Transfer in Learning to Draw

Why Does a Child Continue to Draw Like a Child
After Showing More Advanced Ability in Observation Drawing

By Marvin Bartel © 2005


From: Betsy Braun – Elementary Art Teacher
To: Marvin Bartel
Subject: drawing woes

. . . My students can do wonderful drawings by observation, but when they work by imagination it often goes downhill!!  They go back to stick figures!  What is happening, and what can I do to help them?    --Betsy


These are excellent questions. Why do we fail to use what we learn in one situation in other appropriate situations or contexts.

Why does observation drawing not inform imaginary drawing?

Actually, observation drawing probably does improve drawing from the imagination and from memory, but it seldom takes place as fast as we wish or as universally as we wish.   Before looking at ways to teach for better drawing from imagination or memory, can we think about what is happening in our brains when we do observation drawing.  This may suggest things a teacher can try.

Observation drawing develops an ability to observe and render the line, shape, color, tone, and/or form being observed.  The eye sees an edge, a tone, or some other feature of an object and the brain sends the hand a message about the small segment of something that is being observed.  Observation drawing is different than the previously acquired knowledge of how things are represented (shaped, outlined, or formed in children's artwork).  Observation drawing, especially blind contour drawing, is simply the visual reading and writing of the subject being observed.  A typist can make a perfect page by just listening to words without really thinking about the grammar, context, or the meaning of the words on the page.  In the same way, a child can use a blinder and create a blind contour drawing by replicating the edge of an object without actually learning and remembering much about the whole object.  

Similarly, a child can read the words and even copy an article out of an encyclopedia without actually learning what it says or how it might ever be useful in the future. Drawing it or writing it down may be helpful, but this does not constitute remembered learning unless the learner also has to contextualize the new learning.  By making an application in the learner's real life, the learner imprints the information in memory. Most of us have been embarrassed because we heard a person's name in an introduction, but a minute later we could not remember it.  The same thing can happening as we see things while drawing.  If we make a meaningful application, the brain is more likely to adaptively use the newly learned content.

Differences between learning the skills and learning when and how to use the skills.
Observation drawing is a skill.  The skill training involves the hands, but it mostly occurs in the brain.  The area of the brain that learns to do observation drawing is not the same part of the brain that stores symbols and pictures.  Some studies say that the right side of the brain is involved in learning to make careful observation, but the left side of the brain is home to symbols and pictures.  For us to expect students to make applications, they need to learn how to transfer learning before we can expect the brain to make a dual hemisphere application.  We know that transfer of learning involves making connections between theory and theory, theory and application, and between application and application.  Transfer requires moving things from place to place in the brain.  

Therefore: it helps to use practice drawings in some way. 

How do expectations influence learning?
When doing observation drawing, students may not even expect to make applications from this to other kinds of drawing.  It requires a high level of creative independent thinking to make applications across these borders.  In a child's way of thinking, imaginary drawings are not expected to come from observation.  Also, memory drawings are not expected to come from observations.  For the child, if pictures of something are needed, they are being brought to consciousness from the left-brain’s database of pictures.  These were learned through a combination of experience and vision some time ago at a younger age.  The left side of the brain keeps a large stash of these images in memory data bank. 

The left brain is good at simplification and symbolization.  The stick figures and other very simplified schematic figures are stored by each child's brain like a data base of images that can be used as needed without going out to the real world to do a fact check on the data.  We see lots of common images that seem to be shared by all children.  A child's door on a house generally shows doorknobs placed near the top of the door.  If you are a short person, like a child, this is your experience - not your visual observation. 

When doing artwork based on imagination the right side of the brain may be giving some intuitive and creative ideas for imaginary work, but the part of the right brain that is used to do observation drawing generally remains passive during artwork created from the imagination.  The left brain may be even more dominant when drawing is from memory. Teaching for transfer of learning in drawing may be a way to develop better and more creative thinking habits.


I hope the ideas presented here are helpful and motivate reflective teaching.  Let me know your ideas or questions.  Let me know what happens if you try anything based on these ideas.  -- mb



The author invites your comments and questions.  Contact the author
If you are an art teachers interested in doing some research on creativity, on transfer of learning, on learning to draw, or on the relationship of art and learning to think, or some other issue, send me a note.  Click here for a list of issues of particular interest to the author.

back to top of article

Transfer of Learning and How it Relates to Creativity
Creativity Killers in the art room

Conversation Game generating creative ideas for artwork while teaching relationship skills
Teaching Creativity

Creativity Links


Art Education Essays, Lessons, and many other resources for teachers and parents
from Marvin Bartel, Ed.D. Emeritus Professor of Art, Goshen College

  Marvin Bartel Home Page

back to top of article

All rights reserved.  This page © Marvin Bartel.  2005
this update March 22, 2011

For permission to make copies or handouts, contact the author. Teachers may print a copy for their own use so long as the copyright information is with the copy.  You may make links to this page from other web pages.


Now available:

Drawing to Learn DRAWING
an online book of eight ways to learn drawing.


The order page shows the
table of contents
14 reasons
that we learn to draw

How can better learning habits and more effective thinking habits be encouraged?

Ritualize practice and good practices

We can help children to acquire learning habits that help them regularly use observation drawings to update their image data banks in their brains.  We can ritualize observation practice. We can make practice an expected way to learn. Unless their data banks are regularly upgraded, they are apt to feel discouraged and many will stop drawing when they feel their peers are drawing better than they are. This is the crisis of confidence that tends to happen at age eight or nine in many children.

Art class rituals could include a few minutes observation and drawing practice at a regular predictable time.  This kind of ritual helps to develop the remembered symbols beyond "stick figures" and it can go a long way to avoid the crisis of confidence in drawing.

Contextualize Drawing Practice  
In addition to regular practice, we can we do more to merge imaginary and observation ways of thinking? 

1.  Practice and Develop
What if the quality of the child's image bank is regularly updated by using a strictly blinded approach for a preliminary practice drawing. Then we immediately follow this with a more holistic drawing made of the same subject while looking at both the drawing and at the subject.  In this way the child is coached to learn that the first rendition is a process of gathering good details. It is data gathering.

The child learns that the second drawing uses visual data to create an improved version. In some cases it is in an imaginary context. It can include some overall proportion choices.  In this improved version of the drawing they can correct the parts that got out of alignment in the blind drawing.  They can use sighting to check on proportions.

When making the second (or third, etc.) drawing, the teacher may notice what looks like some artistic regression.  In the "repaired" drawing children may become more inhibited about their art than the an teacher would like.  They may even neglect to use what was learned during the blind contour practice. However, the results are generally much better than if the preliminary blind practice drawing had not been done. 

The goal is to gently instill learning habits that help children become active learners of right brain observation skill, while at the same time helping them accumulate an advanced left brain repertoire of ever more sophisticated memory images (right brain here refers to direct observation and left brain refers to remembered symbolic shapes).

I discovered this theory while I observing a five-year-old child.  I gave her a pencil blinder hide the paper while practicing the edges of an object she had never before drawn.  She carefully followed the edges of the object and made a series of fairly correct lines without looking at her paper.  After doing this she looked at her jumble of lines and decided that she now knew how to draw the whole object because she could now draw the parts.  She proceeded to make a second drawing using what she had learned while using the blinder. 

The drawing of the object was vastly superior to a drawing that she would have made without first using the blind contour method.  The value of blind observation practice became obvious even to a fairly young child.  I think she began to believe that this was the way children normally learn how to draw (even though most children are never given this method, and lack the chance to learn this way).  Age five is not too young to develop good learning habits. Like learning to read and write, learning to draw is a building process based on practice. No teacher would dismiss reading and writing, saying that some are talented and some are not.

2.  Build Learning Awareness
Could we talk more about images created during observation drawing?   “In what ways does this drawing look different than the last drawing of a person you made?” “After doing this drawing, in what ways will your next drawing of a person will look different than the way you used to make drawings of persons?”  Learning generally requires an “expectation” to change.  Change in behavior is the only real evidence of learning. Asking the learner to think about the changes is a way to encourage this kind of expectation.  

3.  Ideas & Developed Work
What if some sessions start with imaginary sketches that are very tentative?  They are seen only as preliminary ideas.  These sketches are primarily used to get creative ideas.  These imaginary compositions are then developed through observation.  Stick figures might be accepted and useful for quick ideas in the form of thumbnail sketches during the thinking phase, but selected ideas are routinely developed into more expressive images.

4. Related Experiments
Might we think of observation drawing as part of experiential learning. It is direct preparation for every imagined topic drawing?  Could the observation drawing be seen as the experimental phase of learning to learning to draw something?  Could the drawing topic then require a drawing of the same subject from memory or imagination?   Students would be encouraged to look at their own observed drawings so they can learn from them.  No longer would they be taught to copy photos or other people's drawings as “reference” material.  In this method we only encourage copying of drawings made by and for themselves.  Copying of other people's drawings or photos, being easier than observation, leaves our brain less developed.  Unlike copying, observation gives us each the authentic ownership of a self created repository of left brain images.

Real scientific learning uses this method of learning.  We make observations and experiments to learn what is the truth (what seems right).  Once we have determined a repeatable truth, we use it (copy it) and build on it.  Even in science, a student who only learns from the experiments of others is not actually learning the scientific method. The more we cultivate the habit of stopping and studying our own observations, the more we can confidently generalize from them. 

Students need to ask, How are these drawings different than our old drawings?  How will our next drawing be changed by what we learned here?  Leonardo learned many new things about how the world worked by ignoring many common assumptions and carefully observing and experimenting. Galileo changed his view of the universe by this method, but it took others who had simply been taught to accept old dogma a long time to agree with his observations because it did not match their left brain images.  They lacked Galileo's context and experience of the universe. This is the difference in thinking between copywork and actual observation.

In drawing persons from observation, students can be encouraged to begin making observable conclusions and generalizations about people's bodies faces, heads, etc., their proportional relationships. They also need to be asked to note the variations within a range depending on body type, point of view, etc.  Giving students formulas about proportions does not teach them to invent formulas.

5. Collage & Invention
Inspired metaphor in art often comes from magic moments when boundaries are suspended. What if pieces from a drawing from observation were cut and pasted into an imaginary scene invented by the student?  Maybe students could take a bunch of practice sketches and cut them up and make them into a cubistic collage.  This might show a useful connection between what is learned in observation drawing and what is needed in imagined artwork.  A variation of this would be for the students to imagine a situation, then ask several children to pose in imagined dramatic situations and draw them from observation.

6.  Accidents, Mistakes, and Elaboration
Sometimes great ideas grow out a series of intentional accidents. This needs to be followed by a session of selection and development. This method teaches our minds to look for the potential where we would not ordinarily expect it. It also teaches us that most of these discoveries are a mere beginning point. Extensive development is generally needed. Observation is used in the development and improvement that begins with an accident or mistake.

7.  Finding the match
Some children will find these ideas excessively challenging, while others find them too easy or boring.  I wonder how many different approaches we might need to use in order to find ways around the natural and learned inhibitions to learning and transfer of learning.  Intuitive teachers find ways to adjust the difficulty so that learners are fascinated and motivated by their own discoveries and progress.

Good intentions - common mistakes
What do we teach if we present students with a poster or drawing that shows how many head lengths are needed for an adult body, or a poster that shows them how high to place the eyes in the face? What is the use of a poster that shows where to place the horizon line or how to mix particular colors. These teach answers rather than ways to find answers.  Using good questions can get students to learn to answer by using good observation processes.  Also, we can then ask them what questions need to be asked in order to figure out the answers.  Well taught students learn to habitually design experiments when information is needed and to design practice rituals when skills are needed. Thinking and skill is learned by thinking and practice – not by copying or tracing solutions or replicating somebody else's ideas.

This is the way good scientific experimentation works.  Of course it takes a lot of practice and a lot of refinement to get these habits of thinking strong enough to overpower other habits based on quick conclusions that come from memory, copying, or other authorities. It takes critical thinking and critical observation to see the need to observe, to make corrections, and so on when memory and imagination fails to give enough information.  

Most younger children are very self-accepting.  This allows them to enjoy and be motivated by very childish art expressions.  Positive comments and encouragement are often all that is needed to keep them motivated.  As they mature, most children develop more self-doubt.  We can model methods of self-criticism in ways that also encourage self-worth and confidence.  This link has more ideas about the artwork critique in the classroom.  This link has more ideas on motivation for children who feel they are not talented and are doubting their own abilities.

--------------- end --------------

See this link for more on transfer of learning and creative thinking in all areas - not just in learning to draw.