Do Young Children Really Think Their Drawings Look Like Their Subject?

My 3-year-old niece drew a picture of me, and to be frank, she seems to think I resemble a 4-legged daddy long legs. THe drawing is basically a circle with scribbles for my eyes, nose and month and four long appendages sticking out of it. Does my niece really think that looks like me? The same goes for her renditions of elephants, birds and dogs. In a few days (long enough that she doesn’t remember drawing it but short enough that here mind’s at the same state of development), if I were to show her the drawing, would she recognize who they’re of?

Someone else may be able to explain this better than I can, but I think you confusing “looks like” with “identifiable as”.

In other words, her goal in drawing the picture is merely to find some aspects of your appearance – but not necessarily all aspects of your appearance – and record them on paper. For her purposes, it will suffice if she can identify ways in which your appearance is different from that of a refrigerator (for example); it is not necessary for her picture to be so detailed that it will distinguish you from other people.

Therefore, even though a few days later she might not look at it and be able to say that it is a picture of you, it is still accurate to say that it does indeed look like you to a certain extent.

As a young child, I remember being very frustrated that my drawings didn’t look like real life. FWIW, I can’t draw much better as an adult.


I believe there have been quite a few studies done on what kids’ drawings can tell us about human development. But my WAG is that no, they aren’t going for total realism- they are just beginning to work out the whole idea of a symbol representing another thing. So they draw the parts that are most important in their minds (two arms, two legs…must be a human!)

I remember that I was thrilled when I discovered that diagonal lines could be used to represent perspective, and that I could show an aircraft with only one wing visible. I was stunned that it looked more real than the rigid approximations I had drawn earlier where both wings would be shown regardless of the viewer’s perspective.

Do you have a recent photo of yourself? Before we discuss your niece’s lack of artistic skills, we should rule out that she is some sorta savant and you do not appreciate your insectile resemblance.

I can remember a lot of the moments when I discovered new ways to draw things so that they resembled the real object more closely. Things like adding shoulders, or having chimneys that go up vertically instead of perpendicular to the angle of the roof, or getting a car to look right from front on.

Anyways, as I was a pretty good artist for a kid, I never understood the simplistic stylings of my less arty friends. They were just “wrong” to me, even at five years old.

I seem to recall knowing as a youngster that my drawings didn’t look “real” but I also knew I didn’t know how to make them look more real, so I just accepted it for what it was and didn’t give it much more thought than that.

Anyone else have the thing where you drew a landscape, and the sky ended before the horizon? I remember drawing like that - blue sky, green horizon, and a blank space between them. I remember the day when I realised you should draw them to meet.

So I interpret that as me wanting to represent things, but not having the technique to do so realistically.

I never drew much as a kid, precisly because my drawings never even faintly resembled what I was trying to draw, and I knew it.

3 year olds are generally only grasping the idea that drawings *should *look like something. A child’s early scribbles are more an experiment in what crayons (or pens or markers or paint) do when you push them around on paper. Then they start experimenting with how much of the paper they can cover, either in solid blocks or in streaks or in loops or…

At some point, an adult or older child says, “Oh! Cool picture, what is it?” and then suddenly the little one gets the glimmer that the lines she made might look like something, might represent something. According to my college professor’s research into imaginative play, the kid NEVER figures this out on her own. It’s always demonstrated or pointed out to them. A green squiggle might elicit, “Oh! Nice tree!” from Mom, when it was just a green scribble to the kid. But once this idea is planted, the kid tries it again, this time identifying it as a tree - but still after the fact. Slowly, the kid progresses to *planning *to draw a tree - that is, a green scribble. Only with increased time, exposure to the “rules” of drawing (like the horizon line mentioned above) and simple fine motor skill development, do the things the kid draws actually start to look like the things they intend them to be.

Do they do that, or do they rather imitate what other, possibly older children are drawing or just follow the advices of adults : “draw a circle, that will be the head, etc…”?

Please do this!
Fight ignorance by performing an empirically valid scientific experiment—and have fun at the same time :slight_smile:

Seriously…give it a go, and let us know the results. What could be easier?

And maybe try a second level of testing:
Take a pencil and trace a copy of her picture. But make one change (say, leave out one of the ears, or add some hair). Then show her both pictures in sequence. I’d love to know if she recognizes her own pic from a couple days earlier. And if so, then show her your new pic, and ask her what she thinks it is.

We’re all waiting anxiously to hear the results…

I think there is something universal about children’s drawings. When I would give my crayons to small children in Cameroon- few of whom had ever had any experience with drawing- they produced the same kinds of pictures you find in America.

So how did representational art ever get started? *Someone *must have figured it out from scratch at least once.

WhyNot is absolutely correct.

In the development of children’s drawing ability, the first thing they have to master is the concept that a tool like a pen or a crayon can make marks on a page. That’s enough to absorb them. Then, they have to master the eye-hand coordination to direct the marks. Back and forth scribbles are the first sign of this, and then circles. Circles are really big for a while.

The reason little kids draw very stereotyped, simplified, and almost diagrammatic representations is that the human brain works very much on the concept of symbols. Symbols convey the same idea with much less effort or detail. Ask an older child to draw a house, and what will you get? Front door in the middle, window on either side, pitched roof with a chimney, and smoke coming out of the chimney. That’s their cultural symbol for a house, even if they live in a Santa Fe adobe.

With very small children, they start with what is most important and what they have already mastered. The most important part of a person is their face, and by two years old, children have usually mastered drawing a circle. So, face it is. Then eyes. Then a mouth.

From there, limbs are added, usually sprouting from the head. The next step of development is the trunk, usually represented as an oval or a rectangle. Usually, the child puts the limbs on the trunk, but sometimes there’s a little lag, and the arms will still sprout from the head for a little while. It’s not that the child thinks people have arms growing out of their heads. It’s that they haven’t reconfigured their internal schematics to put trunk and arms in relation to one another.

After trunks, some kids start drawing belly buttons on their representations of people. Belly buttons are important, after all.

Usually next, it’s fingers, then maybe toes. Then hair. Finally, they add a neck. At this point, they’ve got the very basic anatomy down and start worrying problems of perspective, overlapping shapes, and differences between objects represented.

This is the age where a lot of kids stop, because they are at the end of their native ability. Most kids can’t get past the frustration of not being able to represent things realistically. They’ve known all along that there’s a vast gulf between the object they’re trying to represent and their drawing, but they were improving until now.

Some kids will seek out instruction, either from books, art classes, or tutors. Most of them, though, will quit, which is a terrible shame. So, yes, kids know that their drawings don’t look like what they’re trying to represent. A little guidance goes a long way.

An excellent resource for learning to move past symbolic drawings to realistic representations is Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

As WhyNot said, my 3-yr old tends to draw first and then afterwords decide what it is he’s drawn. If it’s colorful, it’s a rainbow. If it’s dark and messy, it’s a stormcloud. If it’s round, it’s probably a face. Lots of lines? A bug. And so forth.

It’s a mystery. No, seriously. Where imaginative play or representational art came from is a huge f—ing mystery, because as far as child development shows us, NO ONE comes up with this stuff without being shown first.

99% of the ability to draw is the ability to see.

Kids, and adults who “can’t draw,” tend to be object-oriented. Draw a head (circle). Add ears (semi-circles). Add two eyes (ovals, near the top of the face). A mouth (crescent). Then they get to the nose, and realize it’s not a simple geometric shape.

Both of my parents were artists, and I remember at a very early age, my mother took me to the art museum and pointed out some artists’ techniques. “See how the light is coming from this side, and it makes a shadow on that side of the nose.” “See how the eyes are near the center of the head, not near the top.” “See how the sky gets lighter and yellower near the horizon.” Then I’d go out into the real world, and notice how these principles work. So my mother taught me how to draw, without any actual drawing happening. I just had to learn how to see lines and shapes and colors, rather than objects.

A three-year-old is still learning how to see. If someone’s there to point certain things out to her, it’s amazing how quickly she’ll learn to draw. But if she’s never taught how to see, she may never learn.

Unfortunately, the niece is in another city (which is where all relatives should be), and I’m pretty sure the drawings are on their way to being recycled. I’ll plan ahead next time, though.