Stages of Drawing 3: Age of Reason through to Realism

The final chapter in this mini-series on how drawing develops. If you missed parts one (which covers roughly toddlers through early elementary) and part two (late elementary to beginning middle school) be sure to check those out. Today, we’ll be looking at the final three defined stages, but those last two are different than the others.

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.

Age of Reason/Pseudo-Naturalistic

Ages 11 – 13

The product is now far more important than the process.

Shading, details, stage-managing. This stage is all about getting the art to look “right”. Problem is, sometimes, (much of the time) it doesn’t (to the artist’s own eyes).

By this stage, children are trying to figure out who they are. They are asking questions, and often arguing about the answers. If you educate in the Classical style, these kids are likely exploding in the Dialectic stage of development. They are questioning everything, trying to compare things to each other, to the way things “should be”, they’re hearing what others are saying about themselves as individuals, or as a collective group. They are trying on labels, trying new things, abandoning old pursuits.

Additionally, in the USA, most schools, stop formal art education here, in the middle school years (if they haven’t done so earlier). It may be offered as an elective, but with more classes to choose from, and more students questioning whether or not they are “good” at art, fewer students will sign up for classes. In the academic world outside the art classroom, crafts and creative projects give way to notes, tests, and reports. Drawing, rarely integrated into other, “more serious,” classes ceases to be a part of a person’s life,unless the person wants it to be. At this point, with few formal art classes, little encouragement to integrate art elsewhere, only the doggedly determined will keep going.

In art, for those who are still working at it, this desire to make things the way they “should be” often leads to a new stiffness in art.

Art is no longer spontaneous or surprising to the artist. The child who used to seize their crayons and just start drawing and making stuff up and creating new objects as they went along, has been supplanted by the child who now “stage manages” their drawings, trying to fill the backgrounds with “appropriate” or “symbolic” images. In an effort to draw more realistically, and thus match up with their internal “what good art looks like” monitor, artists at this stage are more willing than ever to try to copy photographs and other images, rather than draw out of their heads.

Despite this, there is new progress. Shading appears more frequently than ever, and the child is trying to model how light works as it plays across their composition. Body proportions are more accurate (even if some gender differences become more exaggerated), and facial expressions on drawings will be more expressive and more accurately done. Clothing becomes more complex than ever, complete with wrinkles, flowing movement, and possibly complex color interplay. Colors either reflect reality, or emphasize the emotions of the composition. Cartooning is popular at this age, in part, it seems, because the deliberate exaggerations of the cartoon (2) forgive the difficulty of getting realistic proportions correct. They are more willing to experiment with new tools and mediums, and have the fine motor control to manipulate the tools to use them.

And yet…

Because they are exploring who they are and trying to get things “right” in all areas in their life, in art, this leads to a certain style of stiffness, which is why this stage is often called “Pseudo-Realistic.”. “Pseudo-“, is from the Greek word “Pseudes “ meaning “false”, and “Realistic”, comes from the Latin (2) meaning “by birth, or according to nature.” The art looks so close…but not close enough. The lines can seem stiff, the shading uncertain, or completely lacking in places the student didn’t want to “screw up”.

This piece is very special to me. I was in the Pseudo-Naturalistic stage…but this is my “breakthrough” piece. “Breakthrough” isn’t always a specific image (in fact, it often is a time period, not a work), but this composition was how I figured out how to “block” figures for the first time, and after that, I suddenly held the key to drawing anything! Nonetheless, you can see aspects of the Pseudo-Naturalistic stage: I’ve drawn many shadows, lots of detail (those dots and marks on that owl are extremely straight, lined up perfectly, aren’t they! (You can see where I erased the lines on the lower section and re-drew them flat. But all those natural marks, lined up in nice, neat rows!) . The shadows on the trunk perfectly mirror the shape of the owl, and all the lines of the sections of the owl have crisp shadows that follow the sections.
I’ve composed the background carefully, making the trees recede into the distance, while perching the owl on a fallen trunk, but the trees, especially the pine trees, look schematic, based on the classic “Christmas Tree” style shape. He took me several days to complete, most of that being the detail. That being said, piece is the one that helped me figure out how drawing “worked”. From there, everything was different for me.

Apparently, I finished it on February 6, 1991.

This “stiffness” is unfortunate, because one of the marks of a mature artist is a freeness of line and movement. Most experienced artists or draftsmen, just draw, pulling their pencil freely across the paper because they know, if they don’t make the “right” line, they can just keep drawing to “find” the right line. (Watch a Disney animator sometime (This links to a video of an animator drawing “Stitch” from “Lilo and Stitch”) . Initially, then they’re blocking out a character, they’ll draw a line, or circle, and trace back and forth across that same line or shape. After a half-dozen or more passes, the overall line or shape is what the animator is looking for, but none of the individual lines are what they wanted.) A “bad line” doesn’t scare a mature and experienced artist. The “Wrong Line” (which really doesn’t exist in the artist’s mind) terrifies students in this stage.

Teaching to This Age

Many of the techniques of the previous, “Dawning Realism/Transitional Stage” still apply here.

Broaden your student’s idea of what art can be by exploring art genres, cultures, and ideas beyond the “big names” of the art world. Explore tangential art fields (fields which were once considered part of the art sphere, but are now outside the fine art definitions of painting and sculpture.) Try architecture, arts & crafts furniture, knitting, crochet, (even unusual kinds!–check out this garden fence!), art of native peoples of the Americas and Africa (including feather, bead, and quill-work, weaving work, carving, and decorating of everyday objects), abstract art, sewing, carving, leather-work, anything that involves making something new and more beautiful than mere usability would require.

Watch out for how you talk about yourself, and watch how they talk about themselves and their work. Don’t tell them (or yourself) that you can’t get something, or are too stupid to understand something at a particular (artificially constructed) rate of time. (4). Practice, verbally admire what you like about what you did, and comment on what, specifically, went in a way you didn’t want. Make it matter of fact, (e.g. “that line is too long, the eye doesn’t appear to be shaped right”…) but not a value judgement (e.g. “That looks stupid.” “I hate that,” ) Make drawing like most things: a problem to be solved.

If they show interest in another medium such as:

  • Watercolor
  • Oil & Acrylic Paints
  • Pastels
  • Acrylic Pour
  • Oil Pastels
  • Ink & Calligraphy

And these items will fit in your family’s or class’s life and budget, then consider letting them indulge. Library and art books, as well as Youtube is filled with artists showing how to do various things with their medium. Let them explore: if your student or child feels more accomplished with a brush in hand rather than pencil, it may help them keep going in art.

Crisis of Decision

The Point of Potential Pause

It would be so much more poetic to write something dramatic, like “The Point of No Return,” but that simply isn’t true. Anyone can pick up drawing later in life. But at some point, many people simply assume they “can’t draw”, and they cease doing so. But drawing is a skill, like cooking, like writing. It’s true that talent + training will vault some individuals to the top of the cooking/writing/drawing spheres of influence, but anyone can develop their skills and cook a delicious meal, write an entertaining email or private poem (maybe a public poem!) and can draw or paint to express themselves, or draw forth feelings, or anything they like. It’s a tool, not a cute trick.

At some point, usually during adolescence and early teen years, we each decide whether we are “good at art”.  If someone decides they are not, then they simply stop trying. The process and the resulting “failures” of their final products are more frustrating than enjoyable, and therefore, they quit.  If the process is enjoyable enough to keep going, or if someone has enough “successes” to encourage them through their “failures” then they will continue to push through the art.

For those that quit, they will often quit at the Dawning Realism / Age of Reason stages, and their art will remain there, or even regress. Adults often embarrassingly discover that, despite their accomplishments elsewhere, their drawing skills remain stubbornly stuck at their early adolescent stage, and this, often, makes them too embarrassed to seek classes or help to improve their skills.

The irony is, at this point, for most people, the fine muscle control is fully developed by this point. In earlier stages, part of what held the child back was continuing to build the muscle dexterity with fine motor skills to deftly handle the pencil, the brush, the pen. But at this stage, when many surrender, they could handle the art tools with the most of the same basic dexterity as an artist can. The problem, now, is between their ears; their self-confidence and their know-how.

So what happens if a person keeps going?

Breakthrough: Realism

The process is again enjoyable, the product is variable (but that’s okay!)

Despite the name, the “Realism” stage has nothing to do with being able to draw “realistically”. It has everything to do with their “realistic attitude” towards art.

The realism stage emerges when the artist is as comfortable with his or her own “failures” (however they define that) as they are with their “successes” (ditto). They now recognize, often through experience and repetition, that they will have drawing failures, and “failing” simply is part of the creative process. The “failure” is no longer proof of their “inability” to draw, it’s simply an “oops–don’t like that. Moving on!”

This picture, completed just over a year ago, took me about an hour, once I’d blocked him out. Note some of the differences between him and the owl above: The pencil marks indicating feather markings are not nearly so clear, nor so rigidly aligned in rows! The texture of the branch is semi-scribbled, unlike the nice, continuous lines that made the perch of the previous owl, but that semi-scribble helps create a rough look to the eyes. The shadows are looser, appropriate for a feathered animal, not the clean mirrored line below the earlier owl. The background is suggested, but not drawn. We know he’s perched in forest, (like the other owl) in a pine tree, based on the few branches framing his head. Any other background was superfluous. These sorts of details mark a relaxed artist, one who’s willing to make mistakes, and is just playing. The result, ironically, tends to look more realistic to others.

The artist is still aware of his or her shortfalls. They, better than anyone else, know EXACTLY where they are weak in their art skills, but creating something is more satisfying and pleasurable than not doing so. They may acquire books and tools to help them further their art. They may enroll in classes, or watch YouTube videos of other artists in order to learn new techniques. They WANT to grow, try, fail, and keep going.

Some of these people will go on to pursue art professionally. Others will enjoy it as a hobby. Yet others will integrate it subtly into their lives, or keep drawing tucked up their mental sleeve as a handy tool to use when the need arises.

From there, the sky’s the limit: experimentation, classes, ideas, sketches, all will grow the young artist into more and different phases of maturity.

Welcome to the world of art.