• Abhishek Panchal

Role of artistic development theories in understanding: Why, when, what, and how children draw?

Updated: Jun 27, 2021

"A work of art as a product of the human spirit can be understood

only when the driving forces which lead to its creation are understood"

(Lowenfeld, 1957, p. 76).

Children instinctively create scribbles or a mess of paint between the ages of 2–4 and are not concerned to create an art object, as adults perceive art, but it consists of many layers of their thoughts and emotions buried within the artwork (Hurwitz & Day, 2010). To find the meaning behind; why and how children draw at the different stages; researchers, have observed children during the last century. They developed and proposed multiple theories of child and artistic development that encompass their connections, the influence of society, and the culture of the times they lived. In this article, I review and compare two theories of artistic development: an early theory by Viktor Lowenfeld and a contemporary theory by Dr. Marianne Kerlavage, a professor of art at the Millersville University, Pennsylvania, USA.

Figure 1: Viktor Lowenfeld

Victor Lowenfeld was an art educator, psychologist, author, and professor of art education at the Pennsylvania State University. As an alternative to charting the growth and development of the talented or a specially gifted individual, Lowenfeld proposed a humanizing purpose for art. His theory was shaped and influenced by his experiences of surviving two bruising world wars. He insisted on introducing art education in the early years of childhood and believed that art education could influence the [post-war] fragmented world (Burton, 2009). According to Lowenfeld, the task of creating and responding in arts entailed making the world personally meaningful (Burton, 2009).

In each picture is a whole lifetime imprisoned, a whole lifetime of fears, doubts, hopes, and joys. Whither is this lifetime tending? What is the message of the competent artist? To harmonize the whole is the task of art. - Wassily Kandinsky
Figure 2: Wassily Kandinsky, ‘Yellow, Red, Blue’, 1925

In each picture is a whole lifetime imprisoned,

a whole lifetime of fears, doubts, hopes, and joys.

Whither is this lifetime tending?

What is the message of the competent artist?

To harmonize the whole is the task of art.

- Wassily Kandinsky

The theory, for its time, gave a place and function to the body, senses, and feelings in the construction of knowledge (Lowenfeld, 1957). Lowenfeld called attention to the creative process and not to the aesthetic products of artistry. He believed that flexibility allowed young minds to make sense of the complex and confusing world (Burton, 2009). The arts program at the Gateway School of Mumbai (GSoM) recognizes — creating and responding — as tools for inquiry and problem-solving. These tools harmoniously engage a child through their body, senses, and emotional state. So, Lowenfeld's theory is relevant in contemporary teaching practice.

Figure 3: An illustration by a lower school student at GSoM

Both theories provide a base of information for looking at and understanding the influences on the sequential development and evaluation of artwork. The theories account for six components of growth that influence the artwork of children. The components being Cognitive, Emotional, Social, Physical, Perceptual, and Aesthetic. Lowenfeld's consideration of these growth components was distinctively progressive for the time he developed the theory. The description of each stage is identical in both theories. However, the description in Kerlavage's theory accounts for a holistic approach to development.

Figure 4: Comparison of the two theories reviewed
Figure 5: Marianne Kerlavage

Lowenfeld (1957) accounted for Creative growth as a separate component besides the other growth components. Unlike Lowenfeld, Kerlavage (1998) substituted this with the Language development component. The influence of language is critical to the art-making process at GSoM, as students with learning differences face linguistic barriers, delays in speech and language, hearing impairment, and speech issues. These barriers influence their artistic expression. Kerlavage (1998) affirmed this by stating that spoken words, written words, and gestures; all convey meaning. Thus the language component is critical and provides a holistic portrait of a child.

Figure 6: Stages of Artistic development

Notably, Lowenfeld (1957) insisted on ascertaining a balance between emotional and intellectual growth towards a healthy personality. Yet, his theory is limited in accounting for the influence of culture and surroundings in the process. Lowenfeld received criticism as he failed to propose a place for — the impact of surrounding culture — in a child's artwork (Burton, 2009). Identical to Lowenfeld, Kerlavage (1998) acknowledged cognitive development as one of the essential areas in the holistic growth of a child; and it occurred in stages. Her theory bridges the gap and considers the influence of culture and surroundings in cognitive development. She argued that it is defined differently for each child.

Lowenfeld (1957) believed that children move from one stage to another. Each stage brings a qualitative change in thinking, feeling, and behavior; characterizing a particular period of development. Yet, the stages of development seemed as distinct and unified structures that are inflexible, the age determined, and rigidly limited. According to Lowenfeld (1957), children and adolescents passed through the same stages in the same way, at the same age. Both theories reflect that adolescents begin to analyze works from the viewpoint of an artist. They are limited, as they do not mention any artistic development past the age of seventeen.

A distinctive feature of the stages in the theory of Kerlavage (1998) is that she accounted for the influence of components such as family values and customs; the school and community context; the cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic influences on the artistic development of children (Kerlavage, 1998). Lowenfeld (1957) contended that a child's artwork informed us about how they grow and develop physically, emotionally, socially, cognitively, and aesthetically. It is worth noting that Lowenfeld’s theory is an evaluative approach to understanding the development of artwork, whereas, Kerlavage’s approach is more of an interaction between these components and is a contemporary tool to form a holistic portrait of a child.

In conclusion, both theories can help educators understand why their students respond to art the way they do; how children progress in art-making as they grow older. Educators can hence plan age-appropriate teaching strategies and content. However, it is essential to recognize that not all students demonstrate identical milestones that delineate passage from a stage to the other — as observed in the theories discussed above. The stages — should be applied critically — while assessing artwork, with due consideration to the learning and intellectual differences; synchronously with the six growth components.


Burton, J. M. (2009). Creative intelligence, creative practice: Lowenfeld redux. Studies in Art Education, 50(4), 323–337.

Hurwitz, A. & Day, M. (2010). Children's artistic development. In Children and their art: Art education for elementary and middle schools (pp. 39-63). Boston, MA: Wadsworth.

Kerlavage, M. S. (1998). Understanding the learner. In J. Simpson (Ed.) et al., Creating meaning through art: teacher as a choice maker (pp. 23-72). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Lowenfeld, V. (1957). Creative and mental growth. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Images retrieved:

Viktor Lowenfeld 1903-1960. Taylor & Francis. (n.d.). https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00043125.1961.11651196?journalCode=uare20.

The Sound of Colours - Google Arts & Culture [Digital Image] (n.d.). Retrieved August 10, 2020, from https://artsandculture.google.com/story/the-sound-of-colours/0ALymHuhPl1jLg

YouTube. (2018, September 28). Marianne Kerlavage | MICA Art Education Mini Conference | 2004. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Z8UoA3NPVY.

Kristin. (1970, January 1). First representational drawing. Princess Artypants: Visual Arts in the PYP. http://princessartypants.blogspot.com/2011/11/first-representational-drawing.html.

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