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Developing Drawing Capability

Written by: Emma Hallam
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7 min read

Drawing is widely called upon across the secondary curriculum and has been made more prevalent by the Department for Education’s (2015) review of art and design GCSE subject content. Drawing is increasingly viewed as an essential part of the curriculum, underpinning many aspects of study. It is a means of both making sense of the world and communicating ideas. However, what can a teacher do when a child exclaims, ‘I can’t draw’? This research was designed based on the lack of confidence seen in students with regard to their drawing capabilities.

There are many perceived barriers to the acquirement of drawing capability, particularly where there is a culture in place that views drawing as an instinctive talent, which Dweck (2017) refers to as a ‘culture of genius’. In an attempt to change the perception that they couldn’t progress their drawing capabilities, students were given a range of different drawing strategies to trial, based on work from Lane (2010) and others. The different drawing strategies were selected to improve secondary-age students’ drawing capability. This research was conducted with 18 learners aged 13–15, over a six-week period. Due to this timescale, it should be noted that there are limitations around the findings. It could be considered whether a larger sample of students would yield the same outcomes or whether the perceived positive impact of the study will have a lasting impact.

Graphic schemas

Representational sketches were chosen as the focus for the study, as it is thought that once students have a secure grounding in representational drawing, they are able to move on to drawing from imagination with more ease and success (Lane, 2010; Lane et al., 2012; Cohn, 2012). Cohn (2014) argues that the cognitive structure of drawing is similar to that of language, in that the schemas for each are gradually acquired to enable students to eventually combine the basic schemas in different ways. This theory of acquiring a range of basic graphic schemas (Cohn, 2014) before developing more complex schemas was communicated with the students. Figure 1 provides a basic outline of this concept.

Model for acquiring basic graphic schemas
Figure 1: A visual model created to describe the theory of acquiring basic graphic schemas
Figure 1: A visual model created to describe the theory of acquiring basic graphic schemas constructed following reading the work of Cohn (2012), Lane (2010) and Ishibashi and Okada (2004)


Three drawings strategies were used with the students, aged 13–15. The strategies were chosen to support the development of the basic graphic schemas required to draw a still-life scene. The strategies used were adapted from the work of Lane (2010), in which he strives to improve drawing in university-level students. In Lane’s study, trials included a wide range of different strategies, which encompassed a range of purposes, from observational sketches to imagined images. The three strategies were chosen  because they linked most clearly with the representational phase of drawing.

As educators, we may be seeking to develop the creative outcomes that our curricula require before students have built the foundations of their drawing capabilities. Cohn (2014), Tchalenko (2009), Lane (2010) and Ishibashi and Okada (2004) all argue that the basic fundamentals of drawing can be acquired through copying the work of others. Considering this, the strategies that were adapted from Lane’s work (2010) all concerned copying an image. It should be noted that there are limitations in the reading that informed the methods of this study; much of the reading used concerns studies that were completed abroad, and not within the context of secondary learners. This study aims to explore how these ideas work within the setting of UK secondary education.

Prior to the students’ engagement with each of the strategies, a baseline drawing was completed. Following the completion of each drawing activity, students then worked from the same scene to provide a comparison. At each stage, the drawings were analysed against the same criteria (Figure 2). To create the characteristics for successful drawings, a list of commonly drawn shapes was devised and objects sourced, to reflect the shapes commonly used in basic drawings. This list of characteristics was developed by considering how these shapes could be accurately represented in a drawing.

Figure 2: Criteria of successful drawings
Figure 2: Criteria of successful drawings
Strategy one

Students were asked to copy a pencil drawing of a mug of coffee. The image was gradually revealed to students on the classroom projector. Cohen and Earls (2010) state, in their study on the drawing of faces, that the perceptions of the objects being drawn are the most likely cause of inaccuracies. Therefore, by gradually revealing the image, the students are not able to ‘invent’ the whole shape, as they cannot see the whole drawing.

Strategy two

This drawing activity involved using a sheet of clear acrylic as a window to translate the 3D scene into a 2D drawing. Students used a marker pen to trace the 3D scene onto the clear acrylic. The scene selected for students to draw was the same as that given in the baseline and final outcome drawings. The intention was to give students the opportunity to further explore the featural and spatial aspects of the objects to be drawn (Cohen and Earls, 2010).

Strategy three

The focus of this activity was for students to build graphical schemas around the use of tone to create form, and parallel lines to give a sense of perspective. Students were given a projected drawing to copy, which consisted of two objects placed on a surface. Each of these elements were selected to support the development of the participants’ graphical libraries (Lane, 2010).

In addition to these methods, informal discussion was used as an evaluative tool, the outcomes of which are anecdotal and potentially open to bias, due to the relationships between students and the teacher operating as an insider researcher.


The samples of work demonstrated a significant visual improvement, which was supported by thematic analysis conducted alongside the criteria in Figure 2. Improvements in the accuracy of parallel lines, in the straight sides of the cylindrical objects and in the vertical and horizontal lines of the box shapes were observed. In the baseline drawing, a total of eight out of the 18 participants were using parallel lines, compared to 15 in the final outcome drawing.

There was a significant increase in the range and depth of tone used in the second drawing. Students were better able to judge where to apply darker tones in their final outcome drawing compared with their baseline attempts. Across the 18 participants, only 11 attempted some use of tone in the baseline drawing; this increased to 17 in the final outcome drawing. This significant increase could be due to students having built the graphic schema for application of tone in strategy one and strategy three, where these techniques were presented for the students to copy.

Culture shift?

A sample of work was shown to the participants in the hope that this would give them confidence in the strategies and their own capabilities. In an informal discussion, students commented that they found some of the activities uncomfortable to carry out, feeling that their performance was poor while completing the activities; this was particularly the case for strategy one and strategy two. However, it was explained to them after data collection and analysis that, although they disliked the tasks, we could see some promising evidence that the tasks had had an impact on their drawing capabilities.

Following the completion of the research, some students have produced further drawings using the strategies, and they now approach the activity as an opportunity to grow and develop, rather than a task that they must complete to perfection. The language around drawing in the classroom is now consciously chosen to reflect the growth mindset paradigm. The students appear to be shifting away from their existing culture of genius and towards a culture of development, which Dweck (2017) describes as a setting in which people believe that one can become better with effective guidance, support and ‘good strategies’ (Dweck, 2017).

Following the positive indication of the data, the strategies used in this study have been implemented across all year groups. Prior to starting the activities, students have been introduced to the anonymised outcomes of the study and the theory of the culture of development. This new development in our curriculum holds exciting potential for more in-depth and long-term study into how to develop this positive action into a more long-lasting and developed movement.

I extend my thanks to Alison Hardy at Nottingham Trent University, and Diarmaid Lane, for their insights and comments in support of this research.


Cohen DJ and Earls H (2010) Inverting an image does not improve drawing accuracy. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 4(3): 168–172.

Cohn N (2012) Explaining ‘I can’t draw’: Parallels between the structure and development of language and drawing. Human development 55(4): 167–192.

Cohn, N., 2014, Framing  “I can’t draw”: The influence of cultural frames on the development of drawing, Culture and Psychology 20(1): 102-117.

Department for Education (2015) Art and design: GCSE subject content. Available at: (accessed 7 January 2019).

Dweck CS (2017) Mindset. London: Robinson.

Ishibashi K and Okada T (2004) How copying artwork affects students’ artistic creativity. Proceedings of the Cognitive Science Society 26: 618–623.

Lane D (2010) A paradigm for promoting visual synthesis through freehand sketching. Design and Technology Education: An International Journal 15(3): 68–90.

Lane D, Hamlin AJ, Veurink NL et al. (2012) The role of observational sketching in forming and manipulating graphical libraries. In: 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas, USA, 10–13 June 2012. Available at: (accessed 26 December 2018).

Tchalenko, J., 2009. Segmentation and accuracy in copying and drawing: Experts and beginners, Vision research 49 (8): 791-800.

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