My 5-year-old grandson drew a picture for my birthday. As you can see, it’s a birthday cake, complete with candles. It’s a little lopsided, and the table it is sitting on is a bit odd, but I think that it is the best birthday card I’ve ever received. While of course I am prejudiced because it was done by my brilliant, talented, amazing grandson, it got me thinking about what it is about children’s art that makes it so charming. After all, your grandchild or niece or nephew or godchild or son or daughter is also brilliant, talented, and amazing, too, and the birthday cards they draw for you are also the best ones that you have ever received.
Some part of me wants to say that we delight in the drawings of children—especially our own children—because we love the children, and their drawings somehow connect us to that love. Or, in a more sentimental mode, perhaps the spontaneous, untutored nature of children’s drawings reminds us of our own childhood, or the childhood that we wish we had had. Or, maybe we wish we could still draw that way ourselves, without worrying about whether we were doing it right, or if the colors go together, or any of the other judgmental things our inner critic says about our own drawings.
I think that all of these things do come into our appreciation, but there is something more. When I look at a painting or drawing by an adult, I think about things like design, craft, and style, on the one hand; and where the work before me fits into the overall conversation that is the history of art, on the other. None of these criteria are applicable to the drawings of a five-year-old. We cannot really compare them to great works of art like a self-portrait by Rembrandt or Picasso’s Guernica or Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross. Nor can we compare them to the anonymous and equally skillfully made tribal masks from certain places in Africa, or the prehistoric drawings of horses and bison deep in the caves of Alta Mira.
It seems to me that what the drawings of little children share with the great works of art of any time or place is a certain kind of truth. This truth is not found in a literal depiction of what can be seen with our physical eyes, but rather in what can be seen with what the Apostle Paul calls in Ephesians 1:18 “the eyes of our heart.” This drawing, like so many other drawings by children, is connected to the outer world – the cake is on a table, it has candles, it is decorated with a bright, red band – but it also seems to reveal the very thoughts and feelings of the person who made it.
The drawing shows not just a birthday cake, but the way the artist gave himself over to the process of drawing it. In the process, the imperatives of the picture took over from the simple reality of a cake on a table. There is no awareness of outside judgment in this drawing. It wasn’t done for a critic or a museum or for history. It exists as a true record of a moment in a person’s inner life, and that truth has value.
Or, maybe I’m just a doting grandmother.