Section 1


Outline of Human Phylogeny

Evolutionary Trees
and DNA

Brain Evolution

Hand and Bipedality

Section 2
Social and socio-
cultural systems

Primate societies

Social relations and the evolution of culture

Social relations, communication and cognition

Human socio-cultural patterns

Tools and symbolic behaviour

Palaeolithic Art

Contemporary hunter-gatherer art

Section 3
Ontogeny and symbolism

Editorial Introduction: Ontogeny & Phylogeny

The role of ontogenesis

Brain, cognition, and language

Early interaction and cognitive skills

Language and thought

Theories of symbolization
and development

Children's drawings and the evolution of art

Section 4
Language systems

Spoken language and
sign language

The gestural primacy hypothesis

Comparative cognition

Animal language and cognition

Language acquisition


The prehistory of grammar

Writing systems


Links Policy

Relevant Links

Children's drawings and the evolution of art

J. Gavin Bremner

Abstract Early psychological studies of children's art aimed to gain access to children's cognitive development through investigating the way their drawings developed, the assumption being that peculiarities or shortcomings in their drawings reflected immature cognition. Recent work on children's drawing has cast doubt on this assumption for two main reasons. Firstly, children's drawings are unlikely to be a direct reflection of how they understand reality; production problems are bound to intervene, ranging from simple motor-skill limitations, to relatively high-level graphic planning problems. For this reason, recent work has studied drawing as a specific skill rather than as a phenomenon reflecting general principles of cognitive development. Secondly, implicit in much early work was the view that children's drawing was simply a poorly developed version of the adult form. Recent work, however, suggests that children have different aims when they draw. At the extreme, there is the suggestion that early drawing is aesthetic rather than representational, and that its gradual development towards representational art arises because adults push children in that direction. And even in theories that view children's art as representational, there is growing recognition that children aim to represent different things, for instance how objects are arranged relative to each other rather than how they appear from a single viewpoint.

A number of early workers held the view that parallels could be drawn between the development of child art and the evolution of art through historical time. This is currently a controversial view, however. On the one hand Gablik (1976) claims that there are clear parallels between the developmental sequence seen in children's cognitive development and the sequence seen in the evolution of art, and goes on to argue that the historical development of art was a direct function of cognitive evolution. On the other hand, Gombrich (1960) dismisses such a connection, claiming that in art-history there is no discernible developmental sequence from primitive to sophisticated art, and suggests instead that changes in artistic style arise as the intentions of the artist change to suit the culture within which s/he is working.

Current accounts of the development of children's art have something to contribute to this controversy. Firstly, the view that children's drawings are not a direct reflection of their general cognitive level should lead us to ask whether Gablik is safe in drawing a parallel between cognitive evolution and art-history. If there was a clear link of this sort would we not also expect to see it in ontogeny? There is more in the developmental literature in support of Gombrich, since many of the phenomena and developmental changes appear to relate more to the child's intentions than to limitations in his or her cognitive structures. However, most developmentalists would see Gombrich's account as too extreme in dismissing any developmental aspect in the history of art. Although changes in style may relate to changes in the artist's intentions, Gombrich recognizes that these intentions relate to the demands of the culture in which the artist lives. There are strong arguments to support the hypothesis that cultural evolution is closely tied to cognitive evolution of the individuals within it. Assuming that this is true, there may still be an important sense in which the evolution of art occurs on a developmental sequence, not because it reflects directly the developing cognitions of the artist, but because it reflects an adaptation to the developing demands of cultures that are evolving new ways of thinking about the world.