Drawing Is Basic

A response to “What Elementary Generalist Teachers Need To Know to Teach Art Well”  (November, 1999)

by Jean Morman Unsworth

This essay is republished here with permission from the author and the National Art Education Association.  This article first appeared in Art Education: The Journal of the National Art Education Association. Volume 54, No. 6, November, 2001, pages 6 to 11.
The Art Department at Goshen College is pleased to make this commentary accessible to teachers, parents, and others who care deeply about the healthy development of children.


T he role of the classroom generalist teacher in the teaching of art runs the gamut of no role at all to the total responsibility in schools which lack art specialists.  Paul Duncum took on the problem in his November, 1999 article in Art Education.  This response questions several points made in the article.

1. Legitimizing copying and placing children so that copying is inevitable (Duncum , p. 35)

This implies that there is a norm to which all children's drawing must conform.  It also places in the teacher's power the determination of the “haves” and the “have nots” among a class of students.  Stigmatizing individual children in this way results in lifelong convictions that they cannot draw.
Art is not a product arrived at through following directions, copying, or conforming to a given model.  Art is not just skill.   It is the process of thinking, imagining, risking, seeing connections, inventing, expressing in unique visual form.
Drawing is as basic and essential a mode of expression as is language and writing.  Everyone can draw.  And, just as we all learn the same form of cursive writing but develop an individuality that becomes our identification, so our drawing

develops as individually as our writing.  The task of a teacher is not to tell the student what it should look like; rather, the teacher's  role is to lead the student to look.   There is no absolute standard of good drawing.
Each artist has his/her individual style.  So too, every child will see and record individually. To put a standard before a class and require students to aim to copy it is very destructive. Drawing is first seeing, perception. Duncum states: Very young children are unlikely to take notice of the subject while drawing and they have difficulty with proportions. (Duncum, p. 35)  Creating a climate of quiet concentration, giving the children confidence that they can draw, and leading them to “let their eyes do the drawing” results in sensitive, perceptive drawings.  Moreover, this kind of perceptual training is a direct preparation for reading.

Illustration 1. "Truck" Christian Aquino,
Pre-K, St. Matthias School, Chicago, IL
This Pre-K student drew a toy truck that was placed on his table.  He was asked to look at it and let his eyes crawl along every edge.
This drawing of a tree was done outside on the school grounds by a second grade student.  She drew not only the tree, but details of background objects as well.
"Tree." by Richard Guzman, Grade 2,  St. Gertrude School, Chicago,  IL
Perception can also be nurtured by stimulating the memory.  These two drawings of her home by a fourth grade student were done, first from memory at school (left) and then looking at the house (right).  Both drawings are remarkable for their detail.  The memory drawing has a charm that is somewhat lost in the search for details of the second drawing.

"My Home" from memory (left) and then from observation by Ginny Robinson, Grade 4,
Gates Elementary School,  Chesterfield, VA.
2. If teachers make images for children, they should, following the principle of  “plus one phenomena,” attempt to make images in only a  slightly more sophisticated way than the children. (Duncum, p. 35)
Teachers should never draw for the students.  No matter how good or bad the teacher's drawing is,  the students will think that they must copy, resulting in feelings of inadequacy and failure.  To intentionally draw “to their level” is an insult to the children.  No two draw alike, so how can such a standard be determined? Comparing the process of art to norms of acquisition of knowledge in a factual learning environment, Viktor Lowenfeld points out that in factual learning “the students’ responses are judged as growth, although they may be primarily mimicking the teacher's own values.” (Lowenfeld and Brittain, 1987, p. 34)   It is possible for art to fall into the same trap.  And the Wilson scenario sets the stage.

3. Contrary to perceptual strategy, this strategy (the Wilson’s) is based upon children learning to make pictures from studying other pictures, not from life. (Duncum)

This approach sees drawing as a technique to be mastered, not as a natural means of expression.  And the technique would seem  to be found in the “tricks of the trade” employed by adult artists.
Certainly, children should see, enjoy, and study the work of artists through the ages.  Looking at drawings by Rembrandt and Matisse, for example, and comparing their styles, is a stimulating and broadening experience.  It is also important, however, when looking at the drawings of great artists, to see that often they are “thinking with their pencil”.
Seeing the many “wrong” lines in a Matisse or a Delacroix drawing, lines they drew and then rethought and drew again, is an important  way to encourage students to risk drawing and not to be inhibited by fear of “messing up.”
Further, drawing from actual objects or posed models is the way that the adult artists themselves draw.  Why should children not enjoy this direct perception of nature and life?   Drawing is a direct path to awareness and perception of the marvels of the world around us.  For example, placing a group of middle grade students around a model so they see all views and then comparing their drawings is a stimulating learning experience.

These drawings of a model were done by fifth grade students. Whetting the child's interest in discovering form all around him/her and wanting to record its beauty is one of the best “gifts” teachers can give to their students.  If drawing must be done as a copy of anther's observation, there is no motivation to really  look at the world around one.
Drawings from a model by fifth graders Adele Tobin, Meggie Cramer, Elly Knepper, and Kevin McCarthy, St. Athanasius School, Evanston, Illinois

Goals in art education have varied with the time, corresponding to social values.  The Industrial Revolution created a need for skilled factory workers, so art teaching introduced in England in 1850 was unimaginative, aimed at skill of hand and eye.  Arthur Wesley Dow and Friedrich Froebel called attention to children's creative powers, resulting in a change of direction in the 20th century.  Entering the 21st century, we seem to be reverting to the skill goals once again. In a small book by R.R. Tomlinson, Senior Inspector of Art to the London County Council and published in 1947, Franz Cizek, called by some the “Father of Art Education,” is quoted making a clear case for creativity.  Cizek, while studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, lodged with a family of a carpenter.  He observed the children of the family drawing on a wood fence and noticed that their drawings differed sharply from the drawings produced in school under formal direction.

Cizek’s creed, quoted by Tomlinson, is this:

No child should be subjected to a rigid course of technical education.  Ideas and methods  of expression of  adults should never be imposed upon children.  Children should be  given a choice of material with which to express and create.  Their expression in the  chosen material should be allowed to mature according to their innate laws of  development.  It should not be hastened artificially or altered to satisfy adult ideas.   Above all, children's efforts should never be ridiculed and criticism should always be  sympathetically given.  Care should be taken not to praise skill at the expense of creative ideas. (Tomlinson, 1947, p. 20.)
Viktor Lowenfeld, who observed Cizek for several years, also saw creative thinking as an essential part of the curriculum, giving solid direction to this theory. He believed that “every child is born creative” (Lowenfeld and Brittain, 1987, p.76). So much of measured education results focus on convergent thinking, where one correct answer is expected.  Creativity is centered in divergent thinking, the openness to the new.  It establishes a climate for risk and readiness to learn from failure instead of seeing it as a defeat.
Again, Lowenfeld:
I f we really expect to develop an inquiring mind in a child, one that is eager to tackle the  problems of today, a mind that is flexible, inquisitive, and seeks for solutions in unusual ways, then the attention we have paid to the so-called basic learning areas may be ill-placed.  The arts can play a tremendous role in learning and may be more basic to the thinking process than the more traditional school subjects.  Every drawing, whether by a scribbling child or a high school student at the peak of learning efficiency, demands a great deal of intellectual involvement. (Lowenfeld and Brittain, 1987, p. 53)
Every child up to second grade claims to be able to draw. It is a joy to ask a class of first graders how many can draw.  Every hand goes up with enthusiasm.   But by age eight or nine, many look critically at their drawing and decide it is not up to their achievement level in other subjects, or up to the adult criteria imposed on them, and they stop. Unfortunately, many teachers accept their decision that they “do not draw” and they are never again challenged.  Encouraging students to risk, to see drawing as a vehicle of discovery rather than a skill to be mastered, is a way of bridging that crucial period and freeing students to continue drawing.

In his My Pedagogic Creed , John Dewey brought together these convictions:

  • I believe in the so-called expressive or constructive activities as the center of correlation.
  • I believe that the active side precedes the passive in the development of the child-nature;  that expression comes before conscious impression.
  • I believe that the image is the great instrument of instruction
And finally, from Duncum:
4.  “Evaluation involves establishing a number of criteria against which to judge a work, including imitation, expressiveness; aesthetics; and instrumentalism.  Initial description and analysis are designed to help facilitate justifiable interpretations and reasoned judgments. (Duncum, p. 37.)
I have read this and its context many times and find it meaningless.  Evaluation is important, but it should be done with the children and in a way that encourages and reinforces their efforts. Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences has extended our understanding of the facets of the mind through which we learn.  Linguistic intelligence and logical-mathematical intelligence are only two.  Spatial intelligence, to power to perceive form and give visual shape to ideas, is of equal importance.  There are students who respond much more readily to visual learning than to linear logic. The right brain dominant child will often resist a linear approach. Also, children whose family experience has not encouraged reading and factual mastery will often be unprepared for the regimen of school, but will draw happily and readily. In an interdisciplinary learning climate, every subject should be approached both literally and expressively.  A once a week art lesson by the art specialist cannot begin to reach these dimensions. Empowering classroom teachers to bring visual learning into their general curriculum will not threaten the role of the art specialist.  On the contrary, art teachers who become resource persons for the classroom teachers are valued far more than the specialist who functions merely as their "coffee break."
Through the arts, students discover how to express their individual capacity for imagination.   Allowing learning to be expressed imaginatively makes every concept personal and aesthetic.  In the arts as in life, the form of a thing is part of its content.  Giving visual shape to a concept in social studies, math, science adds a meaning that facts and definitions cannot approach. These fourth grade students studied and drew gargoyles from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
- left -
"Gargoyle from Notre Dame Cathedral" by Sarah Leahy, Grade 4,  Woolridge Elementary School, Chesterfield, VA

- right -
"Gargoyle from Notre Dame Cathedral" by Allison Huebner, Grade 4, Woolridge Elementary School, Chesterfield, VA

Drawing is an essential mode of expression, hence of learning.  Drawing, moreover, is a complementary  mode of learning, equal to writing and verbal expression and within the powers of every person.  Many cultures called  "primitive" have no word in their vocabulary for ART, because making ? and making things aesthetically pleasing ? is such an integral part of their being.   We have far to go to achieve this wholeness of understanding of our world and our power to express it.
It is linear thinking that stifles individuals' drawing.  Once empowered to RISK  “drawing with their eyes,” in other words, really following edges with their eyes and letting the hand record them, everyone can draw. Experience has proved repeatedly that classroom teachers who have never tried to draw can do a remarkable drawing of  their shoe at first attempt once they let go and “let their eyes do the drawing.”
This kind of perceptual drawing has a direct carryover to reading since it trains and disciplines the eyes to follow a line and see details.  Drawing, therefore, should be a mode of expressing learning in every subject, combining with linear, "right answer" thinking that too often tends to dominate the school learning climate.
There are too many sad examples of very bright children who will not draw, who simply refuse to try.  They have been so conditioned to succeeding in factual exams that they find risking an "unsuccessful" drawing to be traumatic.  The arts are unique in their potential to develop this necessary attitude toward risk taking and learning from "failure" ? the failure that comes from trying creative ideas and most often stimulates new and better ideas.

The greatest danger for most of us is not that we aim too high and we miss it, but that we aim too low and we reach it. . . . Michelangelo


  • Dewey, John. My Pedagogic Creed. (1897). First published in School Journal , January 16, 1897, LIV.
  • Duncum, Paul. (November, 1999).  "What Elementary Generalist Teachers Need To Know To Teach Art Well" Art Education ," Art Education, 52 (6) pp 33 - 37.
  • Lowenfeld, V. and Brittain, W. L. (1987). Creative and Mental Growth , 4th edition. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.
  • Tomlinson, R. R. (1947). Children As Artists . London and New York: King Penguin Books

this page posted in November - 2001

Jean Morman Unsworth e-mail:    author

Marvin Bartel e-mail:    web page editor

Jean Morman Unsworth is the author of :
  • Connecting: Integrating Art in the Curriculum , Reading & O’Reilly, Inc. Wilton, CT (1987).
  • Connections - three games published by Dale Seymour Publications (1992 - 95), and
  • The new series, Drawing Is Basic, classroom teacher manuals Pre-K through Grade 6, on drawing and writing, Dale Seymour Publications, 2001.
  • She has written teacher resource supplements for the Glencoe/McGraw-Hill junior high art series, Exploring Art and Understanding Art and co-authored the grade six text, Introducing Art.
See this link for Marvin Bartel's commentary on this commentary.

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