Pen, paper, power - without a word

July 06, 2004|By Peter Steinhart

WE ALL DRAW as children.

The skill emerges almost identically in every child in every culture. It starts at about 2 1/2 years old with a scribble that turns into a circle. Dots or smaller circles go inside the circle, and rays, like the ones we use to represent sunshine, sprout from the circumference. At about the age of 3, the dots inside the circle become eyes and mouths, and the rays diminish to four for arms and legs. A house begins as a squared-off face with windows for eyes. It's as regular as the metamorphosis of tadpole into frog.

Gradually, a child elaborates these symbols to make them more particular: a dress to indicate Mom, a hat for Dad. As they grow older, children want to get more and more realism into their drawings, to make them distinctly and revealingly Mom or Dad. They want to know the essences of things, to show the feeling that is linked to meaning.

But that kind of drawing is difficult. Children draw what they know, not what they see: Show them a teacup with its handle hidden, and they'll insistently draw it sideways. Learning to draw is not easy. One has to relearn how to see, to find lines that define what one sees, to find tones and textures, to place things in their proper relationships.

Drawing is a complex activity that requires many different parts of the brain to coordinate in novel ways. Even adults who draw well must do it every day or every week to keep these disparate parts of the mind conversing amicably with one another.

As children stumble over these hurdles, the language areas of their brains are growing rapidly and language seems to do a better job of codifying and expressing things. Most children stop drawing by the time they slip into adolescence.

But not all. About one in 10 of us continues to draw into adulthood. Whatever determines which of us goes on is a mystery.

I suspect those of us who continue do so because it's a way of figuring things out. We draw because there are things on our minds that friends and family aren't talking about with us.

John Ruskin, the 19th century writer, was an only child. Reared in a stern, puritanical Scots household, he was forbidden toys or playmates. He spent his days alone, drawing trees, landscapes and clouds. His "entire delight," he said, was "observing without myself being observed." He went on to define the artistic and literary worlds of the Victorian age.

I know a half-dozen artists who started with something like Mr. Ruskin's isolation and who today successfully navigate the world by drawing. They were simply people who had a different quality of mind, a different learning style, and had to deal with problems that weren't being served well by the linguistic and quantitative approaches offered in school.

In every middle school or high school I've seen, there is a kid who is sullen and disaffected and socially on the margins, and who sits off alone drawing - often drawing unsettling things, scenes of violence or grotesque caricatures of the teachers.

Sometimes these children are avoided as ticking time bombs by their peers. Sometimes their drawings reach out and connect them with their schoolmates.

Schools don't really teach those people how to draw. The average public elementary school student gets 44 hours of art education a year, and that includes art history and appreciation, crafts projects, finger-painting and all the Crayola scratching that goes along with social studies and science projects.

Though Maryland curriculum standards call for instruction in such specific skills as perspective and contour drawing, the necessary practice must come from the students themselves. But all art instruction may be precious to those who draw, because it helps to show them that a visual approach to life is valid. It engages them in a visual conversation with other artists.

And it helps them cope with the language-dominated world. When one draws, one learns judgment, patience, the elusiveness of truth, the possibility of seeing clearly. Today, a growing body of research shows that "at risk" students who take art classes get better grades, develop more confidence, have better school attendance and develop more leadership skills than those who do not take such courses.

In a fast-changing world, we need wider, more original, more observant vision. Drawing is one way to provide it.

Yet a recent survey of principals found that, under increasing pressure to test well in language and math, many were cutting back on instruction in all other areas. Are we leaving something behind?

Peter Steinhart is the author of The Undressed Art: Why We Draw, just published by Knopf. He lives in Palo Alto, Calif.

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