Development of drawing abilities

The book Making Sense of Children’s Drawings by John Willats puts forth a compelling theory of how kids learn to draw, and the course of that development.

To Willats, drawings link up to our mental conceptions of how things look in the world, thereby rejecting a view that says drawings are entirely based on what we see. A great example of this is when children are given dice and told to draw them. Instead of drawing them as they see them, they draw dice with all six sides, which would be impossible to see.

Willats also provides great detail on the origin of the “don’t copy” trend of instruction in drawing (which he, like me, is highly critical of). As he describes, this came originally from the 1800s educator Franz Cižek, based on Romantic ideas that children had a pure “inner creativity” that needed to develop unspoiled by imitation from external influences.
As he nicely points out, this doctrine is largely not reflected by what children actually do. Indeed, closer inspection of Cižek‘s own students show a consistent group style. They were copying between each other, just not from him.
Also, his general trajectory for learning to draw runs like this:
  • 1-3 yrs: dots, lines, regions. Scribbles denote whole regions of space, not necessarily just random uncontrolled lines.
  • 2/3-8 yrs: Bounded areas depict regions and volumes. Round, long regions denote round long volumes, while long or round regions show flat volumes.
  • ~6-10 yrs: Regions are used as as picture primitives to denote faces rather than volumes. However, lines still denote boundaries of regions, not the contours of shapes.
  • ~6-8 yrs: Regions as volumes, but compensated by more modifiers, resulting in “having a smooth outline” (threading); denote regions n the visual field (starts approaching lines as contours)
  • ~8-10 yrs: Finally, lines are used as picture primitives (instead of using lines for regions). Lines are finally used as contours, as evident by line junctions used for occlusion and foreshortening.
The one drawback to this approach is that, despite his critique of the overall trend against copying, his developmental trajectory does not incorporate the effects of imitation on drawing. This may not be possible for him though: there simply doesn’t seem to be enough data, looked at through the right perspective, to offer his model much more (true both of when the book came out, and now).
However, overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in how children learn to draw.
Willats, John. 2005. Making Sense of Children’s Drawings. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.


  • Thanks for the post. This is the first time I've heard of this book. I am currently working with my 4 year old son on a drawing/writing program developed by Dr. Susan Sheridan. The book I am working from is called "Handmade Marks: A Child's way into Literacy."

    Based on Neuroconstructivist theory, the book talks a lot about how the child develops their communication skills through engagement of bi-hemispheric activities to the brain. And between the ages between 0-4, developing the brain through mark making is considered the best way for a child's self confidence into literacy.

    If you want to check out her books or get more information on her theory -Here is her website is:

    In regards to the copying, this morning I was drawing with Julian and he requested I draw Calvin and Hobbes. (We've been reading the strips together the past couple of days) He knew exactly what scene he wanted to see.(Where Hobbes pounces on Calvin) When I drew the scene, he liked the Calvin I made, but didn't like the Hobbes and he corrected me, redrawing it and "writing" some of the elements that make up the Hobbes character.

    We've done experiments in the past of tracing images and seeing how well Julian can remember them by drawing them separately. It becomes pretty clear that at those early stages, it's about becoming familiar with the shapes and forms -and the medium by which you apply it. Based on this experiment (albeit small) I think copying/tracing are extremely beneficial to the memory development of concepts.

  • Write a Reply or Comment