Drawing Before Language

With children, drawing is an everyday occurrence, one that happens all around the globe and in all cultures. How common it is to see a child marking with crayon on a sheet of paper or on a more ambitious canvas such as a wall, creating images from which only they can deduce the true meaning. Children draw for fun, they draw to entertain themselves, they draw to share what is in their heads. The question is, what happened to that child-like fixation on drawing our thoughts? Why do doodles and sketches — for the majority of the working professions and academic disciplines — seem too elementary to be taken seriously? A closer look into how we learn to draw as children gives reasoning to this dismissal of drawing’s relevance as we mature.

Can you remember the first time a writing instrument (a crayon, a marker, a pencil) was placed in your hand and you inadvertently pressed it against a hard surface, making a visible, physical mark? Though most likely you couldn’t articulate it at the time, you saw the result of an action, one that created a permanent record of that action. What change did this cause in your brain? It gave you an avenue for impacting the world around you in a way that other (older) human beings could begin to understand. This first encounter may come earlier for some, but on average children learn to scribble at age two. At this age, the motor skills necessary to direct the scribbling motions are less than established, but quickly, only about a year later, they are capable of allowing a child to draw recognizable shapes such as triangles, squares, and the like (see fig. 2). Typically, around the age of four, children begin to draw their first representations (distinguishable by other people) of human beings. They usually follow a similar formula: a rounded, circular shape for the head, with dots inside the circle for eyes, with a line or oval for the mouth |Steinhart, 2004|. While a child might tell you that her drawing is one of “Grandma” or “Jimmy,” it rarely bears a close resemblance to Grandma or Jimmy. Here lies a key point: children draw what they know, not what they see. To them, the circle with one eye bigger than the other is Grandma, not because one of Grandma’s eyes is larger than the other, but because the child was thinking of Grandma while making the drawing. In another example, if you ask a child to draw two bananas (which in physical space are overlapping each other), typically the child will draw two bananas — one beside the other; they know that in their field of vision there are two bananas, so they represent them that way in the drawing |Steinhart, Undressed Art|.

“I did draw a lot as a child...I stopped drawing that way when I realized that I did not have the skill to truly capture what I saw and became frustrated.” - Survey #41


As children age, their ability to represent what they see as a reproduction of their observations lags behind their grasp on language, and this gap in skill causes them to become increasingly critical of and frustrated by their drawings. The brain is beginning to lateralize, or specialize functions into left-brain and right-brain processes; the left hemisphere of the cerebral cortex is devoted to logic and analysis, categorization, naming, and symbols, while the right hemisphere is more intuitive, activated more by spatial relationships than quantities |Steinhart, 2004|.


Not long after the age of ten, the switch to explaining and representing the outside world through spoken or written language is complete.

Typically by the age of ten, the two hemispheres are carrying on their own functions, reducing the ability to cross-over from one way of analyzing to the other when observing and representing the world around us. As this lateralization process is taking place, things that a child would have expressed through drawing are increasingly expressed through verbal language. Eventually, not long after the age of ten, the switch to explaining, describing, and representing the outside world (as well as internal thoughts) through spoken or written language is basically complete |Steinhart, 2004|.

The educational system also plays a significant role in this shift. When literature, mathematics, and science are the focus of educational curricula, drawing out ideas and thoughts is less encouraged — and often penalized. We see drawing as something that is less quantifiably evaluated, unable to compare it with standardized teaching and testing practices, and regard its immeasurable nature as a hindrance to academic progress.

“However, I am a horrible artist, so most of my drawings end up looking like a 5 year old’s.” - Survey #42

So what happens when a child stops drawing? Their drawing ability doesn’t progress beyond the last time they drew. And if that child was to revisit drawing later in life, perhaps 30 years later, their ability to represent things around them will be almost exactly as it was when they were nine or ten. As mentioned before, a child draws what they know, rather than what they see. As Peter Steinhart describes in The Undressed Art, “Once a child has worked out a conventional person or house or kitten or dog, that child will go on drawing the same version over and over again...Once the brain lays down these connections, they may hold on to their franchise forever” |Steinhart, 2004|. It is no wonder then that adults who haven’t drawn for years are often ashamed of even attempting to represent anything pictorially and instead continue to increase their fluency and usage of written and verbal language.

Where did the enjoyment and fascination with drawing go? It was replaced as we matured with the more conventional, learned, reliable structure of language. To be clear, a healthy grasp of language is of great importance, however it raises the question: do the long-lasting effects of this heavy emphasis on language and analytical thinking impact the way we view the validity of certain forms of communication later in life?