The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Drawing in Infant Schools.

A Study in Practical Psychology.
by T.G. Rooper
Volume 4, 1893/94, pgs. 728-733

[Thomas Godolphin Rooper, 1847-1903, was an inspector of schools and personal friend of Charlotte Mason; much of his writing was for her P.N.E.U. meetings. His essay "Lyonesse" describes his time as a student at the Harrow boarding school. After he died (of spinal tuberculosis at the age of 56), Mason wrote a chapter in his honor which appears in her book, "Formation of Character," vol 5 of her series. He never married.]

A famous chemist, when asked if he could account for the secret of his success, replied that he set it down to the fact that in making his experiments he was in the habit of examining the residues, which most students threw away. Now, I suppose that at first sight nothing can seem more profitless than the study of the scribblings of the lisping limners [portrait artists] of the infant school. I hope, however, to prove to you that these scrawls are really worth the closest attention, because they both throw light on the teaching of drawing in general, and, what is of even more importance, are significant as illustrating the process by which the knowledge of an object grows up in the child's mind. We shall find ourselves as we watch a child drawing, introduced as it were behind the scenes, and able, to some extent, to witness the mind of the child in the act of grasping objects which are in front of its eyes.

In order to indicate to you the line of study, I will begin by describing an experiment which I made. Choosing a little girl from a class of children about six years of age, I placed her in front of the class and asked the others to draw her face. The girl stood fronting the class, and therefore was to be drawn full face. When the drawing had been made, I asked the little model to make a half turn, so that she now stood sideways before the class. I then asked the class to draw the face in the new position, i.e., in profile.

When I came to examine the results of the artists' efforts, I was surprised to find that, in some cases, an apparently unaccountable mistake had been made. When the model had stood full face the copy presented it in profile, and when the model had stood sideways, the copy presented it full face. If you are at a loss to understand how I judge the intention of the artist from the imperfect drawings, I call your attention to the position of the nose. When the model stands full face the nose is in the middle of the face; when the model stands sideways the nose is at the side. You see, however, that the child, in drawing the full face, has put the nose at the side, and, contrary-wise, in drawing the profile has set it in the middle.

Profile and Full Face Drawings

I shall endeavour to explain the cause of this strange discrepancy. As the first step in this explanation, allow me to direct your attention to two drawings of a tin mug. The model was set up as before, in two positions successively. In the first position, the handle was seen in the middle--that is, fore-shortened. You see that in the drawing, the handle appears at the side instead of in the middle. In the second position, the handle again appears at the side, where it should be. There is a slight difference in the two drawings, for the handle is not placed on the same side in both.

All this is curious, perhaps you will say, but what valuable lesson are you going to derive from these juvenile absurdities? When we look at an object, an image appears in our minds as soon as we take our eyes off it. Have we any evidence as to the nature of this image? We think of two things--one thing is the image in the mind, the other is the object which gave rise to the image, and which we picture to ourselves as wholly outside the mind. Can we tell what is the degree of correspondence between that which we call outer and that which we call inner. Again, do we know exactly how the mental picture is formed? Can we, for example, say with certainty whether the mental image is constructed bit by bit, growing up in the mind by degrees; or should we rather say that it is received by the mind as a whole, in the same way that the impression of a seal is received on wax at one pressure? Many people seem to think that the eye instructs the mind by a kind of "look and say" method. "If," it is often said, "a primrose be placed before the eye of the child, an image of that flower will be stamped on the child's mind," and it is thought that, whether the child can give a name to it or not, he sees the whole object correctly. If this be true, it follows that a child has only to look long enough at an object in order to procure an accurate mental image of it. Learning direct from nature thus seems a very simple thing, and words appear to be less of a help than a hindrance to knowledge. We are also led by this hypothesis to contrast knowledge of words with knowledge of things, and to insist that, if the student knows things, the words will take care of themselves.

Now, philosophy since its dawn has forever been pointing out the difficulty of accepting the seeming truism that the mind is to the object as a blank sheet of paper to a printer. Common sense, on the other hand, has continually revolted from the conclusions of philosophers, who appear to it to contend that men do not touch the tangible nor see the visible. The history of teaching, on the other hand, seems rather to support the judgment of philosophy than that of popular opinion and common sense. Practical teachers have usually found that children learn so little through the senses that they have almost entirely abandoned the attempt to fill the mind by aid of those channels. Even now, for example, most people will teach a table of weights before giving the children any practice in weighing. Teachers have shown a profound mistrust of the senses, and seem, in despair, to have abandoned all reliance on them as a basis of learning. It seems, however, that the arguments of philosophers can be submitted to practical tests. We can, to some extent, form an estimate of the accuracy of the information which is derived from what I have called the "look and say" method of studying nature. We can make experiments and ascertain the correctness of the mental image which is formed in the child's mind when he examines an object. We can give some answer to the question, "When a child's mental image of an object is compared with the object itself, how far will it stand the test of the comparison?" We can make a visible and tangible measurement of the mental gain after the eye has been at work receiving impressions from an object.

It is the study of the drawings of children that throws light on this obscure subject. The crude draughtsmanship of a child helps us to estimate the correspondence between his mental image of an object and the original, and to measure his power of improving, enlarging and correcting the picture which he sees within.

It will be observed that we are making a study of the images of objects received through the eye, and therefore we must be careful as to the nature of the drawings which we study. What the child draws in jest, or for amusement, or by any effort of imagination, must be excluded. The method of observation will be to set up some simple object before a child and to bid him draw it just as he sees it. A French philosopher, M. [Jacque] Passy, has made experiments in this direction, and has published them in a recent number of the Revue Philosophique. My aim in this paper is to unfold to you the leading ideas of Mons. Passy, and to show their bearing on the study of practical psychology.

There are two kinds of children who will be experimented on. Some will have already been in the habit of drawing things; others will never have held a pencil in their hands before. There is a considerable difference between the behaviour of the two. M. Passy thus describes the practiced hand:--"This child," he observes, "sets to work without hesitation; he seizes his pencil, secure of his power, and completes his design with a few rapid strokes; his execution is almost automatic, and nothing will induce him to study his model with attention. If you bid him look at what he is drawing, he just casts a cursory and half-contemptuous glance and then goes on quite regardless of what he has seen. His drawing is always the same, and it commences and ends at the same place. As soon as he is done, he hands you his work with an air of triumph; he is possessed of an infallible receipt, and error is out of the question: 'This is the way a horse is done; that is the way you do a man.'"

It is easy to see in the execution a certain dexterity, or at least a confidence of touch which is in amusing contrast with the absurdity of the result.

"Let me give," says M. Passy, "an account of some experiments with my own children, who had already been shown by their nurse or someone else, how to draw a man: Placing myself so as to be seen in profile, I asked Octavius to make a drawing of me. He draws me full face, and though my body is hidden by the table he draws my whole figure. I now place myself full face and ask him to draw me again. He does so, and hands over exactly the same result as before. In a third attempt I get a drawing of my head alone, but the infant (he is seven years old) has been put out by the change and got it wrong in consequence. He has omitted eyes, ears, hair and mouth. I remark to him, 'Have you left nothing out?' 'Nothing,' says he. 'What do we see with?' say I. 'With eyes,' says he; and, pit-pat, two little rounds go down for eyes. 'What do we eat with?' 'Our mouth.' Down go two little lines for the mouth. 'What do we hear with?' 'Our ears.' He draws an ear on the left side, and moves his pencil across to the right in order to add the second ear, but he finds the place occupied already by the nose, so he goes back and sets it beside the first ear. It is a remarkable fact that the child who has got into the habit of mechanically reproducing a conventional figure cannot rid his mind of it so as to be able to return to real observation, and hence the corrections which he makes are more unskillful than the original errors.

"Now, consider a second case. Placing myself in profile as before, I explain to Paul, a seven years child of exceptional intelligence, that, in the position in which I place myself, he can only see one eye and one ear, and, in short, only one side of my figure. He draws me as if seeing me full face--with mouth, two ears, and nose, but so far defers to facts as to leave out one eye. Presently I hear a scratching. Paul was removing an ear, because, said he, 'I see I could not see it.' The only difference which he made between the full face drawing and the profile was that, in the latter, he left out one eye and one ear. The correction was soon forgotten, for in two months, he again drew me in the same position (in profile) with two eyes and two ears.

Now, in both these cases, the children had been shown by their nurse or their mother how to draw certain objects and had been supplied with the idea of a human face which had taken possession of their minds. In regard to methods of teaching drawing, it is worth noticing how soon the eye and hand are accustomed to follow a fixed routine. The little child who has learnt to copy the drawing of an object becomes henceforth incapable of drawing it in any other position, and he cannot be got to make any improvement on his first design.

(To be continued.)

Proofread by Stephanie H. September, 2008; Proofread by LNL, May 2021