Teaching Observation Drawing
to Young Children

© Marvin Bartel, Ed.D.
contact the author 
author bio

During the schematic(1) stage the artwork may appear rigid and stereotyped. This often begins at about age five, but the age varies among children. Observation coaching may prevent insecurities and problems later.

This is a schematic self-portrait of a boy thinking by
a five-year-old. In a schematic drawing many of the
individual parts of the person are simplified enough
that they would not be recognizable when viewed
individually. This is natural and typical, but it is
not observation drawing.


INTRODUCTION:  Often, as well-meaning adults, when we see a drawing like the one shown here, we might offer to show the child the "right" way to draw a person. When we show them how it should look, we may be stunting a child's ability to learn. By "correcting" them and showing them how to draw something, we are both discouraging them and preventing them from learning how good observation is learned. Children may become very frustrated when they reach the next developmental stage. They may wish they could draw more realistically, but not knowing how to practice effectively, they may mistakenly assume that they are too young or not talented enough to learn it. If they do ask for help, many adults give them the wrong kinds of help. As they get older, they begin to compare with others and mistakenly believe that they lack talent while others seem more gifted in drawing. They give up because they see others who appear to do better. This is so common that art educators refer to this as the "crisis of confidence".

I find that most children benefit by early instruction and practice in observational drawing and modeling, but it is important to remember their age. Children who have not learned that drawing skill is based on practiced observation will be very frustrated when they reach the next developmental stage. They will wish they could draw more realistically. As they get older, they mistakenly believe that they lack talent while others are gifted in drawing. They give up because they see others who can do better. Art educators refer to this as the "crisis of confidence".

Regular observation drawing and painting practice is common in the kindergarten and lower grades in Japan. How many in the United States would learn reading, writing, and math if it were left up to the option of the learners to figure out how to learn it on their own?


In many ways it is easier to teach observational drawing before children reach the stage of self-criticism and frustration. When children are four or five they are less apt to compare their drawings to others. They are less self-critical and more tolerant of their own work. 

Young children are less inclined to follow verbal instructions and restrictions. It has to be their choice to do so. Art learning is best kept in the self-initiated fun category. I can offer to teach, but I cannot demand learning. I do not teach in the typical way, but I make it more like a game. I approach it as a coach. Children this age learn an immense amount during their free time activities. I fail them if I take any pleasure out of drawing.

Young children at age 5 (and adults who think it is a gift or talent) may be totally unaware that artists learn to draw by making many practiced careful observations. 

The brain can be stimulated to grow in the areas that learn how to observe and draw. The common belief that drawing is a talent is a myth. It may be that some children are born with brains and instincts that predispose them to spend more time drawing, but often these habits are developed as the result of the settings in which they grow up. A few children who love to practice drawing on their own, discover how to make observations and drawings that seem advanced for their age. By age 8 or 10 other children are convinced that some are gifted and others are not. Adults support them in this. Many children mistakenly believe that drawing skill emerges as an ability without practice.

When working with any child, I never expect adult-like pictures. I never draw something for the child to imitate. I never correct the child. I never show them a picture to follow or to copy. I do not show them how to draw. To do so reduces self-confidence in their own ability to figure out how to draw what they experience, imagine, and/or observe. I affirm the child's efforts. Learning cannot be demanded - it must be motivated by the child's desires. If the desire and self-fulfillment gratification is extinguished, the child may decide to vegetate in front of the TV. The creative part of the brain shrinks. The other end of the child expands.

As an art teacher of young children, I am informational and always do my best to be affirmative about the child's efforts.
Children this age do not yet know how drawing is learned. Most adults do not know how drawing is learned. They fail realize the benefits of careful looking in order to know what something actually looks like.

I offer to help if they are interested. I then ask them to help me pick out some fairly small item that they like, but something they have never drawn before. I do not want to practice "learning to see" on something for which the child's brain has already formed an image. To do so would require unlearning as well as learning. It is easier and more affirmative and positive to learn to observe a new thing then to unlearn an established way of drawing.

I coach them to do several preliminary practice routines (explained below). I explain that practice makes things easier to do. After the practice, the game produces a winner. I am not calling it a winner when compared to other kids' drawings, but it is winner when they compare their own drawing to drawings they did before. Practice made it easier.

NOTE: I do not push observation drawing. I offer it. I also affirm and encourage imaginative drawings and storytelling drawings that are not based on observation. I never ask, "What is it?" I say, "Could you tell me about it?" I then ask open-ended questions that get them thinking, remembering, and imagining. I try to ask questions that indirectly make them think of things. If I ask what the person in the picture likes to listen to, the child is apt to include ears. If I ask if the person or animal is lonely, they might add another person or animal. Their drawings begin to fill the paper and they even begin to ask themselves questions as they draw. Sometimes I simply ask them if they have forgotten anything and they often notice another detail.

I was thrilled when I first noticed a child asking herself awareness questions. I was amazed that her instinct to imitate me may have taught her a life-long learning and thinking skill that was the opposite of imitation. Hence, the instinct to learn by imitation had led her to productively use and foster her own instinct to learn by imagination.

I find that teaching and learning with questions instead of answers is harder but infinitely better. Teaching with answers closes down creative thinking, but using open ended questions fosters experiments, comparisons, discoveries and innovations.

Preparation for observation drawing. I find that some of this may work at age 5 and 6.

TACTILE PRACTICE - seeing with the touch game - tactile awareness:

I start by running my finger slowly along the side of the object from the same viewpoint that the child sees it. Then the child does the same thing, moving slowly enough to notice each change of direction. I talk about these movements as the finger traces the edge. "Now we are going sideways, now it slants a little, now there is a little wiggle, now it curves, now it goes sideways. . . " I praise the children's participation and tell them how well they are doing. In tactile practice, they are not drawing, but they are becoming aware of the actual shape and contours of the object.

AIR PRACTICE - drawing in the air as visual comprehension.

Next I sight by pointing my finger about 12 inches back from the object. I explain which edge I am following. Again I move my finger very slowly and talk about the motions, so each little change of direction in the contour of the shape causes my finger to copy it in the air. Kids will find it easier to draw it if they have studied it this way before drawing it. It is like tracing the outline in the air.

I encourage children to practice drawing in the air with their own finger. This is a preliminary practice of the individual edge lines or shape lines -- not the whole thing unless it is a simple thing like an egg. We pick another edge and we both do it together in the air while I talk it through. We move our fingers very slowly (as fast as an ant moves along the edge) in the air to follow the edge of the object. We talk about each motion. I want them to habitually looking at the edges of things before drawing them.


We learn to see one actual line - not the overall shape for now. We call this "practicing lines". I affirm the child at each stage.

We play with a "drawing helper". It is a sheet of paper pierced in the center by the pencil. This blinder lays on top of the drawing hand to hide the drawing paper.

At this point, the child actually draws practice lines on paper. The blinder helps avoid the temptation to look at the drawing while forgetting to looking at the edge of the object line being drawn. Looking down at the paper while practicing contour lines does not help us get the basic data needed. Looking at the drawing is more likely to produce a regression to a previous schema (a stereotype of the image). I remind children to move the pencil only while the eye studies the thing being observed. Do it just like we did in the air. Do it slowly, moving the drawing hand to draw the lines that you see.

All of this is preparation practice. The child selects various edge lines and practices each line once or twice, but is told that they will have a chance to draw the whole thing after they have practiced all of the lines once or twice. This practice process produces a jumble of lines on the paper. This is fine because it is rehearsal. I affirm the child's efforts at each step along the way.

The student may peek at the paper when the pencil stops, but is encouraged to keep looking at the thing being observed while the pencil moves. While the pencil is moving the hand is learning to move according to what the eye sees.  I give reminders to look intently and carefully at the edge of subject or object being observed.

During this process the child is discovering something magic. They are learning that their hand moves magically according to what they are seeing. The hand is like a magical automatic drawing machine.

During this process the child is learning to enjoy delayed gratification. Practice can be fun. Practice makes things easier to do. Delayed gratification is not so bad when you are enjoying the practice. Studies are showing that high achieving students in academic studies are those who have a higher tolerance for delayed gratification. Are they delaying gratification, or have they learned ways to enjoy the practice, the study, and purposeful ways to spend their efforts during the delay? We successfully delay gratification when we creatively find gratification in the focused activities that bring us to the ultimate gratification. Learning to draw this way provides a positive model for delayed gratification. By using practice games we learn that it becomes easier to make a final drawing that is more gratifying.

I coach by asking open-ended questions that encourage the study of edges and contours. I ask about size comparisons. I ask about angle comparisons.  I ask for light/dark comparisons. I say, "That looks great! (and explain something they got right) Is there anything else you can find? Excellent! Do you notice anything else? I LIKE that! Can you find any smaller parts? This is a WONDERFUL line because . . . ! Are there some slanting parts? GOOD job here! I see how you noticed the slant. Are there some curves? Does the line bend at anyplace?"

I never demonstrate by drawing for them or with them because I do not want them to be distracted by looking at my lines and trying to imitate my lines. It is also not fair to compare my lines to their lines. It is not necessary for them to see another person's lines. If we draw, it may result in discouragement and frustration because they see that their drawing is not the same as our drawing.


The child's attention needs to be on the contour edges being observed. Therefore, I teach them to imitate my seeing, my looking, my touching, but I do not show them any drawing. This is a positive experience for them because I can point out all kinds of examples in their work that show how they are getting better at drawing things that they notice. To provide them with motivation to practice on their own time, I give them clearly explained affirmation for their independent ability to master and make improvements. Self learning is the only real learning.

After they finish their work, if they are interested, I can share with them some examples of drawing that I have done as well as those of other artists. This gives them an idea of what can happen after many years of enjoyable practice. I often assure them that they are already seeing and drawing better than I did when I was their age.

Children who have parents or older relatives and friends that are artists can certainly succeed. They do well if they imitate the frequent activity of drawing. This gives them lots of practice. Children of artists are likely to have a lot of materials and places to do artwork. I think they do better if parents are tolerant and understanding about childish efforts. If parents are perfectionists about a child's work, I can imagine that the child would go do something else. They risk becoming frustrated if they try to compete with the quality of any older persons drawings. Some artist parents understand their creative processes well enough to help a child learn the processes without dwelling on specifics of the product too much. These parents know that asking good questions is more helpful than giving proven answers. They know that successful parents give many more affirmations than prohibitions. I believe these children can become very successful.

If children are taught to copy other people's artwork they are apt to be more frustrated with their real observation drawing. Observation from actual objects is harder than copying. Observation uses different parts of the brain and different observation habits. Copying can discourage learning to see from the real world. I do not criticize a child who copies, but I do not affirm or praise copied work. I feel that learning to copy is a fall-back method used by self-taught children who do not have a coach that can make observation drawing easy enough for them to learn to draw from observation. Copying can become a crutch that is hard to give up. Producing a 2-dimensional drawing of a 3-dimensional subject is a transformation. To transform, requires creativity. Each child's work will be more unique and individual than when they copy. Tranforming is solving a problem. Copying is repeating an answer.

I sometimes have the child begin by practicing individual lines with a blinder. It is easier to draw only one edge at a time. They draw each of the edges of something by looking at the real object, animal, or person. This can end up with a page full of isolated and/or overlapping "practice" lines.

The child will also want a chance to draw the whole thing. I offer another piece of paper for this, but leave the practice sheet where it is easily seen. If they want to, I allow them to try it with the "helper" (blinder), but I allow them to draw without the blinder. I remind them to look at the object most of the time and see if their hand can follow without constantly looking at the paper.


In a study to assess the value of coached learning for observation drawing in kindergarten, Vlach and Carver (Vlach & Carver, 2008) coached children and found that all the children who received drawing coaching to look closely before, during, and after their drawing of something increased their drawing ability. In their study, they had children draw a stuffed toy and a kitchen appliance.

"Children in the coaching condition received brief instruction about how to look at an object when drawing. Children were instructed to look at the object very closely before drawing it, to look up at the object periodically while drawing, and to do a thorough examination after finishing drawing to make sure they had included everything they wanted in their picture."

In ordinary life, we do not learn to look at things carefully like this. This is the reason most people cannot draw things very well.

As adults we can also train this part of our own brains, but the brain seems much easier to form and establish new habits at a younger age . Many parts of the brain have certain developmental times when it is natural for certain things to be learned. We do not know exactly the easiest time to learn careful observation. The habits of careful looking are good to learn at any age, but by learning it sooner, we become visually fluent and our subsequent drawings show the difference. Like any habit, it is easier to form a good habit than it is to change a bad habit.

Kids have a strong instinct to imitate. Imitation is probably their strongest learning instinct. If we draw for them, they are less likely to learn to observe the thing they drawing. They are more likely to try to copy and imitate what we draw. It is always easier to form the right habits to begin with than it is to change bad habits once they are formed. We can give them thinking strategies to imitate, but avoid giving them drawings to imitate. I am glad for them to imitate questioning strategies, experimentation strategies, invention strategies, and discovery learning strategies. Imitating these kind of habits will serve them well.

LEARNING in ART is fundamentally different than learning in READING, WRITING, AND MATH
Imitation is commonly used to learn the alphabet and numerals. Reading, writing, and counting are done by imitating. It works. However, if we also teach drawing, painting, and modeling this way, how is the child's imagination and independence developed? Of course, creative writing and inventing ways to solve math problems can also nurture creative thinking habits.

Drawing, painting, modeling, and storytelling about their artwork offer natural ways to nurture the imaginative mind. Since learning the standard letters and numbers depends on imitation, it is especially important to keep at least one learning domain that NEVER shows an example of what the final product is supposed to look like. In art, and in much of life, we have many reasonable answers. By learning to make our own comparisons, we achieve mastery. If we are only brought up to accept predetermined examples and answers, we fail to learn how to make comparisons and good choices on our own.

Creating art without copying gives a child a special and high level of thinking practice. Art created without a known example is a form of working to construct new knowledge instead of copying old knowledge. This mode of learning is too rare in school. Yet, life is full of ambuguities. Creating from scratch in art is a way of learning to work through ambiguities. It is a way of learning to compare options, make better choices, and so on.

By including art in the curriculum, we nurture the whole mind. Art is open ended. If we show answers (examples of how something should look), what is left to nurture the whole mind? If we allow kids in class to do copying in art, is it still art? How are independent problem solving, creative thinking, experimentation, discovery learning, expressiveness, and imagination to be fostered?

To motivate and instruct in art, we offer non-visual ideas, questions, experiences such as sounds, smells, touch sensations. These activities require individual imaginative thinking to transform them into visual expressions. We can use stories (without showing pictures) to ignite the child's imagination and desire to experiment and show a picture of what they imagine. We can use memories, experiences, and observations from actual things (not pictures of things). All of these thought processes require brain processing in order to transform them into artwork. None of these allow for mere thoughtless imitation and mirroring.

When they are practicing drawing, I like to give them a very soft lead 6B drawing pencil. It is easy to see the line without pressure. It does not have an eraser, but I have a good quality white vinyl eraser where they can see it. It is not within reach.

If they want to erase, I suggest that artists often just go ahead and draw new lines and leave the old lines. Then after they are finished, they use the eraser take out parts that they do not want. This avoids endless erasing which is hard on self-confidence. It is common practice among artists to delay erasing because it facilitates a more learning from mistakes. We draw the whole thing then we see the alternatives and start fixing it until we like it. As artists, we often draw something several times until we get it right. Sometimes "right" is not the most realistic, but the most evocative. Creative artists realize that some of their best discoveries come from mistakes. Without accidents and mistakes we would miss many ideas.


Observation drawing is only one way that children learn to draw. Children should also be drawing from experience (memory), and they should be drawing imaginary things and topics. These drawing activities develop other important parts of the brain. Artists use all these ways of drawing, often combining them in their work.

To motivate drawing from experiences and memories, I use lots of open questions that help them remember the details of the experience. "What were some things the elephant liked to eat?" "How did the cat's fur feel?" I ask lots of these questions and the pictures can become very rich with every bit of space filled. We call these accretion questions. It makes passive knowledge into active knowledge. My questions are helping the child uncover what is already known, or in some cases the child will fill in what they do not know with their imaginations. This is fine. If a child gets the number of toes wrong, I do not correct them. I know they will probably be more interested in counting the toes next time they encounter this particular animal. Young children naturally begin without counting fingers. They add multiple fingers to a hand. As a child matures, I might ask them if they like to count the fingers when they draw them. If they are ready, they will begin to count as they draw.

If I am with a child while they are having a new experience at a farm or a zoo, I am also asking lots of awareness questions. "What color are the eyes?" "How do think it would feel if you could feel the elephant's skin?" "Some children ride on top of elephants - how would that feel?" Gardens have many fascinating insects, plants, stones, and so on. If we discuss them they notice so much more. When they draw the experience later, they will have so much more to remember and more to tell about in their drawings. We cannot draw what we never noticed in the first place. Drawings express an experience.   DRAWING FROM IMAGINATION
I encourage this whenever I see it happening. I never ask, "What is it?" I say, "Wow! This looks neat. Could you tell me more about it? Very young children often have a very rich imaginative story. The more questions I ask, the more their imagination produces new scenarios. You can watch amazing brain development.

The imagination is the human mind's greatest attribute. It distinguishes us from every other living thing on earth. A child of course has the instinct to imitate, just as every juvenile animal does, but with humans, the brain soon discovers that imitation is a form of pretending. Once it learns how much fun it is to pretend, the human brain also has the instinct to entrain itself endlessly with games of imagination. This develops our survival skills and becomes the most important way that the human brain becomes intelligent. We can learn to predict things that we have never observed. By inventing scenarios, we can improve our living conditions, avoid hazards, and we can remain safe and happier in new situations because we have imagined them in advance.

Drawing from the imagination is a very effective practice for the young brain. I believe it is one of best ways to build intelligence. The drawings reveal new scenarios to think about. They extend a child's attention span. While drawing from imagination, the child is developing and recording a complex narrative that the child can see, modify, elaborate, talk about, and so on. Many careers are based on planning that requires all kinds of imaginary preplanning. When this part of the brain is formed in childhood, the adult will have a most valuable resource. Good thinking habits that are formed in childhood do not need to be corrected later because the best thinking habits include built-in strategies of self-correction.

I have seen some very young children spend long periods of time simply organizing lines or patterns on paper. I recall an incident when our son was only about three when he stood at his painting easel for nearly an hour while he carefully filled the paper with vertical and then horizontal lines to create a grid from three different colors of tempera paint. I think we all have a natural instinct to create order. In creating order, we may be forming the part of the brain that becomes good at mathematics and geometry. We may be forming our spatial intelligence. I doubt that this kind of brain development happens when a child sits and watches TV.
  Other times it may be very important for a child to just make a mess or to scribble out some energy or some frustrations. Art materials and activities provide many paths to the developmental of healthy emotions and intellect. Children need to know where they can do these things so that they are free to choose to do it when the emotional need emerges.

In addition to unlimited paper and a nice drawing pencil, provide any materials that are very easy to see. For young children, I avoid subtle tones and colors that do not contrast with the paper.

There are a variety of three-dimensional clay-like modeling materials sold for children. Get the materials, but do not give them the all the gadgets invented by the toy-marketing department. Just encourage them to use their fingers and some very basic marking tools with clay and clay-like materials. They can model the same subjects that they draw, but a slightly different part of the brain is developed when working in three dimensions. I find that some children can draw very well, but cannot form a thing very well that has all its dimensions. If given clay, they flatten it and draw in on it like it is paper. Other children can model things easily, but are incapable of drawing the same things on paper. By providing both kinds of practice from the age two or three, this kind of developmental discrepancy may be less apt to occur.   We never provided any coloring books or activity books that asked our children to do other people's ideas. To do so is more likely to raise a child to be a dependent person (slave). It is much better if they learn to color in their own lines. I would never give them "how to draw" books that teach tricks that bypass the need to make observations and measurements, or use their own imaginations. It is much better to encourage children to experiment, practice, get unexpected discoveries, and make discoveries. They should learn to make choices from their own experiments and their own observations. This is artistic thinking and methodology. This develops creative independent thinking.

Do not watch "how to paint" on TV. These are performers who play to our insecurities. They show their own answers, but do not teach anything about how to solve a new problem or how to make a valid observation. They give quick tricks that put all the emphasis on the product and fail to show the creative thinking process. They show product without attending to process of observing, thinking, and choice-making. They have edited out all the practice and experimentation that they may have done to solve a visual problem. They teach to do, but not to see. Students whose learning habits depend solely on memorized answers will be stuck as soon as they face a new problem for which they have not seen an answer. Instead of drawing what they see, these students begin by looking for a picture to copy or trace.

The best education is self-education. I have been amazed by watching preschoolers and first graders once they have learned how to make good observations. When I watch their eyes, they are actually looking up at the subject much of the time rather then only looking at their paper as they draw from observation. Once children know how to practice, very little teaching is required, but frequent practice produces what soon appears to be drawing talent. Affirmations with clarification of what is being affirmed and good thinking questions are always appropriate. I have been impressed by watching preschoolers who have imitated my questioning style and learned to ask themselves questions as they draw. Their pictures are more filled with ideas and more enjoyable to discuss.


I am not convinced that it is important to exhibit the drawings of young children so long as the activity and learning is being affirmed in other ways. I like the idea of placing the work in folders to keep a record so they can see how much they have learned over time. For things that require storage, digital image files can serve the same purpose.

Good habits include some drawing time to think about and remember new experiences as well as the common routines and daily experiences. Any experience can provide motivation. Sometimes these experiences are sad, frightening, or totally unexpected. Drawing a picture can help the child deal with unpleasant things and/or celebrate the enjoyable experiences. Good habits include setting up rituals that put aside time for creative idea development. Drawing is great way to look at new ideas for projects, wish lists, and so on. If we affirm children for paying attention to whatever is around them, their drawing will improve and they feel empowered and competent.

Above: This kindergarten child has just modeled a clay chicken from observation. Before working with clay, she practiced drawing lines of the chicken's edges (contours) while she had a blinder on her pencil. The blinder helped her remember to observe and pay attention to the chicken and not obsess about what the practice sheet looked like. Whenever the chicken moved, she was coached to simply start another line to fill the practice paper with lines drawn from the chicken being observed. These practice sheets often look somewhat like a cubist painting or drawing. After all, the cubists invented their style after they observed the first motion pictures.

While the class was working on their clay models, the chicken decided to fly out the top of the cage. This was an exciting experience. The child artist, without any prompting or coaching, decided to add extended wings to her clay chicken.

  This clay chicken was made by another child in the same class. Coaching young children to make better observations through drawing and modeling gives flying lessons to their minds and their creativity.

Why Learn to Draw  (For a list of 14 reasons)

Source Notes:

Many authors and researchers in art education have written about the stages of artistic development.  Viktor Lowenfeld made many observations and described the stages in his book, Creative and Mental Growth.  The 4th  edition of Creative and Mental Growth by Viktor Lowenfeld and W. Lambert Brittain. 1964 includes a  summary with charts describing the development stages in Chapter 13. pages 395 to 402. Some of information at the top of this page is based on Lowenfeld's charts. The term "schematic" is taken from Lowenfeld's observed and defined developmental stages in art. Others have identified similar stages and often use other terms to describe the stages. The stages appear to occur in sequence in among children in all societies in all parts of the world. Parents, teachers, and caregivers who understand this can avoid inappropriate levels and challenges that can very frustrating and discouraging to children. 

Simpson, J.W., J.M. Delaney, K.L. Carroll, C.M. Hamilton, S.I. Kay, M.S. Kerlavage, and J.L Olson (1998) Creating Meaning Through Art - Teacher as Choice Maker. Karen Lee Carroll, in chapter 3, "Cultivating Artistic Behaviors" deals with the crisis of drawing confidence on page 99. She has sources listed at the end of the chapter. She says the crisis ". . . occurs in early adolescence . . ."

I wonder why we wait so long to teach contour drawing, sighting, and other proven observation methods. Why do we wait for a crisis? Could we be teaching it as accepted practice habits in the first place as kids are learning to draw? Do we approach reading, writing, and math as accidental learning? Do we think of competence in these areas as talent? As art teachers, why would we allow kids to flounder instead of teaching them to swim properly to begin with? Are we like swimming teachers who hope that kids will all learn to swim on their own if we allow them to play in the water? Should we rethink our ways?

The following testimonial was received from a reader on 11/11/2013
. . .My son, almost age 4, was upset because he felt that he couldn't draw a picture of his toy puppy.  So . . . I . . put the puppy on the table right in front of him.  Then after he started drawing, I just said, "what do you need to draw on your picture to make it look like the puppy?".

I didn't draw for him or tell him what to draw.  So, of course, he noticed he needed a nose, paws, etc., and proceeded to fill them in.  Very good!

I really do hope your drawing methods receive more coverage. --- Sincerely, M. M.

Why did this work?
In drawing, children need our permission, approval, and affirmation to draw in a natural childlike way. When we verbally ask them to draw what they notice based on their own observations, we are helping them without specifying an adult drawing style. It is understandable that they may be hesitant and lack confidence at first. This is because we teach them many new skills by showing them how we do things. They naturally assume that we will also show them how to draw things. However, if we draw for them, it can be very frustrating for them because their ability to replicate our drawing is not yet developed. Furthermore, if they learn to copy our drawing, they are bypassing the habit of looking carefully at the subject themselves. We do them a favor by letting them know that they are doing it right by depending on their own observation. We are helping them learn a lifelong ability by learning the process of learning to draw based on their own observations. I do not correct their way of drawing. I express my appreciation for what the have done. Frequently, I also ask them if they notice anything else as they look at the subject.

In addition to observation, I feel that it is entirely appropriate to encourage imagination and memories related to the subject matter. If they have large empty space on the paper, I often ask them if they would like to draw in that space. I might ask them if they can imagine themselves in the picture doing something with the subject. Sometimes I ask them if they remember an event related to the subject---like the time they opened the package, or the imaginary game they played with the subject. If it is a toy animal, I might ask what it likes to eat, or what would it play with, and so on. If they answer me verbally, I ask them if they can show me how they like draw this. These are ways to help children to learn how to think and express their own ideas and feelings without making it too difficult or too adult-like. Learning to draw in this way is may also develop good creative problem solving skills. As adults, we can learn a lot by watching a child learn to think and be more expressive.


Vlach, H. A. , Carver, S. M. (2008) "The Effects of Observation Coaching on Children's Graphic Representations." ECRP, Vol. 10, No 1, Spring. [retrieved, Sept. 24, 2010]

Related Bartel Essays

Bartel, M. (2003) "How To Draw an Orchid." - this is a story of me coaching a pre-kindergarten child. http://www.bartelart.com/orchid.html  [retrieved, Sept. 24, 2010]Drawing with Blinders    The Blinder Drawing Game     Drawing with Viewfinders
    How to Teach Drawing

to>scribble information   |  to>pre schematic picture   |   to>schematic information to>thinking picture (typical schematic) to>x-ray picture  |  to>schematic information   |  to>quest for order  |  to>making it easier to observe 

NOTE 2:  
Viktor Lowenfeld, the author of Creative and Mental Growth, thought that some children where less capable of observational drawing and more capable of emotional expression. He did not speak of a "crisis of confidence" resulting from the lack of ability, lack of teaching, or from a lack of practice. He felt that some children were more visual (like spectators) and others he classified as more haptic (more intimately and emotionally involved).  He felt that the more haptic children would feel successful if they were encouraged to do more expressive and emotional artwork. He would not expect them to make realistically representative artwork.  

Of course, in the art world, there are many styles of art, and realistic rendition is not the only criteria on which art is evaluated.  Some very strong artists are not strong in realistic rendition, but can express themselves very well in other ways.

It takes a fairly mature connoisseur to appreciate the true value of abstract work, conceptual work, and other non-realistic styles.  Children in the middle grades need to learn this, but one of the best ways to keep them involved is for them to see that they have some drawing ability.  Those things that give us self-esteem are the things we love to do.

Therefore, this author feels that all children should have learning opportunities and experiences that help them learn to create both realistic artwork and emotionally abstract imaginative unrealistic artwork. Realistic drawing is a legitimate skill and an important visual mental processing ability even though simple representational drawing may not be art. Unrealistic expressiveness and imagination are also essential to foster creative abilities for personal well being and success.
All rights reserved.  This page © 2011, Marvin Bartel, Ed.D. Link to Bartelart.com
For permission to make copies or handouts, contact the author 
This page updated: November 15, 2013