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How to Tell If Your Kid Will Become a Great Artist

Spotting artistic talent in your own kid is hard - but here are some ways to do it

Every parent thinks their kid is the best at everything: the best soccer player, the best singer, the best artist. The world would be full of Grammy-Award winning Olympic medalists who win Nobel Prizes, if parent’s dreams came true. But there is a way to spot artistic talent in your own kid. It’s hard – but here are some strategies to start.

Take Arkin Rai for example. Scientific American writes about drawings he produced before he turned five:

In Arkin’s fanciful scene, the long, graceful neck of an Apatosaurus-like beast obscures the view of other dinosaurs. One of them is a Tyrannosaurus rex, drawn in profile with one leg mostly hidden behind another—an effect called occlusion, which most children discover at age eight or nine. In the ensuing months his drawings became shockingly realistic. He started using fluid contour lines to give figures shape. At age six he was depicting dinosaurs fighting and running, using various advanced methods to convey the distance between objects.

So Arkin is for sure an artist right? Well, maybe, maybe not. Being able to draw realistically isn’t necessarily the thing to look for in kids with artistic talent. Scientific American lays out five main rules of thumb for your bundle of joy:

1. The kid’s drawings are well composed and display either a decorative colorful aspect, or an expressive power.

2. The kid likes to look at art.

3. The kid likes to make art.

4. The kid wants to make art that doesn’t look like other people’s art.

5. The kid wants to get really, really good at making art—what the authors call “the rage to master.”

If you’ve got those things, you might have a little Michelangelo or Frieda Kahlo on your hands.

Research into children’s innate artistic ability suggests that the first sign of artistry is taking the three-dimensional world we live in, and translating that onto a two dimensional page. The leap from 3-D space to 2-D paper is a hard one, and kids who grasp it easily tend to be better at art from the get-go. Scientific American writes:

Although most children’s drawings are schematic, certain youngsters, including some with autism, can draw in a highly naturalistic fashion from a very early age, mirroring those paintings done by our ancestors. We refer to children who show an early ability to draw in this manner as precocious realists, and we now know a great deal about their developmental trajectory.

But what about artists who don’t draw realistically? Clearly that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doomed. Loads of famous painters would have probably had their childhood work laughed at. Well, the researchers accounted for that too. They write:

We suspect, however, that producing works in a naturalistic style is not the only way to demonstrate artistic brilliance. Although most Western children identified as gifted in drawing have come to our attention by virtue of their precocious realism, some talented children have mastered a nonrealistic style instead. Psychologist Claire Golomb of the University of Massachusetts Boston has described these children, whom she called “colorists,” as showing an awareness of form and quality and a concern with decorative and expressive aspects of color, texture and design. These artists are more difficult for an untrained eye to spot because their drawings may look similar to the charming, nonrealistic paintings of typical preschoolers.

They describe the case of a kid named Arrian. He doesn’t draw things. He draws circles with colors (and probably, while he’s doing it, wonders what all these adults are doing watching him so much). Arrian is obsessed with circles. His mother writes accounts of him spending hours trying to draw the tiniest circles possible. That focus applies to lots of his drawings: “He was, however, advanced in intensity: after drawing one face—a circle with eyes—he went on to draw about 400 more smiling visages, all in one sitting.” While that intense focus might become an issue for him in life, Arrian is also probably going to be really good at art.

So if your kid gets obsessed with drawing and makes passable work, it’s possible that he or she will be the next Picasso. Or maybe not. Maybe they just like to draw.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Science Books for Kids
Future Parents Will Always, Always Know Where Their Kids Are

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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