Identifying Artistically Gifted Children
By Willemina Foeken
What is an artistically gifted child?
Artists, parents and educators often disagree on the characteristics of such children. Artistic talent does not normally reveal itself as early as musical talent, and there are still no reliable tests for identifying the artistically gifted. We rely largely on the subjective arguments of artists and art teachers.
Then there is another problem. If we could identify them, what would we do with them? Many educators are against programmes for the gifted. Even Eisner believed it would “lead to a kind of social stratification that makes it increasingly difficult for people to communicate with each other.” (1979, p. 67). However, it is my belief that not only can the artistically gifted be identified, they can be successfully catered for in special programmes.
This paper will firstly look at identifying the gifted and then provide recommendations for their education – at home and at school.
How do we recognize giftedness in art?
As has already been mentioned, artistic ability does not show readily at an early age in the way that musical ability does. There is no artistic parallel to the childhood genius of Mozart or Mendellsohn. It may be appropriate to look at the childhoods of some great artists. After all, we could assume that they were talented children. Unfortunately, this is difficult to do. We know for instance that Rembrandt was highly capable in all forms of academic study and that he went to university (a miller’s son!) at the age of fourteen. However, his earliest known painting was done at the age of nineteen. There are no records of his childhood drawings.
Da Vinci excelled at everything. He took up art at the age of fifteen, but all his great work was done after the age of forty.
Matisse and van Gogh had no idea they had talent as children. They didn’t start painting till they were in their twenties.
Picasso was extraordinary. He was painting like an adult artist while still in his teens but then, his father was an art teacher.
The most remarkable work on artistically gifted children has been done by Gaitskell and Lowenfeld. Both of these educators did many long term case studies. They agreed on the following characteristics that may identify children as being artistically gifted:
1. Artistically gifted children show fluency of imagination and expression. These children can’t get their ideas down fast enough. They don’t need stimulation. One idea leads to another.
2. They might have a highly developed sensibility in certain areas. For example, movement, space, rhythm, colour. (One small boy I taught was only interested in tempera paints and lost interest if other media were used. Another child drew only figures showing a lot of movement or action.)
3. They show integration of thinking, perceiving and feeling.
4. There is a distinctive quality to their imagination. These children have faith in their ideas and don’t find the need to copy.
5. There’s a directness of expression. The gifted child can be very expressive but only if the experience motivating him or her to paint, has been personally meaningful. Such a child rarely responds well to classroom activities where the teacher sets the topic.
6. There is a high degree of self identification with the subject and the medium. Artistically gifted children live their art. They are in their work. It is part of them. Even the medium is often like an extension of the fingers. Their work is intensely personal and shows an inner need for visual expression.
7. Most of these children draw well before the age of two – usually by fifteen months if given the chance.
8. They are always above average in intelligence. While studies indicate that all those gifted in art score well in IQ tests, the reverse is not always true. Many with high IQs are below average in art!
9. All show extraordinary skill with the medium.
10. There is usually a sensibility for design.
11. Each child is highly individual and inventive.
12. The artistically gifted child works frequently on a favourite art form. No encouragement is needed.
It is important to understand that one child does not necessarily exhibit all of the above characteristics!
Some experiences with gifted children
During the many years that I have conducted art classes for children in my own studio and organized workshops for the Gifted and Talented Children’s Association, I have come across many artistically gifted children. I think it is worth commenting on some of these here.
A seven year old boy jumped from one activity to the next, never finishing anything, although his beginnings all showed a lot of sensibilities in the areas of colour and shape. He was extended when painting flowers and asked to look carefully at the shapes to see how one shape joined another. Within two weeks, he found that two hour painting sessions were too short!
An eight year old girl did work which showed a sense of design, but was frightfully rigid and inhibited. She relaxed when she found out that it was desirable to try out new ways to paint and to experiment, and therefore ‘mistakes’ should be expected.
Another eight year old girl had been told to colour in neatly between the lines. This caused her terrible frustration because in her experimental painting sessions she had discovered that what she liked best was where the colour of one area was dragged over another and spilled right over the edge! She developed a real love for edges and started playing around with them, sometimes making them hard, sometimes soft and sometimes making them disappear altogether.
A nine year old boy loved tempera painting and was very resourceful with this, but didn’t respond well to other media. He stayed with tempera until it stopped meeting his needs.
An extraordinary eight year old boy had trouble drawing his house. He knew he should see two sides, viewed from the driveway, but he had no knowledge of the conventions of perspective in drawing. He finally solved the problem without resorting to rules. A year later this same boy drew my backyard during an art lesson. He said it was difficult for him to start because he had trouble “working out how the angles of the roof on the garage, the walls, the shed and the fence all fit together.” He was into spatial relationships before he had ever heard of the expression. He only ever responded to spatial problems and came to love tesselations as done by Escher.
Another boy drew only tiny figures in action, with pencil or biro, and was totally disinterested in colour.
Recommendations for parents and teachers
Lowenfeld (p. 54, 55.1965) advised the following for parents:
1. Regard your child’s art as a record of his or her personality.
2. Don’t put too much emphasis on the end product.
3. Display the work of all of your children – not just the one best at art.
4. Teach your child to respect the work of others.
5. Don’t correct wrong proportions.
6. Don’t encourage competitiveness in art.
7. Provide your child with an appropriate space for work, and suitable materials.
8. Send your child to art classes.
9. Don’t show children how to paint.
The above points are relevant to classroom teachers as well. In addition, I believe they need to:
1. Allow experimentation.
2. Provide a range of materials and experiences to suit as many children as possible.
3. Avoid the trap of over-teaching. Teachers need to know when to assist and when it is best to leave children alone.
Finally, I would like to make a few encouraging remarks to those parents and teachers who may not feel up to the task of dealing with the artistically gifted. Don’t worry if you know very little about art. The parents of Rembrandt and van Gogh didn’t either. Have a bon fire. Burn all colouring-in books and ‘How to draw’ books and never replace them! Do visit art galleries with the children and make them familiar with the art sections of the library.
Above all, enjoy your child’s creativity but don’t make a great fuss over it.
Eisner, E. W. (1979). The educational imagination. New York: The Macmillan Co.
Gaitskell, C. (1958). Children and their art. USA: Brace and World.
Lowenfeld, V. (1965). Your child and his art: a guide for parents. New York: The Macmillan Co.