Predicting Artistic Brilliance: a study of the gifted child with Ellen Winner and Jennifer Drake
WHAT IS GIFTEDNESS? THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR GIFTED CHILDREN states:
Giftedness, intelligence, and talent are fluid concepts and may look different in different contexts and cultures. Even within schools you will find a range of beliefs about the word “gifted,” which has become a term with multiple meanings and much nuance. Gifted children may develop asynchronously: their minds are often ahead of their physical growth, and specific cognitive and social-emotional functions can develop unevenly. Some gifted children with exceptional aptitude may not demonstrate outstanding levels of achievement due to environmental circumstances such as limited opportunities to learn as a result of poverty, discrimination, or cultural barriers; due to physical or learning disabilities; or due to motivational or emotional problems. This dichotomy between potential for and demonstrated achievement has implications for schools as they design programs and services for gifted students.
Arkin Rai, a seven-year-old child living in Singapore, draws dinosaurs with exquisite realism. At age three his dinosaurs were simple and schematic. A year and some months later, however, he created a complex drawing in which dinosaurs were layered one on top of the other, an image that bears an uncanny resemblance to a drawing of horses and a bull by the adult Pablo Picasso.
In Arkin’s fanciful scene, the long, graceful neck of an Apatosaurus-like beast obscures the view of other dinosaurs. One of them is a Tyrannosaurus rex, drawn in profile with one leg mostly hidden behind another—an effect called occlusion, which most children discover at age eight or nine. In the ensuing months his drawings became shockingly realistic. He started using fluid contour lines to give figures shape. At age six he was depicting dinosaurs fighting and running, using various advanced methods to convey the distance between objects.
Most adults cannot draw anywhere near as realistically as Arkin can, and we are in awe of such technical virtuosity in a young child. Although we cannot know if Arkin will develop into a professional artist, his drawings and those of children like him are helping us study the emergence of artistic ability. By examining the artworks of gifted children and the early compositions of adult artists, we and other researchers have begun to predict who will display great visual creativity later in life. Our studies of young artists may also offer insight into the development of mastery more generally.
IN THE NEXT LRFA BLOG POST, DRS. WINNER AND DRAKE WILL DESCRIBE THE HISTORY OF RESEARCH ON THIS SUBJECT AND IDENTIFY CHARACTERISTICS THAT FORETELL ARTISTIC CREATIVITY.
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Ellen Winner is Professor and Chair of psychology at Boston College and Senior Research Associate at Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education. She directs the Arts and Mind Lab, which focuses on cognition in the arts in typical and gifted children as well as adults. She is the author of over 100 articles and three books—Invented Worlds: The Psychology of the Arts (1982), The Point of Words: Children’s Understanding of Metaphor and Irony (1988), and Gifted Children: Myths and Realities (1997) and co-author of Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education (2007) and Studio Thinking 2: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education (2013).
Jennifer Drake is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She received her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology with a minor in Statistics from Boston College. Her research program focuses on emotion regulation and the arts in children and adults. In a second line of research, she studies the cognitive and perceptual processes underlying graphic representation skill in artistically gifted children. Her research is funded by grants from the National Endowment of the Arts, the Imagination Institute supported by the John Templeton Foundation, and PSC-CUNY. Her research has been featured in Scientific American Mind, The Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, and on National Public Radio.