The Art of Childhood: Predicting Artistic Brilliance
IN JUNE 2006, THE PHILLIPS COLLECTION IN WASHINGTON OPENED AN EXHIBITION, WHEN WE WERE YOUNG: NEW PERSPECTIVE ON THE ART OF THE CHILD. CURATED BY JONATHAN FINEBERG, A SCHOLAR OF MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY ART, THE EXHIBITION POSED THE QUESTION OF WHETHER THE DRAWINGS OF A GIFTED CHILD PREDICT FUTURE GENIUS. TO THIS END, WORKS BY PREEMINENT ARTISTIC MASTERS SUCH AS KLEE, PICASSO AND MIRO WERE JUXTAPOSED WITH MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY CHILDREN’S DRAWINGS.
“I wanted people to ask themselves to what extent the criteria they use to look at children’s drawings is the imposition of an adult eye,” said Jonathan Fineberg. “It’s not just that Picasso could render well, because you could teach anybody to do that.”
PREDICTING ARTISTIC BRILLIANCE, A CONTRIBUTION BY DRS. ELLEN WINNER AND JENNIFER DRAKE TO SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MIND, AND THANKS TO THE AUTHORS’ GENEROSITY, POSTED IN THE LRFA BLOG, OFFERS EXTENSIVE RESEARCH AND DOCUMENTATION ON THIS SUBJECT OF CONTINUING INTEREST BY BOTH PSYCHOLOGISTS AND ART CONNOISSEURS. THIS STUDY NOT ONLY DELINEATES THE CHARACTERISTICS OF THOSE WHO ARE ARTISTICALLY PRECOCIOUS AS CHILDREN BUT OFFERS BENCHMARKS TO DETERMINE THEIR CREATIVE TALENT AS ADULTS.
A Rage to Master
Arrian draws constantly and compulsively. So do the precocious realists. This kind of rage to master cannot be taught, cajoled or forced. The children we study often have to be dragged away from their preferred activities to eat, sleep, go to school or be sociable. The desire to work so hard comes from within, and it almost always occurs when a child can achieve at high levels with relative ease. The interest and drive cannot be separated from the talent.
Most gifted child artists do not become artists as adults, of course. Many individuals have displayed skill in their early work as great as that of Picasso, yet only one person became Picasso. The age at which extreme realism emerges is also not predictive: Klee’s drawings at age six were less realistic than those of some of the children whose work is reprinted in this article, yet he is among the greats.
Gifted individuals may choose not to pursue art for many reasons, but one explanation might have to do with the child’s underlying motivation. Some precocious realists seem more interested in understanding nature—drawing is their tool. Rocco Roth and Joel Gibb exemplify this mindset. Both boys pore over nature encyclopedias and field guides. Rocco, currently six years old, is passionate about insects, seeds, leaves and vegetables. He collects specimens and then draws and labels every one. Joel, who is 12 years old, has memorized the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America and makes meticulous copies of these drawings. These children may eventually become scientists rather than artists.
Beyond a realistic drawing skill, we have identified five other commonalities that are likely to be predictive of becoming an artist. The child’s drawingshave an interesting, arresting composition and decorative, aesthetic features or expressive power. The child shows a hunger to look at art, whether in museums or books, and hence manifests a deep interest in art. The young artist also has enormous drive—a rage to master. Finally, and perhaps most important, the child has a desire not just to make excellent art but to be original and innovative.
We can even speculate that realistic drawing skill might not be necessary. Because so few nonrealistic child prodigies have been identified, we do not yet know the answer to this question. Children who paint abstractly may be more unconventional and playful. They may more readily think out of the box and are thus perhaps more likely than the realists to think like true artists.
As art historian Ernst Gombrich wrote in Art and Illusion, a classic text on the history of art from a psychological perspective, realism is only one thin slice of the art that humans have produced over the centuries. There may be more than one route to a career in art—one that begins with a striving toward realism and another that emerges from a nonrepresentational exploration of form and color. As studies of children gifted not only in art but also in math, science, languages, chess and athletics have shown, what really predicts high achievement is the lucky combination of an ease of learning, an obsessive focus and a deep motivation to pursue an activity.
SO MANY THANKS TO DRS. ELLEN WINNER AND JENNIFER DRAKE FOR THEIR SUPPORT OF THE LRFA BLOG.
THROUGHOUT THE YEAR, NICHOLAS CHRISTOPHER, FOUNDER AND PRINCIPAL OF TURON TRAVEL, THE ART WORLD’S GO-TO TRAVEL AGENCY, WILL BE CONTRIBUTING TO THE LRFA BLOG, POSTING TIPS TO ART FAIR TRAVELERS TO ENRICH THEIR STAY.OUR NEXT LRFA BLOG FEATURE CHICAGO IN ANTICIPATION OF EXPO CHICAGO, SEPTEMBER 22-25, AT CHICAGO’S NAVY PIER.
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◆ Normal and Anomalous Representational Drawing Ability in Children. Lorna Selfe. Academic Press, 1983.
◆ Eytan: The Early Development of a Gifted Child Artist. Claire Golomb in Creativity Research Journal, Vol. 5, No. 3, pages 265–279; 1992.
◆ Gifted Children: Myths and Realities. Ellen Winner. Basic Books, 1996.
◆ “Autistic” Local Processing Bias Also Found in Children Gifted in Realistic Drawing. Jennifer E. Drake et al. in Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Vol. 40, No. 6, pages 762–773; June 2010.
◆ Children Gifted in Drawing: The Incidence of Precocious Realism. Jennifer E. Drake and Ellen Winner in Gifted Education International. Published online May 18, 2012.
◆ Watch Arrian, a precocious nonrepresentational artist, draw in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hyJB0shXoD0&feature=feedu