The Stages of Drawing, Part 2: Schematic and Dawning

If you missed part one of this mini-series, click here. This short, probably three-part series, is about how drawing develops in most people, and how you can help teach it, integrate it, and encourage it in your children and students.

To recap, the stages of drawing are generally defined like this:

  • Scribble (with sub-stages): Approx: ages 18 mos to 3 or 4 years old.
  • Pre-Schematic: approx. ages 4-7
  • Schematic: approx. ages 6-10
  • Dawning Realism/Transitional Stage: approx. ages 9-11
  • Age of Reason/Pseudo-Naturalistic Stage: approx ages 11-13
  • Period of Decision/Period of Crisis: (This takes place for most of us in our early adolescence. Most will decide it’s not worth pursuing art, and their style will stall at Dawning Realism or Age of Reason stages.)
  • Realism:  This stage is different.

Yesterday’s post focused on the Scribble and Pre-Schematic years, which cover a child’s drawing development from 18 months to roughly 7 years old. So, having gotten our hypothetical kid through the first or second grade, what developments do we see next? Keep in mind, each child is slightly different, these age ranges are suggestions, not law, and the transition from one stage to the next is gradual, so you will see aspects of the next stage flow in, and ebb out, while elements of previous stages pop up.

With that in mind, let’s begin with an embarrassing moment for me: want to see what I drew like when I was eight?


Ages 7-9 (But as early as age 6, as late as age 10)

The Child enjoys the process and the product.

At the risk of seriously embarrassing myself here, I recently found a cache of my drawings from this stage. I loved horses, and drew them over, and over, and over, often with princesses on their backs. I drew them the same way. I drew the sun the same way. I drew the flowers the same way.

Oh dear. And believe it or not, that princess and pony had a near-exact twin for many years…

I was SUCH a schematic artist.

Notice similarities? These become important…

And I was 8. Right in the middle of this stage.

( I could kiss past little me for DATING my pieces. It helps me, as an adult and mature artist, to see the development of my own art. I STILL date most of my art (I think I’ll be more consistent about that practice now I’m reminded how useful it is), and it helps me to see when I thought or drew different things. Please get your kids in the habit of dating their pieces, or date them for them. (Especially the ones you end up keeping.). No matter where they end up in their art journey, they will enjoy looking at their childhood work more if they can put them in an approximate “order”.)

Still not done…

Since we already know “Schema” is a Greek word for “image, appearance, nature of a thing” we know that this stage means the child is drawing “things”. They typically are developing a complex “schema” or “icon patterns/images” to represent complex things.

For example, most children will choose a particular symbol for a sun: a yellow ball, a yellow ball with rays shooting out of it, a yellow quarter-pie slice in the corner of the drawing. In my case, I apparently gravitated toward a yellow half (or quarter) moon with an orange ring around it, along the top edge of my creations.

The child will use that “short-hand symbol” over and over, often in the same locations on the page.

Same horse, same sun…

Children are now developing patterns: Houses will look similar from picture to picture. Trees will too. Any type of animal (horses for me) will often be drawn from the same point of view and will look (VERY!) similar to each other. I remember LOVING these horses, even though adult me is wondering why the horse is still walking on its busted legs! (Horse legs don’t bend like that…)

There is now a sense of “up” and “down”. Children know that the sky is “up” and the ground “down”, and will often paint a “sky” stripe at the top of the paper and a “ground” stripe on the bottom of the paper. Things that belong in the “sky” are at the top of the paper and things that belong on the “ground” are standing on the “ground” strip. If there is no ground strip. things are standing on the bottom of the paper.

This one isn’t mine; it’s one of my kids. You can see schematic style flowers, a butterfly, and the ground strip. There’s even, in the roots, an example of “X-Ray vision”
often seen at this stage.
You may have noticed that I don’t have a “sky strip” in my childhood pictures–there is a reason for that. I had an art teacher who taught us,in early elementary school to have a foreground, and a background to each picture. And in the background, you had a “horizon”. The horizon was where the sky met the ground, so you always drew the sky down to meet the ground, and the ground up to meet the sky. “Hello, sky” “Hello, ground”.

So, consequently, I drew backgrounds, complete with horizons…but look closer. The horse, if it’s standing, is always standing on a ground strip, in the foreground, separate from the background. Art education gave me extra tools, but some developmental stages remain true to form.

Colors are more realistic; a child may actively look for the “correct” colors. Or they may tell you, “I made it that color because I couldn’t find this color.”

Proportions are better as well, or at least, more consistent with reality. When they are not, its more likely because the child is trying to express something about the emotional feel of that thing rather than trying to depict reality.

Teaching to this age:

Beyond the previous, letting the child have access to art materials, you can start to give directed lessons at this time, as well as feedback–but there are a couple of things to keep in mind.

In terms of feedback, keep asking them to tell you about their picture, ask questions about details, and why the child chose them.

However, there’s a few new suggestions. First, if you can, avoid words like “right,” and “wrong,” (these can install fear that they have done the drawing incorrectly, or, if they’ve done it well, that they might do it “wrong” in the future. It also implies there is a a “right” way to draw, and a “wrong”, way–and this is not true. There are several common techniques which many artists, scientists, and draftspeople use, but there is no, single, correct way to create a drawing.

If you can, also avoid the word, “mistake”, (or any of its thesaurus-mates: gaffe, blunder, error, oopsie, boo-boo…) again, to try and reduce any anxiety about making “mistakes” in art. As Bob Ross was famous for saying, “There’s no mistakes, just happy little accidents.” If there’s an obvious problem–a big eraser mark, a scribbling, something like that, try asking, “what happened here?” and see what the child says. If they say, “I erased something that didn’t work.” you can respond, “Okay, what happened next?” See what they say. The goal here, is to explore what they did and how they did it, and praise their perseverance (they kept going despite stuff not working out according to their original plan).

Book recommendations for this age would include anything by Lee J. Ames who wrote the popular series, “Draw 50…” (Animals, robots, bird, boats, cartoons, horses, monsters…the list goes on and on). He uses blocking to draw his animals, and that will reinforce looking at creatures to see how they can break down to smaller, simpler shapes, which will help the artist to draw anything later.

I also recommend, in the public domain, books by E.G. Lutz. This man was the Lee J. Ames of the turn of the 19th/20th century, and wrote many books specifically aimed at children and/or the beginning artist. It too, uses blocking to build animals, the same way artists were trained for a centuries in Europe. Walt Disney himself stated he learned to draw and animate from the books Lutz wrote. You can find his books here:

What To Draw and How to Draw It (published 1913)

Drawing Made Easy (published 1921)

Since these books are in the Public Domain, you can print, copy, use, post, re-print, as often as you like.

Dawning Realism

Ages: approx. 9-11

The Product is becoming as important as the Process

In this age, children start to form their own identities separate from their parents. This has been known as the “gang age”–not the way that word is used in the news, but rather, the idea that kids start to form group friendships, often of their own gender, and begin to breakaway and question their parents ideas about life. (In classical terms, they are entering the “Dialectic/Logical” stages of development and will start questioning everything.

Or, as my father always put it, “Every adolescent turns into a Philadelphia Lawyer.” (I have no idea what Philly has to do with it–we’re not from there!)

Towards the end of this stage, they start to internally define what is “good art”—and they are often falling short of this internal definition.  As a result, when they compare their drawings and artworks against this self-definition, they find themselves wanting. You may begin to hear them talk about how badly they draw, or how much they “suck” at art, or how they “are not an artist.” This can surprise parents sometimes, as their formerly-creative child seems to suddenly hate anything artistic and think they aren’t.

Self-criticism is the new name of the game, and it can be much worse if one of their friends or family are “good” at art. They, unwittingly, provide a living, breathing example of what the child think they are not, artistically.

However, they will try. The process is still enjoyable, it’s just growing less so. Art in this stage is more realistic. When I clicked over to nine, you can see a distinct change in my art.

This has been digitally enhanced to (I hope) make the drawing easier to see. The paper has still seen better days…What a difference a year makes though.

While the horse is still not-very-realistic, you can see I’ve tried to add details to him. His legs now bend the correct way; I’ve learned about fetlocks, and the correct shape of hooves, and how to make my horse NOT look like a meatball with legs. The mane is now obviously made of hair, not a yellow blob. But look in the background just to the left of the horses’s chest–that horse in the background is a throwback to my previous, schematic horses, almost to perfection. His legs even bend the way they did the previous year!

An you’ll see this. Children in this age will develop new ways of seeing the world more accurately.

The ground strip and sky strip will give way to a ground plane and sky plane (the ground recedes from the viewer to the background where it meet the sky). You start to see more uses of perspective, even some one-point perspective, where children draw streets, railroads, things like that, which recede in the distance to a point. (The pictures I’m showing you are from too early in the stage to show that yet.)

Severe gender differences traditionally appear here. Human figures will have more complex clothes which will also feature folds, ect. as the clothes wrap around the body. And the figures will most often be very obviously male or female, with a lot of visual indicators (eyelashes, color schemes, body types, hair types) to set them apart. Most children will choose “themes” and draw these items over and over, trying to get them to “look right”. In my life, it was horses, sometimes animals, occasionally humans (they were hard to draw, but I tried), but never machinery. To this day, I struggle with drawing a halfway decent car if I have to for my illustration work.

One of the few non-horses in this collection. You can see new detail though, even in something as smooth as underwater animals: The dolphin has tiny teeth, the ship has hole (though which one fish is peeking) a fallen mast, and rigging. The coral mound has each coral polyp drawn individually…I’m still early in this stage, but I’m trying.

TONS of details will appear. More detail than ever before. Just as my horse in this stage had individual pencil strokes to indicate his mane, where before a giant half-oval blob would suffice, so children at this stage will add more and more detail. Keys on keyboards, EVERY window in a high-rise, every brick or stone in a building, the wooden supports of rollercoasters, buttons and patterns in fabric, plates, furniture or in frames, strokes of hair, any detail they can think of. These details may likely be their way of trying to make their drawing more “realistic.”

At yet…the old schema will still erupt at times. Like my background horse looking very different from the foreground horse, so sometimes, older images will occur in these new-style drawings. Perspective might change from side on to overhead. (Ex. a forest in side-on perspective, might show a river or pond, from overhead.)

Still, for the most part, drawing is more pleasurable than not. As these details are added, they feel some satisfaction. They may feel pleasure enough that they continue to the next stage.

But some will give up here. Then they will resist drawing anything.

How to teach this age:


No, I’m not assuming you’re swearing.

Kids this age are becoming EXTREMELY self-critical, and they catch onto adults self-criticism of their own abilities (or perceived lack thereof), as well as vague, or evasive comments. In a family or classroom setting, be alert for the self-critical voice, even if it’s yours, it can spread quickly and potentially accelerate the development of self-criticism in others. I can’t speak for the entire world, but in America, we’ve developed a self-deprecating, or even self-abusive form of talking down to ourselves and about ourselves.

Oh, I can’t draw.

I can’t do that.

I’m no good at art.

I could never draw that well.

(Feel free to substitute other words here–“music”, “science”, “spelling”, “writing”, “history”, “cooking”, “being organized”, “being on time”, “math”, …stop me when I’ve hit a nerve–I’ve hit several of mine…)

And yet, all those nouns–drawing, art, music, science, spelling, writing, cooking, organization, math, punctuality, are LEARNABLE skills. And if we want to encourage them in our kids, we need to encourage-and forgive-ourselves too.

So firstly, if at all possible, don’t say, “I’m not an artist.” or “I never could draw, “, or any of the angry reddish phrases above. They tacitly give permission to give up and not care. If you get frustrated with your seeming lack of ability, try:

“Art isn’t my current strong point, but let’s try …”

“I’m still working toward improving my skills…”

“Well, let’s give it a go. I’m looking forward to see what happens.”

These statements acknowledge your limitations, but at the same time, show you are working towards your own growth. (Because I hope you are, at least occasionally, drawing alongside your child, or on your own, or in front of your class!) Don’t say it disgustedly, just state it as a matter of fact, and move on. You are GROWING, and there is always struggle and pain as part of the growth process.

If you like something, even if it’s just one small thing, SAY SO, out loud.

“Oh, I like that line…”

“I like that color…”

“I like that design/nose/eye/ect.”

All of these tweaks will model how we each need to forgive ourselves for our mistakes, appreciate our successes, and always look at the “process” more than the “product”. Ask not, ‘what did I make?’ but ‘What did I learn [about myself, about how to draw that object, about how to use this tool, about how to try something different next time…]?’

Try to be very precise with your feedback, both with compliments and problems you see (if your child is asking for improvement feedback.) If they are drawing from life or from a photo, compare the two and be specific about what you see. Is the dog’s leg not as thick as it is in the photo? Is one arm longer than the other? Do you like how a certain line looks, or the overall proportions? Ask them for similar feedback on your drawings, “What do you see that I could change?” Encourage respectful dialogue.

Like writing occurs in drafts, so can art, and remind your children of this. (If you haven’t already done so.) Encourage kids to do drafts of art, or ideas, like they do papers. Look at what you want to do, do it, ask what worked, what didn’t, and how that might work next time, then do it again. When you’re studying a scientific topic, a historical event (or painting thereof), find an image, and copy it by hand, then ask yourselves, “What went well? What needs improvement, and where?”

This article “Austin’s Butterfly” is a great way of demonstrating this technique, and a way to use the “gang age” to your advantage (yes, these children are younger than we are discussing, but the technique remains the same.) Encourage respectful critique within a group.

Keep the art supplies available. Assign art as part of science (draw what you’re studying, don’t just label a worksheet. Drawing will help you remember it better anyway. Learning about a cell? Find a diagram, and draw and label it. Learning about biomes? Research what a biome looks like, then draw it, draw it in color. Learning about the human body? Guess what…)

Another way to encourage art at this time is to try some different, art-related fields, which don’t hinge so strongly on “realism” (a source of frustration):

  • Abstract Art – no realism needed!
  • Handcrafts, like sewing, embroidery, whittling, jewelry-making, furniture or structure building.
  • Math-related art like tessellations, repeatable patterns, tangrams.
  • Check out books featuring different artists and encourage children to develop their own “taste” in art. It’s perfectly okay to think Monet’s work is pointless, or Picasso is “weird” (lots of critics did during their lifetimes!) Open up the dialogue about what they like about different artists or time periods and what they don’t. This gives them a chance to engage in art critique without having to be the “critiqued”! It also broadens their ideas of what “art” can look like, so look to more than the “Classic” artists. Try artworks by the native peoples of the Americas and Africa, which often employ abstract-like lines and patterns which some people find entrancing. Look at Chinese and Japanese ink paintings, and Sumi-e, which sometimes rely on “spilled ink” as as a technique. Look at architecture, furniture and furnishings of the Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Arts and Crafts movements. Seek stained glass of medieval cathedrals and mosques. Try work of quirky artists like M.C. Escher, Salvador Dali (Mr. Melting Clocks), or Heironymous Bosch, or modern art like Mark Rothko’s Color Field paintings, Georgia O’Keefes abstracts and flowers.
  • Go to museums and decide which was your favorites, or which ones you think were better suited in the dumpster (…just don’t say that last part while you’re still IN the museum!) When I went to New York with my art colleagues for my Senior Capstone Trip, we noticed, while touring yet another modern art museum, a number of paintings which we thought were atrocious had “Anonymous donation” tagged under them. We started to joke that these paintings were so awful, the artists left them on the back stoop in the middle of the night, praying it would make it into the collection so they could be a “legit” artist. I may not remember all those paintings, but obviously, I remember that event! They also provided a “contrast” for paintings which we thought were good. (I saw my very first Georgia O’Keefe in that museum. I just stood there in front if it in blissful awe until my group returned for me and tugged me along. The “atrocious” works were certainly a contrast to that one.)
  • All these will broaden the concept of what “art” CAN be, and give them a broader base to see what their creations could be. (As always, vet your art and artists ahead of time. Some artists and cultures can depict scenes of violence or sexuality which, depending on your child’s age, you may not want to introduce them to.)