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Making Sense of Children's Drawings

by John Willats
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, NY, NY, 2005
280 pp., illus. Trade, $65.00; paper, $29.95
ISBN: 0-8058-4537-2; ISBN: 0-8058-4538-0.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens
Department of Art, University of Northern Iowa


Is it true, as some have claimed, that children draw what they know, adults what they see? Are there shared characteristics among children's drawings, regardless of time period, cultural setting or ethnicity? Are children inherently more self-expressive, more creative than adults? And can behavioral anomalies be anticipated by analyzing a child's drawings?

This new, pioneering book addresses the typical questions about this complex research area, but does it in a way that feels more convincing than most other writings on the subject. It is an especially rigorous look, which takes nothing for granted and does not hesitate to doubt even the most sacred assumptions about children's drawings. The book's chief emphasis is on the perceptual development of children in relation to their drawings, a somewhat predictable viewpoint in the sense that the earlier writings of the author have also dealt with visual art in relation to perception (see, for example, his earlier book, Art and Representation: New Principles in the Analysis of Pictures). As he admits, this new project was influenced by the findings of a British-born vision scientist at MIT named David Marr, who (circa 1982) proposed that we see by processing phenomena in two very distinct ways (a theory, according to Willats, that "revolutionized the study of visual perception"). In one of these, which Marr called "viewer-centered" seeing, we interpret the nature of objects from a single fixed viewing point (as, for example, in traditional Western perspective). In the other, termed "object-centered," we interpret visual experience from a multiplicity of viewpoints. According to Marr (in Willats' words), the human visual system takes the "viewer-centered descriptions available at the retina and use[s] them to compute permanent object-centered descriptions that can be stored in long-term memory." (This, then, accounts for what's usually called "visual constancies.")

But has this to do with children's art? As it turns out, it may mean that very young children do, indeed, draw what they see–but at that age they see in a manner that is largely object-centered, not viewer-centered. Willats does not simply put forth this hypothesis (which is radical by comparison) and then move on to other concerns. Rather, a major part of the book consists of a balanced, painstaking discussion of prevailing theories of children's art (historical and current), experimental support for his own hypothesis, and the effects that his findings might possibly have on the day-to-day practice of teaching art.

(Reprinted by permission from Ballast Quarterly Review, Volume 21 Number 2, Winter 2005-06.)




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