Thoughts on Step-by-Step Drawing for Children

What’s your view on following step-by-step drawing instructions? B has been enjoying this for things like dragons and manga-type stuff, and I’m wondering what you think of it…

A friend asked me this question lately, and it hit home because I have been asking myself the same in relation to my younger daughter, age 5.

This younger daughter — let’s call her Sienna — has little first-hand experience with animals, but she loves them based on what she has seen on TV and in books. One of the downsides to living in an urban area is that there is not much difference for her between a horse and a dinosaur, even though she knows the fact that horses live on earth now and dinosaurs do not.

Recently, she told me that she wanted to draw a horse but did not know how. My first thought was of Sylvia Fein’s collection of her daughter’s horse drawings from age four to fifteen. Heidi drew horses over and over again, going through an experimentation and problem-solving process beautifully described by Fein in the video “Heidi’s Horse.” How, I wondered, could I get Sienna to go through the same process?

I remembered, however, that Heidi had started riding horses at age four. Not only did she have plenty of opportunity to observe them first-hand, she also had whole body experiences of moving with them, repeatedly. There was no way that I could give this to Sienna in that moment, and, significantly, Sienna’s desire to draw the horse was clearly coming from a different place.

Still stuck on the idea of drawing based on observation, I asked Sienna if she had a picture of a horse in any of her books. She brought out a “How to Draw Animals” book and said, “It’s in here, but it is one of the hard ones.” By this she meant that it was one of the lessons in a realistic style of drawing. To her, it looked too daunting to attempt.

At this point, I could see that she was coming close to giving up and moving on. Thinking about how I had just set up a makeshift light table for myself by sticking a bulb under a glass coffee table, I suggested that she use the setup to trace the horse. A light table! Something new! She traced the horse, and was quite pleased. I still, however, wanted her to get to the point where she was doing something on her own. I told her that now that her hand understood the shape of the horse, perhaps she could draw her own underneath. Here is the result:

img048

She explained to me that the horse on the bottom has a tail “going out” because he is running. Cool. Also, cool = attempt to show motion by drawing bent legs. We can also see, however, a major limitation of this method: Because she can only imagine how a horse looks while running, there has been little change in its neck position, and the leg positions do not match with those of an actual running horse.

Does this matter? Maybe not at this point. Without any prompting from me, Sienna noted, “But a running horse’s legs wouldn’t really look like that.” As long as she does not feel too discouraged, this feeling of dissatisfaction could lead to efforts to seek photographic images of horses running to better understand the appearance of the legs, and in the process to learn something about horse anatomy and behavior. Because she is five, and therefore not in full control of her access to such images (or to opportunities to observe horses first-hand), I would need to help her with this. A problem would come in, I think, only if I praised the first, traced image of the horse and this became a horse icon with which she was fully satisfied.

Now what happens when she wants to draw a dragon or a dinosaur, something that is not observable or recordable in our own time and space? One could take the route of taking her to a museum to see fossils and to read together about scientific hypotheses about dinosaur skin, behavior, etc. Another option is to allow guided drawing influence. Given that a trip to a museum is not always possible at the moment of inspiration, I am in favor of going online to sites like DragoArt.com to provide some options. Again, as long as the result of the “how to” lesson is not praised, and is clearly treated as a stepping stone by the parent, the child (in my experience, at least) will naturally incorporate some of the techniques into free-flowing independent work.

This freely drawn image shows influence from Sena's experiences with tracing pictures of dragons and following how-to guides for drawing dinosaurs. Still, none of what she has copied in the past looks like this. She has made artistic choices and the drawing was done with a fluency that suggests that expression has become easier because of a certain mastery of technique.

This freely drawn image shows influence from Sienna’s experiences with tracing pictures of dragons and following how-to guides for drawing dinosaurs. Still, none of what she has copied in the past looks like this. She has made artistic choices and the drawing was done with a fluency that suggests that expression has become easier because of a certain mastery of technique.

Postscript:

It was pointed out to me that I did not mention copying. Sienna does that, too, and I think about it in the same way as tracing and following a step-by-step guide. Example:

img051

In this case, she used the book cover as a visual aid, but she did not copy it precisely. She spoke proudly of "changing the arms" and "adding eyelashes."

In this case, she used the book cover as a visual aid, but she did not copy it precisely. She spoke proudly of “changing the arms” and “adding eyelashes.”

 

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