4. Naming and Representation

This is an article in the series “Drawing as it develops“, which includes a study of my daughter Amie’s drawings from 16 months onwards (this is the fourth article in that sequence), as well as Some Theory, Tips for teaching drawing to a very young child, and a growing bibliography.

  • Amie at 20 months: Colors

On 26 April, when she was 20 months old, Amie was practicing her circles (she could now stop the circular motion at 2 overlapping, sometimes even 1 circle) and Ms. In the following drawing, note especially series of Ms in black in the upper left hand corner (26 April 2007, right-handed):

Amie’s drawing of 26 April 2007

We had also started paying attention to colors and learning their names. Orange was the first one she could confidently name, then white (because it “can’t work” on white paper). Her drawings became more colorful simpy because I encouraged her to use more colors – the stage where she would be motivated by herself to use colors would soon follow.

  •  True naming: representation

On 28 April we sat down to do some drawing. She drew some flat, elongated circles, then  set the crayon at the bottom of the page and, very delibrately, slowly, drew a line upwards. At the same time she stated:

“It’s an airplane!”

Judge for yourself:

Amie’s first “airplane” drawing of 18 april 2007

It had been a while since she had discovered airplanes, especially the ones that leave jet streams high up in the sky. She is a master at pointing them out and describing them, usually along the lines of “Airplane [pronounced as /airpane/]! It’s an airplane. High up in the sky. Far away. Can’t reach. Too far away”.

She looked at the drawing and said it again: “It’s an airplane.” And then drew a couple more, naming them, with some surprise (at the fact that she could repeat it?).

  • Some theory

Lowenfeld, in his book Creative and Mental Growth (1947?), writes about the two-year-old’s drawings:

First disordered scribbles are simply records of enjoyable kinesthetic activity, not attempts at portraying the visual world. After six months of scribbling, marks are more orderly as children become more engrossed. Soon they begin to name scribbles, an important milestone in development.

While Betty Edwards writes:

After weeks of scribbling, children make the discovery of art: a drawn symbol can stand for a real thing in the environment. Circular form becomes a universal symbol for almost anything. Later symbols become more complex, reflecting child’s observations on the world around him.

I don’t find these particularly helpful, but in any case, there it was: she had named this one particular form she was drawing in the full sense of the word. That is, she set out/intended to draw/represent this thing; drew i; then named it. There was no longer anything ad hoc or arbitrary about it.

  • Representing what?

I have a first complicating reservation about this (the second one comes at the end of the article).

What was extra arresting about what was happening at first was her slow movement up the page, and her naming it while she was drawing. It was like the drawing movement represented the airplane movement across the sky.

When she looked back at the (static) result on the page, she called it an airplane again. But that was only her second reaction.

In any case, it was very exciting. And I happened to videotape this particular session – a serendipitous moment (since usually, once you get the camera out, everything stops happening!).

  • Representational delight

She made two more drawings of airplanes that day. The new representational aspect of drawing clearly made her more interested and willing to spend more time on a drawing, as well as on more than one drawing at a time. Sometimes she decided she wanted a new page, sometimes I suggested it and she agreed.

About the next one she observed: “It’s many airplanes” (28 April 2007, the 2 clear M’s are mine):

Amie’s “It’s many airplanes” drawing of 28 April 2007

She also started to take some liberties with the form. She changed the orientation of the line, drawing it from left to right or right to left, instead of bottom-up. A longer line she tended to call a “big airplane”. Sometimes she moved the pen or crayon across the page and back again, saying “zoooom!” or “whoop!”. The movement was still very much a part of the experience.

In the next drawing, she mixed it up a bit. She identified “airplanes” (the lines), but also a “rainbow” (the pink arc in the middle) and “Muh”s (all those colorful graphs). As the Ms and the rainbow were the forms she had identified earlier, I am not so sure whether she was also naming these in the strong sense of the word, or simply repeating her ad hoc naming from before.

Amie’s “many ariplanes” drawing of 28 April 2007

  • Reverting (?): a fluke?

The next day, I prompted her to sit down first thing in the morning to draw. I didn’t mention airplanes, but she immediately began to draw her deliberate, slow lines upwards again (29 April 2007, right-handed):

Amie’s airplanes drawing of 29 April 2007

She even slowed down each time she reached the top of the paper, telling herself “be careful” (she is very aware and respectful of the injunction to draw only on the paper, not on the table), and “oops” when she failed to stop on time.

But after that, as the airplane-lines became a stock item in her drawings (besides Ms and rainbows, and good old “happy”), they became wilder, less deliberate. Often they took on the old arbitrariness: she would draw a line, not intending it to be an airplane, and just named it one because it looked like one.

I think the novelty of representation wore off. Or perhaps it had just been a fluke discovery, and not a timely one. The older elements – pleasure in the movement of her arm, ad hoc naming – slowly took over again. it was a kind of reversion. But she was also becoming interested in something else: colors! Read on: Explosion of Color (Amie at 20-21 months).

  •  About the child’s observations while drawing

It is important to take note of, to assess the relevance of, and to note down (on the back of the page or separately) anything that the child says while drawing. Obviously, if I hadn’t taken seriously Amie’s statement that the line she was putting down was an airplane, I would have missed an important step in the development of her drawing.

Elizabeth and Andrew Coates have written an article about this, called “Young Children Talking and Drawing”,  in the International Journal of Early Years Education (Vol.14, no.3, October 2006, pp,221 – 241). Here is part of the abstract of that article (bold mine):

Research related to how young children’s drawings change and develop is well documented and an extensive literature on this area can be traced back to the nineteenth century. Most of this literature, however, focuses on developmental aspects and largely fails to explore what would seem to be an essential ingredient in each drawing’s production – children’s simultaneous utterances which might potentially inform the nature and content of the work and help elucidate their intentions and processes of thinking. In this respect, Kress (1997) suggests that at times it seems as though it is only the end product being interpreted, whilst utterances which could help understanding are ignored; and Jameson (1968) opines that what children want to do is to talk to themselves in pictures, thereby weaving stories around the marks being made as a parallel to active fantasy play. These may or may not be true, but although the end products are something tangible which can be viewed by other than those present, what they cannot communicate is the social interaction, problem solving, conceptual and creative thinking, predicting, debate and introspection which may well be a fundamental attendant of the process of drawing.

For the next stage of Amie’s drawing, read here.

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