The artistically gifted child: A Different Way of Seeing
WE LIVE IN A WORLD IN WHICH MANY PARENTS OF DIVERSE CULTURAL BACKGROUNDS ARE FANATIC IN GIVING HTEIR CHILDREN EVERY OPPORTUNITY TO SUCCEED. THEY WANT TO RAISE CHILDREN WHO ARE SOCIALLY SKILLFUL, ACADEMICALLY ACCOMPLISHED AND SCHOLASTICALLY ADVANCED. THANKS TO GREAT ADVANCES NOT ONLY IN CHILD PSYCHOLOGY BUT ALSO IN NEUROSCIENCE, STUDIES INCREASINGLY PRESENT AND DEBATE PROPER WAYS TO ENCOURAGE CHILDREN TO REACH THESE GOALS. TWO NEW PUBLICATIONS, RECENTLY REVIEWED IN THE FINANCIAL TIMES, RESPECTIVELY QUESTION THE VALUE OF THE MICROMANAGING “TIGER MOTHER” APPROACH AND LOOK AT THE HISTORY OF SUCCESSFUL PARENTING IN AMERICA.
ELLEN WINNER, Ph.D., AS PROFESSOR AND CHAIR OF PSYCHOLOGY AT BOSTON COLLEGE AND SENIOR RESEARCH ASSOCIATE AT HARVARD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF EDUCATION, AND AS DIRECTOR OF THE ARTS AND MIND LAB, HAS CONTRIBUTED HER EXTENSIVE RESEARCH AND FINDINGS ON COGNITION IN THE ARTS IN TYPICAL AND GIFTED CHILDREN AS WELL AS ADULTS FOR OVER TWO DECADES.
A RECENT CONTRIBUTION TO SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, WITH CO-AUTHOR, JENNIFER DRAKE, Ph.D., PREDICTING ARTISTIC BRILLIANCE, STUDIES THE ARTISTICALLY PRECOCIOUS CHILD. THE LRFA BLOG IS PLEASED TO CONTINUE ITS POST OF THIS ILLUMINATING ARTICLE.
Precocious realists begin to draw representationally by age two, at least one year ahead of most children. The artworks of typically developing youngsters are abstractions: an apple is captured with a slash, a human body with a circle, a horse’s body with a square. Precocious realists produce works that are much more optically convincing.
These children discover on their own how to create the illusion of 3-D using depth cues—foreshortening, occlusion, size diminution, shading to convey form and, the most difficult technique of all, linear perspective—years before most of their peers. In a comparison of typical and precocious artists published in 1995, psychologist Constance Milbrath, now at the University of British Columbia, observed that half of the children in the precocious group used foreshortening, in which lines not parallel to the picture plane are drawn shorter, in their artworks by ages seven and eight. Typically developing children reached comparable levels only by ages 13 and 14.
The ability to draw realistically at an early age marks the childhoods of many recognized artists. Artist and curator Ayala Gordon observed naturalism in the childhood compositions of 31 Israeli artists. Many famous artists’ early drawings have been singled out for their advanced realism, too, including Picasso, John Everett Millais, Edwin Henry Landseer, John Singer Sargent, Paul Klee and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Picasso recalled one of his first drawings in this way: “I was perhaps six…. In my father’s house there was a statue of Hercules with his club in the corridor, and I drew Hercules. But it wasn’t a child’s drawing. It was a real drawing, representing Hercules with his club.”
HE DESIRE TO WORK SO HARD AT SOMETHING COMES FROM WITHIN.
A CHILD’S INTEREST AND DRIVE CANNOT BE SEPARATED FROM THE TALENT.
Different Way of Seeing
We set out to discover what cognitive differences might give these children their edge. Their skill is not a matter of intelligence. As we reported in 2010, we have observed no relation between realistic drawing ability and IQ. This finding is bolstered by the cases of autistic “savants” with low IQs, such as Nadia, a child discovered at age six who demonstrated phenomenal artistic prowess despite severe learning disabilities, and Stephen Wiltshire, a man with autism who could draw elaborate cityscapes from memory after only a brief exposure to a scene.
What we have found instead is that children who draw realistically at an above-average level differ in their perceptual abilities. They have strong observational skills and seem to be able to just see the shapes of things, including the distortions that occur as objects recede into depth and diminish in size. A typical child might see a road as having parallel sides because she knows that a road’s edges are parallel, whereas an artistically gifted child overrides her knowledge about the road and sees its sides converging in the distance.
Early artistic aptitude is also strongly associated with the ability to focus on the parts of an object or scene rather than on the whole. To examine this idea, we used a visual and motor skills test called the Block Design Task. Children were asked to arrange red and white blocks to match a given pattern. We gave this task once in traditional format and once with the pattern segmented to reveal where the block boundaries should be. All participants did well on the segmented version. Children with realistic drawing ability, however, performed much better than other kids on the unsegmented version, presumably because they could mentally divide a complex form into its parts with ease.
They also performed better on a task in which they were asked to detect small shapes hidden within figures, a skill that requires analyzing a form by its elements. We hypothesize that a focus on component parts characterizes the process by which realistic artists draw. They may create a complex drawing not by first sketching the global outline but by building up their drawings part by part. Thus, they may both process and generate a scene with a more local focus than do nonartists.
This local-processing bias is also seen in children with autism. In 1993, for example, psychologists Amitta Shah, now a consultant, and Uta Frith of University College London found that autistic children performed equally well on both versions of the Block Design Task. Although a local-processing bias is commonly thought of as a characteristic of autism, our work has found that this proclivity is predicted not by the presence or absence of autism but only by the ability to draw realistically.
IN OUR NEXT LRFA BLOG, THE AUTHORS EXPLORE THE AREA OF NON-REPRESENTIONAL ART. AS ABSTRACTION IS USUALLY CONSIDERED MORE SOPHISTICATED AND ASSOCIATED WITH CREATIVITY IN ADULT ARTISTS, THESE ARTISTICALLY PRECOCIOUS “COLORISTS’ SHOW A HIGHLY DEVELOPED SENSE OF FORM AND COMPOSITION.
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