More often than not, I am confronted with middle school students who lack confidence in drawing and are self-conscious of their abilities. Even students who clearly have a knack for drawing tend to be critical of themselves. Why is this? As elementary school children we have no inhibitions surrounding our drawings. Drawing is fun! There is no hand wringing to be had over a part of a drawing one just can’t get right. As students mature into middle school, what happens that causes them to lose this freedom, confidence, and clarity?
Almost everyone can remember drawing as young child, or at the very least has observed children drawing. There is something wild, uninhibited, and joyful about the way kids at this age approach drawing. As children grow up, they begin to develop a clearer sense of self in relation to others, which comes with inevitable comparisons to their peers. “They’re so much better at drawing than me!” or “I will never be able to draw like that” are common refrains in the middle school Art room. To circumvent these insecurities, I find it helpful to first talk with students about what drawing actually is: a means of communication.
Drawing is the language of Art. Before written language, humans were drawing to communicate ideas, a famous example being the Paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux, estimated to be 20,000 years old. Before children can write, or sometimes even fully speak, they can draw. In this context, it makes sense many students with language-based learning disabilities find success in the visual arts as a form of nonverbal communication.
What I say to many disbelieving students (and adults) is that anyone can learn how to draw. Drawing is a skill that is not only developed by practice, but also by understanding and utilizing the intellectual mechanisms we use to accomplish our drawing goals. Developing the observational skills to understand how to translate what we see onto paper happens in the right hemisphere of the brain, which is in charge of processing visual/spatial relations, as well as creativity, imagination, and intuition. The left hemisphere is tasked with activities related to analysis, logic, and reasoning, such as solving math equations or writing. Accessing and developing the right side of the brain is what allows us to be able to draw an object accurately as it exists in space, and this can be achieved by practicing specific drawing exercises that force us to override our left hemisphere.
I believe the other half of the secret to drawing is intuition + confidence. Sometimes, while working on a drawing, there is a point where everything just flows, and every line one draws just feels “right”. This feeling of flow can be experienced in other activities, like playing sports, which makes it easy for students to relate to. At some point during a unit on drawing, intuition will kick in and things will click for that student who “can’t draw”. When such a student gets a small taste of success in this way, it inspires confidence, which keeps them in that intuitive, feel-good flow. Their attitude then shifts from “I can only draw stick figures” to “wow, I can’t believe I drew that!”. It’s a moment that is unpredictable, but for the overwhelming majority of students, it is a powerful, singular moment that boosts the confidence and self-worth that so many of us struggle with during the tumultuous middle school years.
Regardless of the career path one takes, a foundation in drawing helps children to more fully express their ideas, emotions, and values, especially when verbal or written language is challenging. And success breeds success, so a successful drawing session may translate to confidence and perseverance in the face of an academic challenge. In the end, no matter the type of drawing we engage in, from a carefully rendered portrait to a little doodle on the margins of one’s notes, we find a common thread that unites us in the history of human expression.
Head Teacher, MS/HS Art
The Churchill School and Center