest in drawing for a while. Last week she pulled out some markers for a project – I can’t remember what though it probably involved drawing on one of her toys, or the dog, to embellish a game she was playing or a story she was telling herself. While the colors were out I asked if she would draw with me. She told me to draw a cat for her and I told her I thought she could do it herself. “Just try,” I coaxed. Then I gave her some simple directions and asked a few questions to help her get going.


(From left) Kitty cat and lion.

“First, draw a head.” She drew a circle. “Good start!” I encouraged.

“What else does it need?” I asked. She drew eyes. Detailed eyes, not just circles or dots!

“How about some ears?” The little bumps on top.

“Now a nose. And a mouth,” she told me.

“Anything else?” I asked. “How about some whiskers?”

When she was finished, big brother George asked her to draw him a lion. She started with the zigzag shape for its head. I was stunned! With no prompting, she used her mental image of a lion to guide her. This lion is furry. This lion is fierce.

There are few things I love more in this world than the authentic drawings of young children representing the things they see in this world. I first became interested in this phenomenon while I was at Pratt Institute where I was assigned Nancy Smith’s (1997) Observation Drawing with Children. This book is great for teachers and parents interested in how they can support their children’s drawing with an eye toward real world representation. Note, this is not the same as the professional genre known as Realism. This is is about looking carefully. It about making marks to represent what you see, as best as you can, not like a camera would. In such drawing we can see thinking.

I was so impressed with what Cora was able to draw in response to just a few simple prompts. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

[Companion reading recommendation: Last year I wrote about Rosa drawing big cats. The piece addressed older children and the controversial issue of copying. You can read that post here.]


Straddling the Lines

I thrive in liminal spaces. Professionally, I am operating on the edges of my field. Personally, I often find myself straddling borders. I named this blog to honor these aspects of my experience.

The name was also intended to make reference to the artwork of children, my children in particular. As a teacher and a parent, I respect and appreciate young children’s spontaneous creative activities. Cora was just scribbling when I started this blog. Now she’s discovering the lines. I just hope that she never lets them imprison her.

With Animated Wishes

A few weeks ago I wrote about my neighbor June and her fascination with The Art of Frozen.  Then, a few days later I received this email:


The message came as validation that all this blogging has been worthwhile. I immediately Googled Charles Solomon. Man does this guy have a resume. Imagining him in his office looking at and thinking about June’s drawings brought me to tears.

It took about a week for the bookplate to arrive and while I’m usually terrible about keeping secrets, I kept this one. Sort of. I posted about it on Facebook, but June’s parents aren’t active there so I knew they wouldn’t see it. Once the plate arrived in the mail, I told June’s mom I had a surprise to share. Today I took Cora over for a playdate with June’s little sister with the bookplate in hand.

June was in bed recovering from her first sleepover at a friend’s house so I showed it to her mom. She was as amazed as I was by the story of a publicist finding my blog and sharing it with the author. She suggested that Mr. Solomon was probably like June when he was a kid – obsessed with the art of the animated films he saw – and her work may have reminded him of his younger self. I like that idea.

When I got back to pick up Cora, June was awake and showed me her copy of The Art of Frozen with the bookplate stuck to the inside cover. I hope she has that book for a long, long time and that she never forgets the special message it holds for her.

photo 2

Copy Cat


As I was helping Rosa with her monthly book report project the other night, I was reminded of debates surfacing in my Art Education in Alternative Sites course this spring.

In the first lesson, students explore the landscape of art education outside of schools.  They map organizations in their own communities, they tour programs throughout the world online (like The Laundromat Project, ArtWorks, and InnerCity Arts), and they read scholarly articles on a range of issues related to art education-at-large.  Hot button ideas emerge on the discussion boards, varying from term-to-term based on the interests and perspectives of the students.  It’s my job to draw out those common interests, and points of dispute, for further examination.

This time around,  we have been circling the related issues of franchised art education programs (like Abrakadoodle) and the value of follow-along activities.  While I’m intellectually put off by the idea of any art program that has students do the same thing as the person sitting next to them, I can’t deny the success Bob Ross had in getting people painting.  As my students noted, the teacher can make or break this type of program.  Bob was charismatic.  He drew people in.  As I previously wrote, Cora and I have been similarly impressed with our Music Together teacher.  Could I possibly have a similarly engaging experience at the local Kidzart?  I’m trying to approach this idea with an open-mind for a moment, even while I am picturing Andy Singer‘s cartoon “BIRTH to DEATH in a Box” and hearing Malvina Reynolds’s “Little Boxes” in my mind..

(No Exit) Birth to Death in a Box

Used by permission of the artist.

The issue of “do-what-I-do” instruction is another aspect of ongoing debate, and here again my views have been changing based on recent life lessons.  In most scholarly circles of visual art education, copying from a master has long been dismissed as denying students opportunities to express their own ideas and emotions through their artmaking.*  I have personally winced walking down school hallways plastered with vases of sunflowers painted like Vincent Van Gogh.  But, as Duncum (1988) noted, there are a variety of positions on copying in art education, and I’ve come to recognize that I’m not quite as far to the anti-copying side of the spectrum as I thought I would be.  I recall, as a child I once followed step-by-step instructions from a book to make a charcoal drawing of a farm covered in snow. I was so pleased to be utilizing drawing techniques like smudging and erasing out highlights to make the scene look realistic.  And, as recently as last month, I dutifully followed sewing tutorials I found online to create holiday gifts.  So what if I was just copying?  I had enjoyed the process of creating things and sharing them with others.

Which all brings me back to Tuesday night, with about 14.75 hours until the book report was due.  These projects have been a nice way for Rosa and I to bond.  Each time they had some visual component that has given us a chance to work together to talk through ideas and imagery, to uncover ways to execute or revise ideas, and to get out the craft supplies -something we used to do together a lot when she was younger but have done less and less as her free time gets swallowed up by electronics and mine by her little sister.

So, there we were preparing to make a box adorned with clues about Scat by Carl Hiassen, the mystery Rosa selected to read.  On the lid, she had to show a scene from the book.  I selfishly suggested that if I were the teacher, I’d rather see her draw her own version of the scene than seeing an image from the computer she had cut and paste.  She conceded and started sketching.  But, she grew frustrated when the cougars she was drawing all looked like housecats.

We pulled up an image of a cougar on my computer and I directed her to look carefully at the shape of the animal’s head, muzzle, and ears to get started.  She gave it a shot but seemed frustrated so I started drawing beside her, telling her what I saw and what I was drawing as I went along.  I was impressed by her drawing, until she told me she made it by copying my drawing, not by looking at the photo on the screen and translating that into her own lines.  I felt like my lesson had gone over her head, like she’d taken the easy way out.  But, I quickly realized that none of that mattered at that moment, because we both agreed that her last drawings were so much improved from her first.  She was proud of what she’d accomplished, and I was too.

* (One exception that comes to mind was Blandy and Congdon’s presentation on their experiences in a Ross-style painting class at NAEA years ago.)

Duncum, P (1988).  To Copy or Not the Copy.  Studies in Art Education, 29(4) p. 203-210.

Sometimes a Game, Is More than Just a Game

Tonight, the house is full of young people.  My husband says he likes it that way.  Of course, I’m usually the one at home managing the crowd.  Some days I am happy to let them do whatever they please, which usually involves various screens.  Other days, I am more proactive about directing the action towards activities of an analog nature.  I guess you might say I was feeling ambitious today.

The day had been a gift from the weather gods – low 50s with sunshine in mid-November.  In the later afternoon, I kicked all the kids out to enjoy the final hours of light.  Lately they are more likely to spy on one another than play together, but by the time I got down the block to the playground with the wee one, the older kids and their friends were deep into some game involving a lot of running and a ball wildly hurling about.  While the activity was punctuated by my kids loudly accusing one another of breaking the rules, for the most part, everyone was getting along, moving their bodies, and enjoying the time outdoors.

Then it was back to the house with cries of, “What’s for dinner?” Followed by, “When will dinner be ready?”  We have a new drawing game in the house, so suggested the kids teach their friends how to play and give it a go while they were waiting.  While I heard more sibling feuding during the setup, once the game was underway, everyone was having a good time and I was able to step back and find a moment to finish cooking and reflect on what was going on at our kitchen table.

Sketch It! is a lot like Pictionary in that it challenges players to quickly draw objects and then other players then have to guess what was drawn.  It’s different in that you form teams in each round, rather than maintaining a single team for the entire game.  This perpetuates an alone-together gaming mentality–it’s every person for themself, but each person’s success is based on the actions of others.  Seems like an apt metaphor for life.

One thing I found really interesting about this activity from an art education standpoint was the simple fact that all the kids (11-13 years old) were drawing.   This is a time, the literature tells us, when many children give up drawing for fear that they aren’t good enough at it to bother.  As a result, I felt myself cringe a little when I heard them gang up on someone whose image wasn’t clear enough to convey the prompt.  However, even in this moments of relatively harsh criticism, they seemed to be enjoying  the challenge.  Best of all, they were having a good time together, proving to me, and to themselves, that they can get along, when they want to.