A child's first drawings are scribbles. Streaks and lines at first, then squiggles, curves, circles as small hands get better at co-ordinating the crayon. At first it's just for the pure pleasure of making marks with their movements, then gradually children learn that different movements make different marks, and start to combine them. Holly, who is coming up for two, puts her whole body into making squiggles: both hands clutched tightly to the paintbrush, her head and shoulders rocking round and round with the lines, her baby face all serious with concentration. Then, when the lines go round a steep curve, or get faster, she giggles. According to some child development theories, the marks don't mean anything, not yet. But this dark blue streak in the middle is me, she says, and I believe her.
At the age of roughly three is when the marks and loose circles start to take on meaning. Educational theorists call this the preschematic or presymbolic stage. This blue lollipop figure, a circle with lopsided dashes for eyes and long stalks for legs, is a picture by Toby, aged three, of himself running. The roughly oval shape with two little sticks coming from its head beside him - which I thought was a slug - is his dog Pip. There are dashes all around them like horizontal orange rain. What's this Tobes? I ask and he laughs and says, Go Faster Stripes!
When Ellie was nearly five, she started to include the ground and the sun in her drawings. The houses and the people and the plants and animals she drew started to have a definite relationship to the world around them, instead of just floating in space. The people were always bigger than the houses, not because they were in the forefront of the picture, but because they were more important to the artist, who had not discovered perspective yet. Although she was getting there: dogs started to have four legs instead of two - all the same length and all on the same side, but all present. All the dogs looked the same, but they were very much Ellie's own particular idea of a dog, quite unlike the dogs her friend Hannah drew. This is known as the symbolic or schematic stage. At around this age, a child has worked out a collection of drawn symbols for animals, people and things, and can combine them to make fairly easily recognisable pictures.
Lucy, who is seven, has always been very good at drawing. Even as a five-year-old her drawings were especially detailed. After having a wrist X-ray, she drew her hands with visible bones inside and started drawing x-ray 'inside' views of all sorts of things, like hungry monsters with empty bellies. This is a fairly common development in some, but not all, children. Recently I have started to notice perspective creeping into Lucy's drawings. There is a horizon in her drawings now as well as a ground, and the roads she draws narrow towards it. The people she draws are much more differentiated, starting to look like individual figures rather than generic Lucy-stickperson. They have pouty lips, they have fingernails, their shoes have shoelaces in loopy bows, the details of their clothes are becoming very elaborate. She is beginning to draw what she sees and imagines, instead of just using symbols to make a picture. The average age for the approach of realism in children's drawing is somewhere between eight and ten years old, so Lucy is a little advanced, maybe. But of course, all these ages are averages, and there are always exceptions. Different kids obviously develop at different rates.
The development of drawing after the age of eleven or so has a lot to do with how children are taught, and whether they continue to like drawing. For children that enjoy drawing, lessons in perspective and light and shade help to develop their ability to draw what they see in a more natural style, and to eventually develop a style of their own. Obviously, not all children will retain an interest in drawing at this point: in which case, no more natural development will take place. My sister decided that drawing bored her at around thirteen, and if you force her to play Pictionary you will see that her drawing hasn't really advanced from when she was that age, as she cheerfully admits. Luckily, it's a skill she can acquire later in life if she wants to. Any age can learn to draw.