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Human Development 2012;55:167–192
Explaining ‘I Can’t Draw’: Parallels between
the Structure and Development of Language
Tufts University, Medford, Mass. , USA
Art ⴢ Art education ⴢ Drawing ⴢ Imitation ⴢ Language development
Both drawing and language are fundamental and unique to humans as a species.
Just as language is a representational system that uses systematic sounds (or manual/
bodily signs) to express concepts, drawing is a means of graphically expressing con-
cepts. Yet, unlike language, we consider it normal for people not to learn to draw, and
consider those who do to be exceptional. Why do we consider drawing to be so differ-
ent from language? This paper argues that the structure and development of drawing
is indeed analogous to that of language. Because drawings express concepts in the vi-
sual-graphic modality using patterned schemas stored in a graphic lexicon that com-
bine using ‘syntactic’ rules, development thus requires acquiring a vocabulary of these
schemas from the environment. Without sufficien t pr act ice a nd e xposure to an ex ter nal
system, a basic system persists despite arguably impoverished developmental condi-
tions. Such a drawing system is parallel to the resilient systems of language that appear
when children are not exposed to a linguistic system within a critical developmental
period. Overall, this approach draws equivalence between drawing and the cognitive
attributes of other domains of human expression.
Copyright © 2012 S. Karger AG , Basel
Along with speaking and gesturing, drawing is a representational system for
expressing concepts that is fundamental – and unique – to humans as a species.
However, despite this primacy, we conceive of the structure and development of
drawing as very different from language. Language development has been viewed as
Depar tment of Psychology, Tufts University
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Medford, M A 02155 (USA)
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© 2012 S. Kar ger AG, Basel
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an innate capacity for acquiring an external system of schematic patterns from a
community. Development progresses within a critical period that lasts until puberty,
after which the ability to learn language rapidly declines [e.g., Lenneberg, 1967; New-
port, 1990]. We consider it the norm for people to acquire language and the exception
for people who do not.
In contrast, drawing development has been viewed as the growth of an indi-
vidualistic skill of which some are more or less proficient. From birth until puberty,
children consistently improve in drawing ability [Kindler & Darras, 1997; Lowen-
feld, 1947; Willats, 2005], but they face a ‘period of oppression’ between ages 11 and
14, when their progression abruptly slows and stagnates [e.g., Davis, 1997c; Davis &
Gardner, 1992; Gardner, 1980, 1990; Read, 1958; Rosenblatt & Winner, 1988]. This
drop-off has been attributed to a lack of interest or motivation [Arnheim, 1997; Read,
1958]. Those that overcome this stagnation are believed to have either some innate
talent for artistry or to have worked diligently to overcome it [Davis, 1997c]. If not
surpassed, an individual’s drawing ability will remain the same throughout later life
[Kindler & Darras, 1997], with progress becoming significantly more difficult. Un-
like language, we consider it normal for people not to learn to draw and label those
who do as ‘gifted’ or ‘talented’.
Despite the conception of drawing as universally accessible but requiring addi-
tional stimulation and effort to progress past puberty, this course of development
does not seem to appear in all cultures. Children in Japan do not stagnate in their
drawing ability [Toku, 1998, 2001a, 2001b; Wilson, 1997, 1999]. Their continual pro-
gression in learning to draw has been attributed to the high rates at which Japanese
children copy drawings from comics [Toku, 2001b; Wilson, 1988, 1997, 1999]. In Ja-
pan, comics are a ubiquitous part of society, are read by people of all ages, and com-
prise nearly one third of all printed material [Gravett, 2004; Schodt, 1983, 1996]. The
high degree of exposure to and imitation of Japanese comics has been argued to sty-
mie this drop-off in development.
Why would copying comics enable Japanese children to progress in drawing
abilities while drawing practices in other parts of the globe lead to stagnation? An
answer to this question lies in situating drawing alongside developmental trajecto-
ries of other representational capacities. In particular, I will argue that the drawing
system is structured like the linguistic system and, thereby, has an analogous devel-
opment. The comparison between drawing and language is not new [e.g., Arnheim,
1974; Willats, 2005; Wilson & Wilson, 1977], and this paper attempts to articulate
further the idea that drawing is similar to language in function, form, and develop-
Structure and Development of Drawing
Drawing involves many interacting components, including the perceptual sys-
tem, fine and gross motor skills, perceptual feedback, interaction with the drawings
of a culture, social interactions and motivations, emotional valence, and others. The
development of drawing must then engage with these multiple factors. The most
widely held view has looked at drawing as a met hod to articulate perception. That is,
‘life drawing’ involves looking at objects in the world and then presenting them
graphically (also in the literature called visual realism or view-based depiction ). Al-
Language and Drawing
ternatively, ‘drawing from memory’ involves the conceptualization of an object in
the mind in lieu of having it perceptually avai lable (also called intellectual realism or
object-based depiction ).
Psychological theories have often emphasized this perceptual view of drawing
[Farah, 1984; Guérin, Ska, & Belleville, 1999; Kosslyn & Koenig, 1992; van Sommers,
1989; Willats, 1997, 2005]. Many cognitive models of drawing integrate Marr’s 
hierarchic model of visual perception with action production and planning. Marr’s
 model theorizes several levels of the understanding of visual perception, pro-
gressing from a flat perceivable image (the ‘2½D Sketch’) through an abstract 3D
Model of spatial concepts about objects. These cognitive models of drawing link
mental imagery with articulation: drawing from life articulates the 2½D Sketch of
the perceived visual surface, and drawing from memory directly articulates the 3D
The perceptual viewpoint of drawing (either from the eye or the mind’s eye) is
an intuitive one because it matches the phenomenological experience of drawing.
Nevertheless, it cannot capture several important traits of drawing. For example,
why do people draw differently? It is unlikely that people actually perceive (or con-
ceive of) the world in a different way, so are differences in drawing ability solely re-
lated to motor skill? The reverse is also a query: Why do individuals in one culture
draw similarly, but then draw differently from individuals in other cultures?
In contrast to the perceptual viewpoint (i.e., ‘drawing is for representing what I
see [by eye or in my mind]’), I will explore an alternative function of drawing more
in l ine with t he f unction o f la nguag e. L angua ge i s a r epres ent ati ona l sy ste m tha t us es
systematic sounds (or manual/bodily signs) to express concepts [Jackendoff, 2002].
These schemas are stored in memory and can be combined to create infinitely pos-
sible novel expressions. By and large, these expressions use symbolic reference, al-
though language incorporates a fair amount of indexical and iconic reference as well
[Clark, 1997; Liddell, 2003].
Similarly, drawing is a means of graphically expressing concepts, even though it
largely does this through iconic reference. If drawing is limited to representing what
we see, the meaning of drawings (or the access to the meanings of drawings) should
be universally similar. In fact, like language, drawings are highly conventionalized
to individuals and groups to the extent that sometimes even iconic representations
cannot be discerned [Wilkins, 1997]. For example, people can readily identify the
geographic and temporal origins of drawing ‘styles.’ It should be easy to recognize at
a glance whether a drawing comes from the ancient Mayans, Greeks, or Chinese, or
mode rn Japanese com ics versus A mer ica n comi cs. The very n otion of cultura l draw-
ing styles belies a purely perception-based model of drawing because styles are built
from conventional patterns shared by people of a culture.
There are many examples of more specific graphic schemas. Drawing teacher
Mark Kistler  describes an activity that highlights people’s conventional sche-
matic knowledge for drawing. When he asks people to very quickly draw a house,
an airplane, and a person, they consistently draw the same conventionalized repre-
sentations ( fig.1 ). While these figures are iconic images of houses, airplanes, and
people, they reflect conventionalized patterns of drawing (whose house actually
looks like that?). The ‘stick figure’ is a conventionalized representation of a person.
Indeed, cultures use diverse yet systematic ways of drawing people [Cox, 1998; Cox,
Koyasu, Hiranuma, & Perara, 2001; Paget, 1932; Wilson, 1988], and some even have
difficulty discerning what the American style stick figure represents [Wilkins,
Additionally, various artists use schematic representations in their drawings
that combine to make larger novel forms, thus masking their systematic nature.
Take, for example, the representations of hands in figure 2 by three comic artists. The
first row depicts consistent patterns used for drawing open hands and fists by Jack
‘King’ Kirby, who is regarded as one of the most influential artists in American com-
ic history and is attributed with defining the aesthetic of superhero comics [Duncan
& Smith, 2009]. Below Kirby’s drawings are examples of hands drawn by two other
popular contemporary artists. Not only were all three artists internally consistent
with their own patterns, but the contemporary artists also clearly used the same
schematic representations that Kirby used, in a sense validating his inf luence (at least
in the small scale). This imitation alone does not suggest that drawings are as fully
conventionalized as languages, but it does imply a tendency toward systematicity
within and between artists.
Evidence for schematic graphic representations is not limited to a few artists
within a culture. In a seminal study, Wilson and Wilson  examined the
drawing s of Ame ric an hi gh s cho ol stud ents a nd f ound t hat nearly all of their d raw-
ings were in some way imitative of other drawings, particularly comics and car-
toons. They further examined the drawings of children throughout the world and
found both consistency within and variability between the drawings of various
cultures. For example, in Japan, children’s drawings are highly consistent because
they are imitative of Japanese comics [Cox et al., 2001; Wilson, 1988, 1997, 1999].
Meanwhile, rectangular bodies are drawn by children in Islamic countries [Wil-
son, 1988; Wilson & Wilson, 1984] while bottle-shaped bodies were drawn by En-
glish children in the late 1800s [Sully, 1896]. In another corpus, 100% of drawings
by Mexican children in California from the 1920s used a method of drawing legs
with crossing lines that attached to the torso in a systematic pattern [Wilson, 1988].
Fig. 1. Conventional drawings of houses, planes, and people.
Language and Drawing
Indeed, Wilson described an example of these drawings in which an initial attempt
to draw legs another way was only to be erased and completed in the ‘correct’ con-
These findings overall led Wilson and colleagues to conclude that drawing in-
volves the transmission of culture-specific schemas, not the representation of per-
Jack Kirby (1917–1994)
Jim Lee (1964–)
Erik Larsen (1962–)
Fig. 2. Schematic hands drawn by three comic authors.
Color versi on available online
ception [Wilson, 1988]. They argued that people store hundreds to thousands of
these mental models in long-term memory and then combine these parts to create
what on the whole appears to be a novel representation [Wilson & Wilson, 1977]. As
a result, drawing becomes similar to language in that it uses a ‘lexicon’ of schematic
mode ls store d in me mory t hat combine ge nerat ivel y to create i nnu merable nove l im-
ages. This view goes against the perceptual viewpoint of drawing because schematic
information often looks very little like the way things actually look in perception or
in visual memory.
Cognitive Model of Drawing
Given these data, a cognitive model of drawing must not only account for the
articulation of perception but also for schematic graphic representations. Schematic
patterns have been included in some models of drawing [Guérin et al., 1999; van
Sommers, 1989], but they are considered as production schemes – routinized proce-
dural memories of familiar methods of drawing, not a ‘vocabulary’ of stored graph-
ic forms. However, the aforementioned instances of patterns provide evidence that
this knowledge is stored in long-term memory beyond just procedures. We t herefore
explore an alternative model for the cognition of drawing that incorporates a lexicon
of schemas, a sketch of which appears in figure 3 . This model expands on the work
of previous researchers who also noted the language-like qualities of drawing, in
particular Willats’s [1997, 2005] insightful work on the cognition of drawing, and
Wilson’s observations about graphic schemas [e.g., Wilson, 1988; Wilson & Wilson,
Drawing system Meaning
Fig. 3. A cognitive model for drawing.
Language and Drawing
This model contains three major parts: (a) the perceptual system, (b) the draw-
ing system, and (c) meaning. The perceptual system involves Marr’s  compo-
nents of vision: the 2½D Sketch is the form of visual perception, and the 3D Model
is the full spatial understanding (thereby part of the system of meaning). Further
details of Marr’s model that are unnecessary for this discussion are subsumed by the
dotted lines [see Jackendoff, 1987; Marr, 1982].
The ‘Image’ Image. The component of most interest is the drawing system. First,
the 2½D Sketch is linked to the ‘Image’ Image, which is the mental image in working
memory of what a person may intend to draw. Often, drawing requires planning and
problem solving related to holding intended objects or scenes in mind while only
articulating a part at a time, in addition to operationalizing how to draw spatial rela-
tions such as occluded objects [e.g., Morra, 2002; Morra, Angi, & Tomat, 1996; Mor-
ra, Moizo, & Scopesi, 1988] or the order of producing drawings [Freeman, 1980]. For
example, children who have a larger capacity for working memory more accurately
draw objects as occluded, as opposed to keeping them as separate objects [e.g., Mor-
ra, 2002; Morra et al., 1988, 1996] because they are better able to engage the proce-
dures necessary for depicting their spatial relations. This ‘Image’ Image interfaces
with the two primary components of drawing stored in long-term memory: a graph-
ic lexicon that encodes various schemas and a graphic syntax that specifies the com-
binatorial principles for drawing.
The Graphic Lexicon. The graphic lexicon stores the visual vocabulary used for
drawings. In verbal language, lexical items range in size, including individual pho-
nemes, morphemes, words, idioms, schematic constructions, and possibly whole
sentences [Goldberg, 1995; Jackendoff, 2002]. Similarly, ‘graphic lexical items’ range
in size as well. The lexicon must include individual graphemes that compose the ba-
sic graphic parts of a representation (i.e., dots, lines, curves, circles, squares, etc.) –
similar to Willats’s  ‘picture primitives’ (i.e., dots, lines, or areas) that denote
edges, corners, and faces of denoted objects. Just as children begin speaking by play-
ing with the phonemes of speech, children begin drawing by scribbling, which has
been argued as laying the foundation for grapheme production [Golomb, 1992; Kel-
logg, 1969; Kindler & Darras, 1997; Matthews, 1983].
At a larger level from individual primitives, the graphic lexicon would also need
to include schematic parts of images (such as the hands in fig.2 ) that can be used
combinatorially in a larger picture, as discussed by Wilson [e.g., Wilson, 1988; Wil-
son & Wilson, 1977]. Some whole simple representations (such as the houses and
stick figures) and even some whole systematized full drawings (such as if a person
memorized how to draw a particular scene in a certain way) might also be stored. In
addition, this lexicon would be necessary for storing the schematic parts of written
languages such as letters and whole word forms (which thus would interface with
Iconic graphic schemas interface with the 3D Model to get their meaning, and
abstract elements with no iconic meaning (such as symbolic hearts, stars to denote
impacts in comics, peace signs, etc.) interface with the nonspatial semantic memory
of conceptual structure. Willats  has addressed how iconic representations cor-
respond to the 3D Model in detail, and he has hypothesized that the mapping of
graphic marks to spatial knowledge may actually change throughout development
[Willats, 2005]. Children begin by using lines to depict whole regions and faces of
objects, and they only use lines to depict contours and edges as they grow older. This
change relates to the interface between graphic marks and their meanings.
Graphic syntax includes combinatorial aspects of image-mak-
ing. These include rules like adjacency and occlusion, rules regulating size to depict
depth, and rules for combining different schemas together (such as attaching hand
schemas to arm schemas). For example, Willats  has carefully detailed the
ways that lines conjoin in T-shaped junctions to depict occlusion, Y-shaped junc-
tions to show corners, and L-shaped junctions to show edges. ‘Ungrammatical’ im-
ages occur when, instead of using a T-shaped junction of intersecting lines, Y- or
plus-shaped junctions make occlusion impossible [Huffman, 1971; Willats, 1997].
These types of combinatorial adjacency between lines differ from simply drawing
contiguous lines and, indeed, occur much later in the acquisition of drawing abili-
ties [Willats, 2005]. These aspects of drawing deal with the syntax of how lines and
schemas link together.
Beyond encoding the form of a drawing, articulation of
those schemas may involve procedural memory [Guérin et al., 1999; van Sommers,
1989]. Production scripts specify the order in which schemas are drawn. This is
important because, while many drawings end up and are comprehended as purely
static spatial representations, they are produced in a temporal span. For example,
most people would agree that drawing a stick figure begins with a circle for the
head, then a straight line for the body, then either both legs or both arms ( fig.4 ).
Moreover, for most people, it would be strange to start with the legs then work up-
ward or to alternate between drawing each leg and arm. This order is not based on
the actual schematic elements of the representation but on the procedure for ar-
ticulating it. Other schemas may be ad hoc, requiring no intrinsic ordering. For
these, drawing may use a default script, such as moving from top to bottom [Free-
man, 1980], which may then include backtracking to fill in details, and can be over-
ridden by the need to attend to certain salient features [Golomb, 1981, 1992]. An-
other default script may push a drawer to maintain complete objects throughout
production, which results in ungrammatical orderings if forms are left unspecified
for too long [Willats, 2005].
Production scripts connect the drawing system to the motor system where
drawings are finally articulated. From here, an additional arrow connects vision
with motor skill, representing the visual feedback that people use as they see their
hands moving while producing a drawing, thereby allowing the system to make ad-
justments. This link would thus be inhibited for blind individuals or for nonblind
individuals during drawing practices that involve closing one’s eyes.
Graphic Lexical Items. A lexical item of drawing would cut across these major
components in long-term memory. This is similar to how linguistic lexical items in-
volve syntactic, phonological, and conceptual structures [Jackendoff, 2002]. For ex-
ample, in language, the word dog is a noun (syntax), is pronounced /dawg/ (phonol-
ogy), and means something like ‘a four-legged furry canine that is man’s best friend’
(conceptual structures). Similarly, as depicted in f igure 4 , a stick figure would consist
of a circle and several lines (graphemes) that are stored in a particular configuration
Language and Drawing
(lexicon) that need to be adjacent to each other but not overlapping (syntax), that are
produced in a particular order (production script), and that represent a particular
meaning (conceptual structure/3D Model).
However, not all lexical items are encoded in all structures. Simple graphemes
such as lines and circles have no conceptual meaning, just as simple phonemes are
purely stored aspects of phonology. Purely syntactic rules such as adjacency or per-
spective cannot be encoded in the lex icon because t hey have no particu lar schema to
store, only a general algorithm for application (as will be discussed further below).
Some schemas may also not have particular production scripts since the order in
which they are drawn does not matter. Thus, graphic lexical items may be cross-
listed in all structures, but they are not required to be.
Perceptual Viewpoints of Drawing, Revisited
How can this model account for aspects of drawing? When people draw, the
schemas stored in long-term memory in their graphic lexicon are combined using
rules from their graphic syntax. This combined information is then held in working
memory as the ‘Image’ Image, their mental conception of their intended drawing.
From here, the drawing is then articulated using production scripts enacted through
In the case of life drawing, the ‘Image’ Image uses schematic information to
draw the perceived surface in vision (i.e., the 2½D Sketch). However, because draw-
Conceptual structure 3D model
consists of ...
Head Body Arms Legs
Fig. 4. Graphic lexical item for a stick figure.
ing always involves schematic information, life drawing is the attempted inhibition
of the graphic lexicon in order to draw the 2½D Sketch as it appears (and it possibly
even attempts to inhibit the 3D Model so as not to let the understanding of objects
interfere with how they look via the eye). Nevertheless, the degree to which the lexi-
con can truly be inhibited is an open question. People draw differently from each
other while still viewing the same visual object, yet their perceptual and conceptual
systems most likely do not differ. Their style reflects the influence of their individu-
al stored patterns of drawing despite their perception.
In contrast to life drawing, drawing from memory is the uninhibited articula-
tion of schematic patterns connected to the spatial knowledge of visual objects. Here,
meaning comes from the 3D Model, which is formulated through the combination
of schemas (graphic lexicon) and combinatorial rules (graphic syntax) as held in
working memory by the ‘Image’ Image. Again, this information is articulated by mo-
tor skills using production scripts. Importantly, this type of drawing does not inter-
face with the 2½D Sketch to draw what is seen. The 2½D Sketch is only interfaced in
order to get perceptual feedback on the drawing as it unfolds.
Additionally, it has long been noted and experienced that many drawers are
frustrated when they cannot accurately draw their mental imagery. This feeling re-
flects the link between the ‘Image’ Image and the 3D Model. The perceptual view-
point of drawing leads people to believe that this link is direct. That is, they should
be able to draw objects as they conceive of them. However, the graphic lexicon inter-
venes between these components, requiring drawers to use schematic patterns in
their representations. Thus, despite believing in a direct link between articulation
and conceptualization, drawers may not have graphic schemas that allow for fully
representing their intended meanings.
This model also allows us a better understanding of the treatment of depth and
shading. Some aspects of depth can be stored in the graphic lexicon, such as proto-
typical patterns for drawing cubes or cylinders ( fig.5 a). However, point perspective
cannot be stored in memor y as a schema because it must be applied uniquely to each
scene using reference to a vanishing point. Rather, perspective must be stored in syn-
tax as a routinized algorithm that must be applied in novel ways to each scene
( fig.5 b). Aspects of shading can also be stored in the lexicon. This includes drop
shadows, cross-hatching, and systematic methods of shading such as when artists
use exactly the same shading pattern every time they draw a backlit three-quarter
perspective on a face ( fig.5 c).
However, ‘realistic’ shading involves light sources and their interactions. This
too would involve applying a syntactic algorithm anew to each scene ( fig.5 d). Includ-
ing perspective and realistic shading into graphic syntax also makes sense of why
they are so difficult to learn and why they need to be invented or discovered despite
being commonplace aspects of visual perception: they cannot be stored easily
amongst other schemas in the graphic lexicon.
Finally, strengthening or inhibiting these connections can possibly account for
testable differences in proficiencies or deficits regarding drawing abilities. For exam-
ple, one p ossibilit y is tha t gi fted drawers simply r eta in v isua l me mories l onge r (‘I mage’
Image) and thus have greater access to articulating them [Munro, Lark-Horovitz, &
Barnhart, 1942]. Another possibility is that they rapidly acquire a large set of graphic
schemas and their combinatorial properties (graphic lexicon and syntax) [Wilson,
1974; Wilson & Wilson, 1977, 1982a]. Alternatively, Milbrath  indicates that tal-
Language and Drawing
ented drawers may be more ‘attentive to perception and the act of drawing’ (vision-
motor control interface) and be able to make more varied use of visual representations
(graphic lexicon/syntax-3D Model interface). All of these ways (and others) could char-
acterize drawing proficiencies, and it may be the case that giftedness in drawing en-
hances different aspects of this model for different individuals.
This model also allows for us to characterize drawing deficits further. For ex-
ample, children with Down syndrome and Williams syndrome have comparable
levels of overall intelligence yet differ in their capacity for various skills, including
drawing [Bellugi, Bihrle, Jernigan, Trauner, & Doherty, 1990; Bellugi, Korenberg, &
Klima, 2001]. Children with Down syndrome are able to draw with relatively the
same ability as typical children. We might expect that their drawing system remains
intact. However, although children with Williams syndrome can draw simplified
Depth schema Perspective rule
Shading schema Shading rule
Rule: direct all edges toward
vanishing point(s) on a horizon line
Cross-hatching Drop shadow
Rule: shade all ‘sur faces’
opposite a light source
Fig. 5. Aspects of depth and shading that cut across lexicon and syntax.
1 It is wor th remembering that the existing notions of ‘giftedness’ a nd ‘talent’ in the literature are
relative to a per spective that doe s not conceive of drawing a s a visual lan guage. Thus, a rec onceptualiz a-
tion of ‘giftedness’ and ‘talent’ may be required when taking into account the types of differences be-
tween ‘impoverished’ and ‘f luent’ drawers outlined in this paper.
parts of an object (such as bicycle handles, wheels, and frame), they cannot organize
those parts into a coherent whole. With this model, this deficit within the drawing
system can be diagnosed as a problem with graphic syntax.
Convergence and Divergence of Language and Drawing
We have now established a model of drawing structure that is analogous to that
of language. Despite their similarities, it is worth addressing some divergences be-
tween these domains before addressing issues of development. First, while all three
modalities of expression (verbal, manual, and graphic) use all three ty pes of reference
(symbolic, indexical, and iconic), each modality appears to favor one type of refer-
ence in particular. For example, speech dominantly uses symbolic reference, manu-
al communication makes great use of indexicality, and drawing dominantly uses
iconic reference. This iconicity means that drawings must map graphic marks to per-
ceptual meanings that reflect this interface of resemblance [Willats, 1997], which
differs from the more arbitrary form-meaning mappings in speech. This iconic ref-
erence leads to the wider universality of comprehending drawings and, concomi-
tantly, to the perspective that drawings simply reflect perception of the world. Im-
portantly, conventionality is orthogonal to these types of reference, meaning that
both iconic and symbolic signs can be highly conventional [Peirce, 1931]. Yet, only
symbols derive their meaning from conventionality, implying that for symbolic
forms like most words, knowledge of that conventionality is important for both com-
prehension and production. In contrast, the iconicity of drawings means that their
comprehension can rely on more general aspects of perception, although their pro-
duction still involves patterned schemas stored in memory.
Second, unlike drawings, the verbal form forces a linear reception of spoken
language. Producing and hearing verbalized sounds occur throughout a temporal
span, making the linearity of language an artifact of its medium. In contrast, al-
though drawings do unfurl temporally, this linearity may disappear once the pro-
duction script has ended, leaving a spatially preserved whole image. In many cases,
the perceiver of a drawing never sees the temporal unfolding of the image, meaning
that production and comprehension of that production remain separated both in
nature (socially interactive vs. noninteractive communication) and processing (see-
ing an unfolding representation vs. a whole representation). Beyond comprehension,
this leads to further limitations on development: a learner never sees (and thereby
cannot acquire) the production script from only seeing a finished representation.
Finally, a third difference between the structure of language and the structure
of drawings comes from the nature of their syntax. Clearly, the graphic syntax pre-
sented here for individual images differs greatly from the grammatical system used
to concatenate words in sentences.
2 In the verbal form, syntactic structure organizes
meaning into a coherent presentation [Jackendoff, 2002]. However, the graphic syn-
tax described here does not organize meanings together but, instead, combines to-
gether graphic lines – the sensory component of drawing – in perceptible ways. This
2 However, a system for sequential images may be somewhat more analogous to t hat of sequent ial
words [Cohn, in press; Cohn, Paczynski, Jackendoff, Holcomb, & Kuperberg, 2012].
Language and Drawing
system more closely resembles the one governing the sounds of speech: phonology.
Like phonology, the combinatorial system described here involves the form of the
visual-graphic representation, and thereby may be a more analogous structure to
graphic syntax than sentence level grammar [as was also argued by Willats, 1997].
For example, ungrammatical line junctions are more akin to illegal phonological
strings (like starting a word with tf ) than errors in word order. Indeed, all levels of
linguistic structure use a combinatorial system, not just syntactic structure built of
nouns and verbs [Jackendoff, 2002].
Drawing Development with a Graphic Lexicon
We now have a view of drawing as the graphic conveyance of conceptual knowl-
edge through an articulation of schematic patterns. The process of drawing develop-
ment then involves acquiring a nd producing graphic schemas [Cal laghan, 1999; Wil-
son & Wilson, 1977] just as the acquisition of language involves acquiring the lexicon
and grammar in a child’s environment. Drawing ‘fluency’ reflects achieving a com-
mand of articulating this schematic information (as opposed to achieving visual re-
alism and/or effective, aesthetic, or emotive artistry) just as fluency in language is
the ability to effectively construct coherent sentences (as opposed to producing aes-
thetic poetry or clever prose).
The limitations children face along the way to this f luency can reflect various
facets of the model. For example, one possibility is that children actually have com-
plete conceptions of what they are trying to draw (3D Model), but they may not have
the schematic or syntactic ability to do so in generative ways [Freeman, 1980; Free-
man & Cox, 1985; Karmiloff-Smith, 1990]. Alternatively, they may be fully capable
of conceiving meanings – and they may or may not have schemas in mind to do
so – but their motor skills have not yet developed the dexterity to articulate them
properly. Another possibility is that children lack the working memory (i.e., in the
‘Image’ Image) to hold schematic and syntactic information in order to articulate the
conceptions [e.g., Eng, 1931; Freeman, 1980; Morra, 2002; Morra et al., 1988, 1996].
Many of these various hypotheses for drawing development have analogues in lan-
guage acquisition research. This model allows us a way to frame these varying hy-
potheses in a testable way (and integrate them together).
With the view that drawing development at its basis involves learning schemas,
imitation must be a driving mechanism behind this acquisition. Although imitation
of others’ drawings has often been disparaged by Western art education [e.g., Arn-
heim, 1978; Cižek, 1927; Lowenfeld, 1947], transmission of cultural conventions
through imitation of external stimuli has long been recognized as a spontaneous and
co mm on t ra it of de vel opm ent in gen era l [Piag et , 19 51]. C opy ing d ra wi ngs hi gh ly be n-
efits learning [Gardner, 1980; Wilson & Wilson, 1982b], and imitation of external
graphic sources is largely motivated through observation and modeling, not neces-
sarily with explicit art instruction through pedagogy [Lamme & Thompson, 1994;
Wilkins, 1997; Wilson, 1997; Wilson & Wilson, 1977]. This benefit is enhanced when
a learner interacts with the process of drawing and not just with the end result [Pem-
berton & Nelson, 1987]. Therefore, learning t he production script along with the sche-
ma facilitates drawing ability. Also, contrary to the traditional belief that imitation
limits chi ldren’s creativity [e.g., Arnheim, 1978; Cižek, 1927; Lowenfeld, 1947], recent
work suggests that imitation actually fosters creativity for drawing [Hunt singer, Jose,
Krieg, & Luo, 2011; Ishibashi & Okado, 2004]. Finally, imitation is important for so-
cialization [Korzenik, 1979], which thereby facilitates drawing ability [Callaghan,
1999]. Although younger children copy as a means of acquiring knowledge, older
children do so to adapt to the conventions of their culture [Smith, 1985]. In sum, im-
itation appears central to children’s natural development of drawing ability.
If drawing development involves the acquisition of schemas through imitation,
we now have a way to understand the difference between the developmental trajec-
tories of children in America and Japan: Japanese children receive the requisite prac-
tice of and exposure to a visual vocabulary, but American children do not. Comics
in Japan provide a rich visual language that children can acquire through imitation
[Cox et al., 2001; Toku, 1998, 2001b; Wilson, 1988, 1997, 1999]. Studies have shown
that over two thirds of Japanese children’s drawings are imitative of comics [Wi lson,
1999], and nearly all Japanese 6-year-olds are capable of drawing complex graphic
narratives in comics, yet less than half of 12-year-olds of other countries have this
proficiency [Wilson, 1988]. Importantly, the acquisition of the comics’ style of draw-
ing is largely motivated by Japanese children’s own exposure to and imitation of
comics. Institutional art classes in Japanese schools focus mostly on the same ideals
heralded by Western art education and, on the whole, do not promote or practice the
drawing of comics [Wilson, 1997].
One reason imitation is easier in Japan is that Japanese comics predominantly
use a stereotypical style featuring large eyes, pointy chins, and big hair [Cohn, 2010;
Gravett, 2004; Schodt, 1983]. This style is not constrained to comics and recurs ubiq-
uitously in cartoons, advertisements, and visual culture. Indeed, one is pressed in
Japan not to find this style in graphic representations. This style originated with the
Japanese ‘God of Comics’ Osamu Tezuka, who was inf luenced by Walt Disney and
Western cartoonists [Gravett, 2004]. Due to his unprecedented popularity at the
birth of the contemporary Japanese comic industry, many other comic authors imi-
tated his style. As the industry grew and developed, the style became associated with
no individual author but as a conventionalized representation characteristic of the
whole nation – just like a language.
In contrast, stylistic consistency like this does not occur in American visual cul-
ture. Although some conventionalization does exist between American comic artists
(for example, among studios of comic artists), great diversity is observed among
drawing styles throughout the culture. Comics, cartoons, advertisements, etc., all
use vastly different graphic styles within and between them. Without a ubiquitous
consistent style, American children face a harder time acquiring an external system
of schemas. Which style, if any, do they choose?
Social motivation also plays a role based on the prevalence of a consistent style.
By imitating the style from their comics, Japanese children participate in the visual
language of their culture. In contrast, without a consistent style that reflects their
social community, American children do not have a social motivation to imitate un-
less they b elong to a subcu lture that values some visual style, such as A merican read-
ers of Japanese comics [Sell, 2011].
In sum, comics provide Japanese children with a consistent visual vocabulary
they can acquire. As a result, they have greater proficiency in drawing than American
children and an absence of a drop-off in drawing development [Toku, 1998, 2001a,
2001b; Wilson, 1997, 1999]. By comparison, learning to draw from life drawing does
Language and Drawing
not facilitate the same graphic fluency as imitation of schemas. Because each visual
percept of objects in the world is different, a learner is charged with figuring out how
to represent the very unsystematic aspects of a visual surface [Arnheim, 1969, 1974],
thereby not learning a vocabulary of graphic schemas. For someone who has relied on
representing such visual perception in learning to draw, drawing from memory then
becomes a harder task because no vocabulary of schemas has been acquired.
Impoverished Systems of Expression
According to this account, drawing development resembles language develop-
ment: it involves the acquisition of a visual vocabulary of patterns. So, what happens
when a user does not acquire enough schemas to attain a level of proficiency (i.e.,
fluency)? In order to gain a better understanding of such ‘impoverished’ abilities in
drawing, we will first discuss the current understanding of drawing development
followed by comparison to other linguistic domains that lack adequate stimulus.
Again, it is worth stressing at the outset that we should not necessarily predict an
exact correlation between the development of drawing and language even though
some research has looked at possible correlations [Kindler & Darras, 1997]. How-
ever, as will be emphasized, important parallels in the overall course of development
deserve to be highlighted.
Since the middle of the twentieth century, the development of drawing has often
been recognized as involving a linear trajectory towards realism [Lowenfeld, 1947].
These theories of development agree that children begin in infancy with a stage of
uncontrolled scribbling, a near equ ivalent to vocal babbling [Kindler & Darras, 1997]
in which the foundation of graphemes is established [Kellogg, 1969; Matthews, 1983].
This is followed by a stage of graphic babbling, where shapes are repeated but do not
necessarily form recognizable objects. By ages 2–3, children begin depicting actions
through basic shapes and scribbles and then shift to using drawings to represent ob-
jects rather than actions. Between ages 5 and 8, they begin treating graphics as an
autonomous system with increasing detail, realism, and complexity.
Not everyone has agreed that development follows a linear trajectory toward
realism. Luquet [1927/2001] was among the first to acknowledge variation in devel-
opment. He noted that children often produce different styles showing their concep-
tualizations of objects before settling on a full aim towards perceptual realism. For
example, when young children draw cubes set in front of them (e.g., boxes, dice, etc.),
they will represent all the full faces, including those that are imperceptible, resulting
in an ‘impossible’ objec t [Luquet, 1927/2001; Wi llat s, 20 05]. In essence, Luquet theo-
rized that children progress from using mental models to drawing from perception.
Luquet’s observations were supported experimentally by Freeman and his col-
leagues [Freeman, 1980; Freeman & Cox, 1985] who focused on how children’s draw-
ings depart from realistic representation (such as unrealistic body proportions). He
hypothesized that children are impaired in their production and draw from (and
thu s em pha si ze) p rot oty pic al co nce pts r at her than a comple te vis ua l mo del. Th is d if-
ference was also addressed by Milbrath , who argued that ordinary children
rely on conceptualized imagery, while gifted drawers concentrate earlier on forms,
apparent shapes, and perceptual realism. Again, these approaches involve a progres-
sion broadly between drawing from conceptualized imagery (from memory) to
drawing a perceived surface (life drawing).
Willats [1997, 2005] described a more detailed model of the actual process of
drawing tied to Marr’s  theory of perception. He too links drawing to cognitive
manifestations of life drawing (view-centered depiction) and drawing from memory
(object-centered depiction), and he readily acknowledges the role of schemas, al-
though their role in development remains unspecified. To him, the development of
drawing ref lects attempts to represent ever-increasing levels of perceptual under-
standing. He argued that the scribbles made between ages 1 and 3 are actually at-
tempts to draw full regions, not random lines or exploratory antecedents to actual
representations [as in Kellogg, 1969]. Children then progress between ages 3 and 8
to drawing regions as bounded areas. As early as age 6, they begin to use faces of ob-
jects to denote regions (rather than contours) and by age 8 they begin smoothing the
outlines of objects. Only by around age 10 do children begin to use lines to depict
edges and contours, evidenced by their use of line junctions and occlusion. In terms
of the model described above, Willats’s model outlines that children first use their
basic graphemes to depict whole objects, then proceed to basic schemas, and finally
combine those schemas with syntactic rules of adjacency and occlusion.
With this in mind, it is important to note that other researchers have empha-
sized developmental trajectories that do not reflect a linear trend. Gardner and Win-
ner  argued that drawings by young children are aesthetically comparable to
mature artists, while drawings from adolescents undergo a period of poorer aesthet-
ic power. Experimentation did show evidence for this U-shaped development when
fine art judges rated the drawings by children, adolescents, and mature artists [Davis,
1991, 1997a, 1997b]. However, later experiments failed to replicate these findings
when judges did not expressly value Modernist style art as ‘good drawing’ [Kindler,
2000; Pariser, Kindler, & van den Berg, 2007; Pariser & van den Berg, 1997; Pariser
et al., 2007]. These counter experiments emphasized that children draw upon nu-
merous influences in nonlinear development of drawing, engaging in different rep-
ertoires that suit cultural contexts and artistic aims [Kindler, 2003; Kindler & Dar-
ras, 1997, 1998]. Under this view, imitation of cultural influences plays a very impor-
Although some research has highlighted the importance of cultural inf luence,
imitation, and drawing from schemas, models do not directly incorporate the role of
imitation into their trajectories of drawing development. Some theories admirably
stress diverse cultural inf luences, but they often do not describe how these cultural
repertoires interact with the reasonably well-attested aspects of stage theories. Es-
sentially, by so readily acknowledging the diversity offered through culturally con-
textual drawing influences, important details about imitative versus nonimitative
development may be overlooked or blurred. However, theories that ignore cultural
influence altogether actually describe how drawing persists without imitation and
schemas. In essence, these theories frame what an impoverished system of drawing
Language and Drawing
Verbal and Manual Communication
We can now compare the development of drawing with that of other modalities.
Children’s development of language relies greatly on exposure to and practice with
an external system. Although researchers debate the degree to which the underlying
structures of language are genetically endowed [e.g., Pinker, 1994] or culturally ac-
quired [e.g., Tomasello, 2000], there is little a rgument that chi ldren must acquire the
linguistic system in their environment to learn to speak. A child born in Boston will
likely learn English while a child in Tokyo will learn Japanese. Additionally, lan-
guage learning progresses within a critical period that extends until puberty, after
which the ability to learn rapidly declines, and full linguistic competency will be un-
attainable [e.g., Lenneberg, 1967; Newport, 1990].
It is important to note that language researchers do not have hard and fast evi-
dence for the existence of a critical period in language development. Indeed, the ‘for-
bidden’ experiment that deprives children of language would be inhumane. How-
ever, the accumulation of numerous examples has provided fairly convincing evi-
dence that language learning after puberty becomes manifestly more difficult. For
example, immigrants who move to a new country as adults often struggle to become
fluent in the language of their new home. Even with explicit instruction in vocabu-
lary and grammar, they may never sound truly native. However, if children move
within their critical period, they have no trouble becoming native-like speakers
[Klein & Perdue, 1997].
Other examples come from children who, for unfortunate reasons, were not ex-
posed to a language at all within their critical periods. The most famous of these
cases is ‘Genie’ [Curtiss, 1977], a girl who was isolated from human contact from age
2 and discovered at age 13 having never truly been exposed to language. After sub-
sequently receiving intense language instruction, she did develop a significant vo-
cabulary, although she never fully attained proficiency with even simple rules of
grammar. Another case was a woman who did have regular social contact, but was
believed to be retarded until age 31, when she was discovered to have been deaf [Cur-
tiss, 1994]. With hearing aids, she also acquired a basic vocabulary, but her gram-
matical abilities were even more dramatically impoverished than Genie’s. Overall,
late learning of verbal language appears to yield a rudimentary vocabulary but with
impairments in being able to create sentences.
Additional research on the manual modality has further described what hap-
pens when people face a lack of linguistic input. Children, whether hearing or deaf,
will learn sign language if they are exposed to it, although greater fluency comes
with exposure earlier in life [Newport, 1990]. Without depending on sign lan-
guage, speaking individuals also learn the gestures of their society. These signs
either consist of spontaneous novel gesticulations (e.g., hands widening to express
big or moving to imitate the motion of an action) or conventionalized emblems
(e.g., thumbs up for good or a checkmark in the air to ask for a restaurant check)
[McNeill, 1992]. However, these signs are usually produced in isolation without any
sort of syntactic sequence and appear at a rate of roughly one sign per spoken clause
[McNei l l, 1992].
A more extreme scenario occurs when deaf children are raised by hearing par-
ents and are never exposed to a sign language. These children have no external lin-
guistic input, but instead they create their own manual sign systems. These ‘home-
signs’ usually include several hundred signs and are generally limited to expressing
‘sentences’ only up to three signs in length [Goldin-Meadow, 2003; Goldin-Meadow
& Feldman, 1977; Goldin-Meadow & Mylander, 1990]. Although some conventional-
ized emblems from a culture do appear in homesign, most of these signs are invent-
ed by the children, not the parents, as evidenced by the greater proficiency that chil-
dren have with the signs than their parents [Goldin-Meadow & Mylander, 1983].
These findings suggest that, in the absence of a system for deaf children to acquire
sign language, they will invent systematic signs to communicate despite such systems
being limited in nature.
Research on impoverished linguistic abilities has led Goldin-Meadow  to
make an important contrast between resilient and fragile properties of language. Re-
silient properties of language withstand impoverished developmental conditions
and emerge despite the absence of an external input. These properties appear in
homesigners and other instances of impoverished language learning; they include
features like basic segmentation of signs into contrasting meanings and rudimen-
tary patterns for ordering signs into simple sequences.
In contrast, fragile properties of language are those that do not survive impov-
erished conditions and require external input such as an extensive lexicon and syn-
tactic complexity in multisign sentences. These conventional aspects of language
must be learned within the critical period of language development; otherwise only
the resilient properties will remain. The persistence of resilient properties has led
some researchers to implicate these features as ref lecting an innate system of ‘proto-
language’ that evolutionarily predated the conventionalized fragile features which
build on top of this core system [Bickerton, 1990; Jackendoff, 2002].
In this light, how can we interpret the drawing abilities of individuals who do
not receive adequate exposure to or practice in drawing? Individuals who do learn
to draw proficiently copy other drawings to acquire a lexicon of graphic schemas.
Alternatively, some people may diligently create their own systems where they invent
schemas for their personal graphic idiolects. If neither of these occurs, individuals
are left with a ‘homedraw’ ( table1 ) – an impoverished system of drawing that con-
sists of simple, ubiquitous conventionalized signs (such as stick fig ures and canonical
houses), a remedial capacity for novel signs, and spontaneously created drawings.
We can think of this impoverished system of drawing as similar to Goldin-
Meadow’s  resilient properties of language. These are the aspects of drawing
that pervade despite lacking an external input. Some resilient features may permeate
across domains, and some may be specific to drawing. For example, homesigns, sign
languages, and even spoken languages such as Navajo and Japanese use ‘classifier’
systems that map a variety of meanings to basic shapes and image schemas [Arm-
strong & Wilcox, 2007; Goldin-Meadow, 2003]. Similar mappings appear in the sand
drawings of native Australians, where simple circles and lines can stand for any num-
ber of meanings [Munn, 1962, 1986], and with early stages in drawing development
in which graphic marks map to basic shapes and volumes in the denotation system
[Willats, 1997]. If, as Armstrong and Wilcox  suggest, these classifier systems
reflect basic persisting strategies of mapping form to meaning across modalities, they
Language and Drawing
may be included as resilient properties of drawing as well. Just as the resilient features
of language have been revealed through studying impoverished populations, detail-
ing the resilient features of drawing can be studied through cross-cultural and his-
torical corpus analysis, by studying the representations of individuals who live in
graphically impoverished environments, and by studying representations from indi-
viduals who might face deficits to drawing development such as blindness.
As in language, we might speculate that resilient feat ures form an innate core of
abilities for the faculty of drawing, onto which more fragile features can be built. Al-
though children across the globe receive very different exposure to and instruction
in drawing, consistent features and developmental steps have been recognized for
drawings [Golomb, 2002; Kindler & Darras, 1997; Willats, 2005]. An innate faculty
like this would explain why certain features of basic drawings pervade different loca-
tions, cultures, and time periods across human history [Golomb, 1992; Paget, 1932].
It would also explain why all normally developing individuals have at least some ca-
pacity to draw, even if they do not become fully fluent, and most children naturally
make graphic marks with no prompting. All of this implies at least some biological
basis for an innate drawing faculty in cognition.
By contrast, graphic fluency involves learning the more fragile properties of a
drawing system, the set of cultural conventions that facilitate a broader system of
expression. Such features may either be learned through imitating the signs of a cul-
ture (passively acquired and/or instructed) or, less likely, be fully developed by a
learner. Some even more fragile aspects of drawing may never be acquirable through
imitation alone. For example, perspective and realistic shading, which involve van-
ishing points or light sources, may have to be learned or instructed from an external
source. This would make sense, since these aspects of drawing were invented or dis-
covered in the Renaissance and are not prevalent in historically earlier drawing sys-
tems or in most children’s drawings. These fragile features may be built on top of the
resilient features and serve as an overriding system to those more basic functions.
For example, if the resilient properties included a basic strategy of using size to depict
depth (i.e., smaller is farther), this may be overridden by culturally learned schemas
to show volume or depth, or even full perspective.
Tab le 1. C omparison of development of various modalities
Verbal-auditory Written language Spoken language Genie, feral children
Visual-manual Written language Sign language Gestural emblems
(thumbs up, ok)
Simple graphic schemas
(houses, stick figures)
T he text in ita lics represents the drawing abilities most are left with (and is roughly analogous to individuals’
capacities for gesture and/or homesign in the manual modality).
Reexamining the Drop-Off
Now we might ask, if drawing involves resilient and fragile features, does that
also mean it involves a critical period? With the overall theory that drawing abilities
are comparable to linguistic abilities, we can reinterpret the drop-off in the develop-
mental trajectory of drawing ability. Instead of a period of oppression where puber-
ty halts an individual’s progress, this can perhaps be viewed as the end of a critical
period at puberty, similar to that found in language development. If learners do not
acquire the sufficient exposure and practice with schemas (by not imitating), they
will reach the end of their critical period without attaining a level of proficiency, and
thus their ability appears to ‘drop off,’ leaving them with only the resilient features
of the drawing system (or the features they acquired up to that point).
If drawing does involve a critical period like language, it is worth comparing the
environments and usages in which children learn to speak and draw. Children are
immersed in language, often with constant encouragement to speak from commu-
nicative interactions with older speakers. They acquire language by observing and
engaging in socially interactive communicative acts using that system [Kuhl, 2007]
in which they are constantly encouraged to produce it in real-time exchanges. By
contrast, in American and European cultures, children are not exposed to an envi-
ronment that uses drawing as an everyday communicative activity. Children engage
in few, if any, interactions encouraging them to imitate to acquire drawing as a way
to communicate directly with adults and peers. The instances in which they are able
to develop their drawing abilities are few and far between, relegated to culturally
specific contexts, and usually outside of actual person-to-person interactions (from
which, if they are imitating, they might only see the finished product of a drawing,
and thus have no access to learning a production script).
Also, despite the sense that the United States and European countries are rich
in images, these environments do not necessarily use a consistent visual vocabulary
across all of their visual culture. Rather, diverse graphic styles permeate these socie-
ties, meaning that a child is exposed to numerous graphic dialects. This diversity
would be analogous in language to a child raised in a society where every individual
speaks a different language. Which one do they acquire? This is unlike Japan, where
the same style extends through nearly all facets of visual culture. Here, drawing in
this style is not just ‘learning to draw’ as a skill, it is partaking in the visual language
of the community. In essence, the visual environment and usage of drawings in
America and Europe is significantly more impoverished for drawing development
than language development.
3 It is important to distinguish an ‘impoverished’ learning environment from the argument of a
‘poverty of stimulus’ discussed in language acquisition [e.g., Chomsky, 1959; Pinker, 1994]. The pover-
ty-of-stimulus argument holds that children do not receive enough exposure to aspects of language in
order to acquire their st ructures by repe ated exposure alone. For example, ch ildren may never hear cer-
tain l imitations on sy ntactic anaphora, ye t they still f ully acqui re the knowledge th at some instances a re
grammatical while ot hers are not. In this case though, chi ldren are exposed to a consistent language,
and the ‘poverty’ refers to the fact that they cannot hear all instances of structure within that system
(i.e., a counter to behaviorist accounts of rote learning). This is different from an ‘impoverished ’ envi-
ronment found in d rawing (or homesign) where a child is exposed to no consistent sy stem or is exposed
to multiple systems with no distinction of value between them.
Language and Drawing
In this light, American and European children’s stagnation in drawing ability
is the end of a critical period in which they did not receive proper exposure and
practice to patterns of drawing, and their development goes no further than the
resilient features of the drawing system (thereby appearing to drop off). In con-
trast, Japanese children are at least immersed in a visual culture that has a consis-
tent, rich set of schemas. As a result, Japanese children have substantially acquired
the schemas of their visual language by the end of the critical period (meaning no
Another contrasting environment comes from communities of native people in
Central Australia. These communities use systems of sand drawings that feature
highly conventionalized schemas used alongside speech and an auxiliary sign lan-
guage that is used in multimodal storytelling as well as in everyday communication
[Cox, 1998; Green, in press; Munn, 1962, 1986; Wilkins, 1997]. In fact, drawing is so
intertwined with communication that speakers are not considered truly fluent un-
less they also draw with speech [Wilkins, 1997]. Children in these cultures learn the
system without instruction, through exposure alone, just as they do for language
[Wilkins, 1997]. In contrast to this system where drawings function as part of inter-
active linguistic acts, American culture seems severely impoverished for exposure
and usage of drawing.
If the development of drawing does fall within a critical period, its end would
not necessarily render further learning impossible in later life. Following this time
period, drawing development would simply become manifestly more difficult (and
further challenging if learning still does not imitate a vocabulary of graphic sche-
mas) and likely require concerted effort, in contrast to the relative ease within the
critical period. This is the same as in spoken language. Learning a language becomes
significantly more difficult after puberty for most people, as many adults learning a
second language can attest.
Finally, it should be acknowledged that, like language, evidence for a critical
period for drawing has not been explored specifically (and certainly not with this
perspective in mind). However, the cultural context of drawing may make it more
feasible to investigate drawing than to investigate language. People who have not
learned language by the end of their critical periods are extremely rare. The vast ma-
jority of human beings are fluent in a language, and impoverished abilities remain
the exception. In contrast, by this account, most individuals are not f luent in a vi-
sual langua ge of draw ing because t he major ity of people have impoverished d rawi ng
abilities. Because of this difference, the experimental testability of a critical-period
hypothesis may be more feasible for drawing than for language. It would be inhu-
mane to deprive a child of learning language, but, since many children are already
deprived of learning to draw, it can only benefit them for researchers to provide the
necessary environment to test the possibility of a critical period.
Altogether, this article has argued that the cognitive system of drawing is simi-
lar to language. Functionally, drawing allows people to express their concepts visu-
ally. Learning takes place primarily over a critical developmental period that reach-
es its end at puberty. Throughout this period, proficiency in drawing relies on the
exposure to and acquisition of schematic mental models that are constructed by
imitating other people’s drawings. If learners do not acquire schemas and reach the
end of their critical period without sufficient development, their drawing abilities
stagnate for the remainder of their lives.
The development of drawing is an interaction between nature and nurture. Hu-
mans do seem to have an innate capacity for representing concepts graphically, but
attaining full proficiency requires interacting with an external system of representa-
tions. This requires that a learner is exposed to a rich graphic environment with
learnable signs and has the motivation (such as social acceptance) to acquire fluency.
Nevertheless, if such fluency is not reached, people are left with resilient abilities that
reflect an innate core of the drawing capacity.
This approach highlights parallels between drawing and other expressive ca-
pacities, particularly language in the verbal and manual modalities. This perspective
assumes a degree of equivalence across all modalities for structure, development,
and processing. That is, we should expect that the mind/brain treats all expressive ca-
pacities in similar ways, given modality-specific constraints . For example, elements
such as the encoding of schemas, combinatorial rule systems, and development
across critical periods may cut across all expressive modalities. However, the precise
nature of those schemas and combinatorial rules differ between language and draw-
ing because the verbal-auditory and visual-graphic modalities put different demands
on their expressive systems (for example, the verbal-auditory channel forces a linear
sequence while the visual-graphic channel does not). A comparable assumption has
underlined research studying other domains of expression, such as music, with suc-
cessful results [e.g., Jackendoff & Lerdahl, 2006; Lerdahl & Jackendoff, 1982; Patel,
2003]. Given this context, contrary theories should bear the onus of answering the
key question: why should the mind/brain not treat drawing like other expressive ca-
If parallels do exist between the structure and development of drawing and lan-
guage, it is worth questioning the ramifications. Does this mean that the notion of
language must be ex panded? Does it mean that domain-genera l aspects of cognition
motivate the development of both language and drawing? Are there other domains
that share the same types of learning trajectories, and what does that say about de-
velopment in general? These are important questions posed to future research, and
addressing them requires a more thorough understa nding of the drawing system and
its developmental trajectory – especially regarding the interaction of fragile and re-
silient properties of drawing.
Finally, this theory further implicates drawing as a core, rather than peripheral,
cognitive ability. Peripheral abilities (like riding a bike) often come much later in
development, can be learned outside of any critical period, and do not leave behind
latent resilient features if not developed. In contrast, if drawing requires a narrow
time period to fully activate, this would suggest it is as essential to human cognition
as other core functions like verbal or manual linguistic systems, which do leave be-
hind resilient artifacts. Thus, any complete understanding of the mind must incor-
porate this capacity without treating it as an ancillary or peripheral system tied only
to aesthetic or expressionistic intents. Rather, drawing serves as another avenue for
conveying concepts, and its study is embedded into the understanding of human
communication, human cognition, and human nature.
Language and Drawing
This paper was made possible by funding from the Tufts Center for Cognitive Studies.
Thanks go to Naomi Berlove, Emily Bushnell, Stephanie Gottwald, Ray Jackendoff, and Eva
Wittenberg for helpful feedback on earlier drafts and for helping to formulate the cognitive
model presented herein. I also appreciate the feedback of my two anonymous reviewers.
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