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Do children who are precocious at drawing grow up to be artists?

“The majority of gifted child artists do not become artists as adults,” the authors of a new article in The Psychologist write.

All parents (and grandparents) think their child’s artwork is amazing, of course.

All parents (and grandparents) think their child’s artwork is amazing, of course. But some children are able to create drawings at a remarkably young age that are truly astonishing in their three-dimensional realism — and without any training.

But does that precocity mean they will grow up to become artists?

No, according to a fascinating article in the October issue of The Psychologist, the monthly publication of the British Psychological Society.

“We tend to assume that the greater the skill in realistic drawing, and the earlier the skill emerges, the more likely such a child is to become an artist,” write the authors of the article, developmental psychologists Jennifer Drake of Brooklyn College and Ellen Winner of Boston College.

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But that assumption is not true. “The majority of gifted child artists do not become artists as adults,” state the two psychologists. “Even astounding realistic drawing skill is not sufficient to predict becoming an artist.”

Some children who draw realistically (and obsessively) at a very young age use those skills to develop a deeper understanding of nature. They are more likely, note Drake and Winner, to become scientists than artists.

Other young children have the skills but not the passion for drawing.

Of course, as Drake and Winner also point out, many well-known artists — John Everett Millais, John Singer Sargent and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, for example — did produce realistic drawings as at a precociously early age.

But many others — Paul Klee, for example — did not.

IQ not a factor

Interestingly, studies have shown that children with precocious drawing skills do not have higher IQs, on average, than other children. They do, however, have exceptional perceptual skills, as Drake and Winner’s own research has demonstrated:

Realistic drawing skill is strongly associated with the use of a superior local processing style (focusing on the parts on a visual display). We administered a version of the Block Design Task once in traditional format, and once with the blocks segmented in space from one another, making it easier to copy the designs with actual blocks. While typical children were helped by presentation of the task in segmented form, since the segmentation reveals each part (or segment) of the design to be reproduced with blocks, precocious realists benefited less from this external segmentation, presumably because they were able mentally to segment a complex form into its parts.

The precious realists also outperformed typical drawers in the ability to detect small shapes hidden within complex figures — a task requiring a kind of analysis of a form into its parts. … We observed these children copying complex drawings of non-objects not by first sketching in the global outline and then modifying this, but rather by building up their drawings detail-by-detail, part by part. This is only possible if one has analysed the observed model into its parts and can slow keep an image of the to-be-completed whole in mind.

Five predictive factors

So what factors are likely to predict that a child with precociously realistic drawing skills will become an artist? Drake and Winner have identified five of them:

(1) the child’s drawings have interesting, arresting compositions;

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(2) the child’s drawings have decorative, aesthetic features and/or expressive power;

(3) the child shows a hunger to look at art (whether in museums or books), and hence a deep interest in art;

(4) the child has enormous drive — a rage to master; and finally,

(5) the child has a desire not just to make excellent art, but to be original, innovative, new.

True prodigies, therefore, are rare. (Sorry, parents.)

You can read the article at The Psychologist’s website. It includes examples of drawings from young children with exceptional skills.