Observation Drawing of Kitchen Tools
By Mark Mabry, Head Teacher
As part of an ongoing investigation of the tools in our classroom and at home, the children in West AM used measuring cups, spoons, whisks, rolling pins, graters, egg beaters, and other kitchen tools in a variety of cooking activities. After a few weeks of cooking with and talking about these gadgets, the children were given the opportunity to draw them.
Preschool children can draw from observation, but their drawings are often best understood not as “realistic” renditions of objects in the real world (“illusionism”) but as translations of attributes, ideas, and even emotions onto paper. In drawing from observation, children focus closely on the details of the object and may notice details they previously overlooked. They also bring their own store of knowledge about and experiences with the object to the task. As Nancy R. Smith, Laraine Cicchetti, and their colleagues put it in their book Observa-tion Drawing with Children (1997),
Observation drawing can be defined as responsive drawing because it helps the artist and the viewer to become aware of the elusive as well as the obvious qualities of subjects.… [It] can be part of the process of learning to see. And thus, the marks on paper are tracks that record the process of looking, not the presentation of an illusion.… Observation drawing can entail responding to the expressivity of an object or imaging one’s personal vision of an object. Representation, then, is secondary to emotion.… Finally, an observation drawing can be an exploration of artistic issues important to the artist.… A [child’s] drawing carries sufficient information for her, but not for many adults.
Adults often look at children’s drawings for representational elements that they can recognize and translate, and they measure the work’s success in those terms. Some children seem to hold their drawings to the same standard, claiming “I can’t draw that,” “I don’t know how to draw,” or “That’s just scribble-scrabble.” But much of observation drawing is about the process and the conversation during the drawing rather than the remnants of the process remaining on the paper. Indeed, outside the context of conversations and shared experiences with the children as they were making these drawings, the drawings themselves might convey very little meaning. By encouraging children to draw kitchen tools, we aimed to show them that drawing is a highly individualistic process, that it is an activity everyone does, not just “artists,” and that they can find and share their own meanings in whatever they see.
Christian said about the grater, “I’m going to start with the handle.” He drew a straight line (A) and then added a short vertical line (B) going down on the right. He then drew a curving line (C) from the left of the horizontal back toward the right to make a rectangular shape. After looking at the grater for a while, he made several quick repetitive downward strokes (D). The teacher said, “Tell me about these lines.” Christian responded, “Those are the things that go through the holes.” (We had been using the grater the previous week to grate carrots for muffins.) Christian thus drew not only what he saw, but also what he didn’t see at that moment: the grater’s implicit action. When his drawing was complete, Christian wrote his name in the upper left.
Rebecca easily turned drawing the grater into an activity serving a higher purpose—drawing herself! But she also observed the grater very closely and carefully integrated what she discovered into her very personal drawing. Immediately on looking at the grater, she drew a large rectangle (A) and then made a row of three circular shapes (B) near the top. She paused for a moment, added the upturned curve under the three holes along with hair, and exclaimed, “It’s me now!” The teacher said, “It is! But what else do you see on the grater?” Rebecca picked up the grater and turned it around to see all the sides. She then drew what appeared to be arms, hands, legs, and feet. The teacher said, “So tell me about these.” Rebecca pointed to the rectangular “hand” shapes (C) and pointed to the rectangular holes on one side of the grater, then turned the grater to the small-hole side and pointed to the “feet” (D) of her drawing. The teacher asked, “What about the handle?” Rebecca immediately drew a rectangle (E) on the head and said “For my hat!”
Ellie said while drawing the whisk, “There are lots of lines…” (A, the wire end of the whisk) “…and a blue one to hold it” (B, the handle).“There are little lines…I’ll count them…1…2…3…4.” The teacher at first thought Ellie was talking about the lines where the wire connected to the handle, but as Ellie counted she was pointing to the four bumps on handle grip.
Ethan took a while to get comfortable with drawing from observation. He started with the grater, noticing all of the circular shapes, and tried very hard to form circles on the paper. He was frustrated with his attempts but wanted to persevere. When he finally finished his grater drawing, he wanted to try the whisk. Placing the whisk in front of his paper, he made a series of contiguous lines (A) that went up and down repeatedly. To the teacher’s prompt to tell more about these lines, Ethan pointed to the wire end of the whisk and said “That part!” He then declared, “I’m going to draw the handle.” Ethan made a horizontal line (B) and then counted as he crossed this line with three shorter vertical lines. When asked to explain these marks, Ethan pointed to the bumps on the handle.
Interestingly, though Ellie and Ethan came to school on different days, they took similar approaches to drawing the whisk. They both made note of the handle bumps and used pencil lines to represent number rather than shape.
They looked at the whisk and what was relevant to record about it through a much different lens than we adults might. By asking not “What is it?” but “Tell me about this line” or “What else do you see?” we gain a better understanding of children’s intentions and strategies.