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You Draw Like a Child! Interrogating Aetonormative Tendencies in Imitations of Children’s Drawings in Graphic Narratives

Tu dessines comme un enfant ! Interroger les tendances aetonormatives des imitations de dessins d’enfant en bande dessinée
Dragana Radanović, Roel Vande Winkel et Nancy Vansieleghem


Cet article interroge la manière dont les auteurs et autrices de bande dessinée contemporaine pensent l’enfance et les enfants. À partir de « dessins d’enfants » réalisés par des artistes adultes, nous essayons d’évaluer la présence d’aetonormativité (normativité liée à l’âge adulte, terme inventé par Nikolajeva [2009]) comment celle-ci influence la pratique de la bande dessinée contemporaine. Nous proposons ensuite une manière de s’engager dans divers styles graphiques. Sur cette base, nous avons interrogé des auteurs de bandes dessinées et identifié six catégories d’idées qui influencent la pratique artistique et qui sont pertinentes pour interroger les préjugés concernant les dessins d’enfants. La confrontation de ces hypothèses avec différentes théories sur les dessins d’enfants permet de comprendre l’origine de ces concepts. Enfin, nous présentons une expérience dans laquelle nous avons exploré la manière dont l’acte d’imiter les dessins d’enfants évoque une perturbation des attentes des adultes et des enfants concernant la pratique du dessin d’enfant. L’expérience a ouvert un espace partagé entre l’adulte et l’enfant qui était également un lieu d’expérimentation où de nouvelles lignes de pensée pouvaient émerger. Nous explorons ainsi la possibilité d’une relation différente à la création de dessins d’enfants, et à la création de dessins en général, et suggérons de nouvelles façons d’intégrer les dessins d’enfants et les dessins semblables à ceux des enfants dans la pratique artistique.

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Authors’ statement

Dragana Radanović (corresponding author) is a comics artist and children illustrator, who pursues a PhD in the arts, under the title ‘Redrawing childhood’. This work was funded by The Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO), Grant No. 1146123N. Roel Vande Winkel and Nancy Vansieleghem are her PhD supervisors. The article is based on Radanović’s research and artistic practice. The three authors made a substantial intellectual contribution to the conception and design of the study as well as to the analysis and interpretation of research data. All authors made a substantial contribution to the drafting of the manuscript and its critical revision. All authors approve the final version of the manuscript submitted for publication and agree to be accountable for all aspects of the work.

1This article suggests a new way of exploring ideas about children and childhood in comics drawing practice. We are particularly interested in ideas and representations that emphasise nostalgic descriptions of our own childhood or the childhoods of children around us. Looking back to conceptualizations of childhood in children’s literature, Clémentine Beauvais underlines the common/recurrent notions of benevolent adults, childhood reading as a source of pure wonder, and children as powerful agents (2019: 2). Ideas of children as powerful agents are especially prominent in western, romantic perspectives which regard children’s carefreeness as limitless freedom, unrestrained by adult beliefs and value systems (Nikolajeva 2019: 31). These assumptions inevitably leak into artists’ use of children’s and childlike drawings, showing the need to carefully rethink the assumptions tied to such drawings. In this article, we shall distinguish between children’s drawings made by actual children and childlike drawings made by adults imitating the styles of children’s drawings. Challenged by the phrase ‘children’s drawings’, as opposed to the drawings that are not drawn by children (adult’s drawings), we use this dichotomy to understand the fluidity of the borders around these conceptions in the realm of comics production. Childlike drawings found in graphic narratives often perpetuate the adult-child binary. They are less often the work of actual children but the work of adults pretending to be children, with adults’ perspectives dominating even when mimicking children’s perspectives. For example, Nikita Fossoul’s and Dominique Goblet’s Chronographie (Fossoul and Goblet 2010), a collaboration between mother and daughter, is mentioned by Maaheen Ahmed as a rare case where the reader realises that the actual child had a part in developing the book (2020: 146). Goblet, a comics artist, proposed to her 7-year-old daughter that they sit face to face and draw portraits of each other. The book is a compilation of portraits created fortnightly over the course of 10 years and, as such, represents an extraordinary encounter of an artist with a child’s drawing practice. Wouter Krokaert’s and Jeanne Le Peillet’s Paysage avec Jeanne (2022), presents another collection of images made by an artist in collaboration with a child. According to the book cover, when they met for the first time, Jeanne enthusiastically spoke of some of Krokaert’s drawings, which happened to be some of his favourite drawings. The next time they met, Jeanne brought him an image of her world. Krokaert’s interest was drawn by the fact that, despite their age difference, they both connected to the world in the same manner and that the same themes appeared in their work. As Krokaert concludes, the collection of drawings was an attempt to demonstrate how they, a child and an adult, look at life.

2Possibly some of the most intriguing explorations into the relationship between children’s and adults’ drawings and into the practices of learning processes on drawing, writing, thinking and imagining can be found in the work of Lynda Barry. Her books What It Is (2008) and Picture This (2010) are works of art that emerge from Barry’s interest in the creative process. These volumes incorporate archives of children’s drawing and writing, as well as exercises she used with students during workshops and as a lecturer in the art department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Picture This reveals her memories of drawing as a child, her reflections on the fear of drawing, and step-by-step instructions on how to get back into the state of being that will allow different drawings to happen. Barry often incorporates images that evoke childhood and, through them, questions external influences on the drawing practice of children and adults, prejudices towards creativity, and aesthetic evaluations of the drawings. In this article, we look at how childlike drawings embody ideas about childhood and seek new ways to incorporate children’s drawings into artistic practice. These drawings are valuable because they account for the role of art practitioners and their drawing practices in constructing and moulding images (both figuratively and literally) of children and of childhood. Throughout history, comics have been closely associated with children and concepts about childhood. Various notable children’s characters in comics, such as the Yellow Kid and Tintin, demonstrate how children in comics recreate specific social histories and serve as unique sources of knowledge in rapidly changing contexts (Ahmed 2021: 2). Nonetheless, while the child in comics is a “changing, nebulous social category” (Ahmed 2021: 6), it is not always devoid of stereotypes and nostalgic attempts at remembering what it was like to be a child. Beginning with Rodolphe Töpffer and his posthumously published book with two chapters about child’s art, we can find recurrent questions about stick figures and other drawings by children and some of the first speculations about childhood creativity (Wilson 2004: 305). Children’s drawings have long been an object of interest for many cartoonists, as well as psychologists, art educators, pedagogues and writers, all of whom have different agendas and viewpoints on comics, children and their drawing activities.

3For example, the idea that children’s drawings do not need to adhere to established rules in representation echoes certain discourses on children’s drawings by modernist artists and art educators. Although psychologists saw oddities in children’s drawings as flaws in their vision or knowledge of the world, in the late nineteenth century, numerous art teachers began to see the aforementioned flaws and deficiencies in children’s paintings as characteristics that made them appealing (Willats 2006: 3). On the other hand, in the search for an alternative source of artistic expression that was far removed from the classical conventions of academic art, avant-garde artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Pablo Picasso, incorporated motifs from children’s drawings into their own works of art (Fineberg 1997; Leeds 1989). As similar anomalies emerged in both children’s drawings and avant-garde artists’ work, some art instructors at the time asserted that children were innately creative. They saw children as pure natural artists with unrestricted creativity who needed to be rescued from societal and adult corruption. The notion that children’s drawings are the consequence of natural creativity unrestrained by social standards recalls the grand story of modernism. Even though discourses about and the status of children’s drawings are changing due to social and historical developments that John Willats (2006) and Brent Wilson (2004) explore in depth, a child’s drawing still tends to symbolise the child’s innocence, expressiveness, individualism, and inherent creativity (McClure 2011). These ideas contribute to the contemporary characterisation of children’s art as either pure expression or a progression toward visual realism and have an impact on contemporary comic-making practice. Brent Wilson reminds us that “there is nothing natural about the artlike activities of children” and that art teachers, pedagogues, theoreticians, psychologists and children have together constructed child art (2004: 321). Nevertheless, he believes that, from a modern viewpoint, we can look at child art differently:

One of the most important tasks for those of us who teach art and who inquire into the visual cultural products of young people is to uncover hidden ideological positions held by ourselves and other pedagogues who have initiated student’s art-making activities and to recognize our own biases ( Wilson 2004: 321).

4The inspiration for the research presented in this publication came from a reflection by Radanović, a comics artist and the corresponding author of this article, on an old graphic narrative about childhood she created some years ago before being involved in critical theory research. The fictional children in her narrative were meant to make a poster to help them find a lost dog. Radanović remembers enjoying creating the poster. She placed the title ‘Lost dog’, a drawing of the dog with its prominent features, the drawing of the area in which the dog got lost, and telephone numbers to call in case the dog was found. Interestingly, the drawing of the dog on this poster does not resemble the drawing of the same dog throughout the rest of the comic. This was more than simply a stylistic choice to distinguish the renderings in the poster from the renderings in the diegetic space of child characters. It was instead a decision based on something else. As Radanović recalls, she embraced this page as a place where she could now play with a different drawing technique without worrying whether or not this page visually matched the rest of the story. She remembers thinking back then that not only did she have the freedom to make that page different and more experimental but there was additional reasoning behind their choice. She assumed that doing so would make it more believable that a child drew that page. This freedom to experiment and draw without constraints stemmed from her own aetonormative notions regarding age-dependent creative freedom. On the other hand, the idea of believability arose from her awareness of cultural and artistic expectations that an unskilled and simple drawing corresponds more to a child’s drawing than a professional artist’s drawing.

The lost dog on the poster and the dog in the rest of the narrative.

Dragana Radanović (2019).

5Was she alone to look at such spaces imitating children’s drawing, as islands of enhanced freedom in artistic practice? To understand this, we reached out to other artists who both use and imitate children’s drawings in their work. We focused on comics artists, but we also welcomed input from other creators of graphic narratives. Our aim was to find examples and explore the approaches of artists when it comes to using of children’s or childlike drawings. We were curious to see if these artists adjusted their drawing practices to illustrate how they assumed children drew and to identify the factors that influenced their decisions. Furthermore, it allowed us to investigate how the artists’ ideas about children affected the comics-making process. Nine artists responded, and we discussed the examples they shared with us. Confronting emerging ideas with critical theory helped us understand how concepts about childhood can govern the artistic practice of comic-making.

6Our research about children’s drawings and adult normativity derives from a specific perspective and area of interest. We are not interested in children’s drawings as objects, nor are we interested in any developmental perspective on children’s drawing abilities. Instead, we hope to articulate a new model for positioning the artist in the process of creating children’s drawings in comic books. Inspired by Vansieleghem’s (2011) approach to philosophy with children, we wish to experiment with the process of imitating children’s drawings, not to criticise normativity in children’s drawings, but to test how these normative claims can be suspended. We explore the possibility of a different relation to creating children’s drawings by setting up a concrete comics-making experiment with children. It should be noted that the child’s presence is not due to a desire to learn how children ‘really’ draw, as we are aware that power dynamics between adult and child, and the situation in which child and artist interact influence drawing activity. Instead, we hope that the child’s presence will allow artists’ normative ideas to emerge since the drawing will be stripped of its traditional representational function and used as a different kind of activity. Drawing on Vansieleghem’s philosophy with children, the materialization of normative ideas is facilitated by one’s parrhesiastic presence in the experiment. This entails paying full attention to the ideas one has about children in the presence of the child: it is a matter of conversing and interrogating one’s thoughts and relating them to what is happening and taking place during the encounter. This experiment will offer us an opportunity to open up a mode of thinking about children’s drawings that is no longer dependent on adults’ assumptions. Our primary focus remains on the adult and adult’s intricate relationship with the ideas about child and childhood. We assume that by noting what is said and thought, a real experience of an encounter between the ‘doings’ of a child and the ‘idea’ of an adult becomes possible. The experiment generates a shared space between the adult and the child, an experimental space where new lines of thought can emerge. This in turn allows for other ways of thinking about childhood to surface.

7In the first section of this article, we will look at contemporary graphic artists’ childlike drawings to elaborate on the connections between ideas about childhood and artistic practice. First, we will look at the method that helped us identify potential locations for ideas about children’s drawing practices in a variety of styles used in contemporary artistic practice. Next, we will go through semi-structured interviews with artists that helped us materialize their ideas about children and childhood. To obtain insight into where these ideas emerge from, we will link the changes in artistic processes with theories regarding children’s drawings. In the fourth section, we will describe an experiment in which Radanović was involved in a drawing activity with the child as an exercise in suspending common beliefs about children’s drawing practice. Finally, in the last section, we will analyze the experiment’s findings and their potential implications for artistic practice.

Graphic styles, childness and comics

8For exploring ideas about children’s drawing practices in various graphic styles, Peter Hollindale’s idea of childness provides a foundation for establishing the distinction between children’s drawings and artists attempting to imitate children’s drawings. Hollindale distinguishes two types of childness, one for children and another for adults:

For the child, childness is composed of the developing sense of self in interaction with the images of childhood encountered in the world (including adult expectations, standards of behaviour, grants of privilege and independence, taboos, goals, and offerings of pleasure). For the adult, childness is composed of the grown-ups’ memories of childhood, of meaningful continuity between child and adult self, of the varied behaviour associated with being a child, and the sense of what is appropriate behaviour for a given age, of behavioural standards, ideals, expectations and hopes invested in the child as a child (Hollindale 1997: 49).

9Keeping current debates on Peter Hollindale’s idea of childness in mind (Rudd 2019; Beauvais 2019; Nikolajeva 2019), Hollindale’s concept allows for dialogue and interaction between children’s and childlike drawing styles. His idea presents a way to understand the child-adult dichotomy in drawing practice. We acknowledge Daniel Rudd’s argument that Hollindale’s sense of childness may not be particularly central to a child’s construction of identity, as this sense is created by the adult world (2019: 13). In that light, to argue that a child draws lines representing the borders of what it means to draw like a child and, via drawing, what it means to exist in the world as a child is probably an analogy made from an adult’s viewpoint. Nevertheless, Hollindale’s idea of childness for adults opens a perspective on comic-making. As we will see, when drawing children’s drawings, adults present memories, ideals, expectations, hopes, and social constructions associated with being a child.

  • 1 An interesting question was asked about children’s drawings. One of the artists had an example of a (...)
  • 2 As a part of compliance with the privacy and ethical committee approval, the artists’ answers remai (...)

10We reached out to contemporary artists that incorporated childlike drawings in their graphic narratives to understand if and to what extent their artistic practice was influenced by presumptions about children’s drawing practices. We asked the artists to share with us their graphic narratives in which fictional children were engaged in a drawing activity. Artists were contacted through the Radanović’s professional network. She encouraged their colleagues to take part in the research if they had imitated children’s drawings in their narratives. Some of the artists recommended other artists and their work. We collected examples of children’s drawings1 from 10 different artists2, currently working in Europe and the USA, and asked them if they would be interested in discussing their artistic practice. As a result, our collection includes roughly 35 drawings by ten artists, which we used to spark conversations about the genesis of these drawings. After agreeing to discuss their artistic practice, we asked them to do an email interview or complete a questionnaire. The interviews were semi-structured, as the conversations were planned to evolve around their artistic practice and specific pages that they shared with us. Because we started the conversation around the artists’ works, the questions were unique for each example but followed a similar format. Most artists chose email interviews, and conversations with them were conducted digitally by asking questions and follow-up questions concerning their artistic approaches. We had four categories of questions. First, we asked introductory questions to determine their early thoughts on children’s drawings. We asked for further information on the children’s drawings they made and the contexts of creation. Second, we asked descriptive questions about their children’s drawings and how they approached making these drawings. Third, we asked analytical questions such as why they employed various (or the same) strategies and the reasoning behind making these choices. Finally, we asked closing questions in order to collect additional data. The collection of examples and interviews took place online between February and June 2022. Artists took varying lengths of time to answer questions and the interviews therefore continued for over several days.

11As we began gathering examples of children’s drawings, we encountered an inevitable difficulty: the drawings of different artists were all so distinct from each another. The changes were striking even in drawings by the same artists at different stages in their careers. It was clear that these artists used diverse procedures for creating images, and that these procedures were changing throughout their careers. Finding connections in such disparate sets of production processes required a particular framework to look at artistic practice. If we look at a wide range of artworks, how can we identify similar ideas regarding children’s drawing practices? Focusing on comics as a drawing medium allowed us to collect more information about the differences in creative processes between the artists’ typical artwork and their mimicking of children’s drawings. Furthermore, medium-specific qualities of graphic sequences (see Lefèvre (2011)), such as sequentiality, provided spaces of contrast between different drawing approaches that would be less visible if we looked at a non-sequential drawing medium. Finally, medium specificities made it easier to compare artists’ adultlike and childlike drawings made during the same time period and published in the same place, frequently on the same pages and in the same publications. We chose to focus on the central expectation in the practice of making comics: repetition in drawing technique, which is most visible in the comic’s graphic style.

  • 3 When looking at non-traditional comics, the link between graphic style and production techniques be (...)

12Building on Mikkonen’s (2017, 112) observations, we use “graphic style” to refer to the drawn aspects of style in a more narrow sense of graphic showing that does not extend to the organization, selection and positioning of text and images. Thus, graphic style is one aspect of style as a broader entity, a matter of stylistically appropriate graphical choices. Looking across multiple disciplines, style can be understood as a repetition of choices. Lefèvre (2016: 5) is particularly interested in knowing when a collection of strokes becomes a graphic style. He examines the notion of style in the light of Meyer, a music historian who sees style as “a replication of patterning, whether in human behavior or in the artifacts produced by human behavior, that results from a series of choices made within some set of constraints” (quoted in Lefèvre 2016: 5). Comics innately insist on such repetitiveness as graphic style is usually repeated from drawing to drawing throughout the narrative. Repeated patterns can therefore be used to define the general characteristics of graphic style in comics (Mikkonen 2017: 112). From the perspective of making comics, graphic style is the result of systematic use of particular production procedures, where “complex and unending mechanism of repetition” (Peeters 2010: 113) is included throughout the making process.3 Finally, comics’ reliance on repetition also has to be situated in relation to the medium’s long history as serial popular culture, heavily dependent on reproduction technologies and mass printing, and sensitive to commercial imperatives that strongly favour repetition and serial iteration.

13Style shifts or deviations occur when recurring patterns are purposely modified or when several systems of patterns coexist in the story (Mikkonen 2017: 115). To discuss graphic expression and style variations, Jan Baetens and Hugo Frey deploy Philippe Marion’s term graphiation, according to which an artist’s hand and body, as well as his or her whole personality, are communicated through the way they depict a particular item, character, place, or event (2014: 137). It allows a wide range of styles that can be anywhere on the stylization spectrum, from a highly personal style in which the author’s own expression takes precedence over the depiction itself to a decidedly objective style, in which the purpose of depiction takes precedence over the author’s personal expression, which seeks to remain as neutral and unnoticeable as possible. Beatens and Frey investigate why most of the styles do not show higher degrees of variations while underlining several works in which stylistic shifts are present but are made invisible through diegetic motivation. They suggest that when variations between two styles coincide with the difference between embedded story and embedding story, readers are less likely to decode styles in terms of stylistic variation (2014: 139). This, in turn, can possibly explain why deliberate changes in drawing style at moments in the story when children’s drawings are imitated are harder to perceive by the reader. For us, it is important to examine comic-making from a hands-on perspective according to which graphic style shifts happen when the recurrent usage of specific production procedures and devices is disrupted or replaced by a new set of techniques. Regarding the investigation of aetonormativity, our interest in stylistic shifts between the narrative’s overall graphic style and the style of children’s drawings within the same narrative is twofold. First, stylistic modifications in these specific places materialize intentional shifts in expectations about adults’ and children’s drawing activities and reveal the presence of preconceptions that distinguish children and adults. Second, stylistic differences, generated through changes in production procedures, show how adults’ ideas about children’s drawing activities affect adults’ artistic practice. These shifts are especially noticeable in the frequently consistent graphic style of a comic sequence.

14Style shifts, according to Mikkonen, can serve and emphasize particular narrative and thematic purposes, such as indicating a change in modality, viewpoint, narrative circumstance, temporal frame, or narrative level (between the frame and embedded narrative or between distinct narratives). As Mikkonen elaborates, one frequent impact of using disparate graphic styles in a story is that style is no longer only viewed as an artist’s graphic style. As a result, when an artist employs more styles in a single piece, the graphic style becomes an issue in and of itself because stylistic variety indicates how the characters and their environment are visually depicted (2017: 115). Similarly, stylistic alterations when imitating children’s drawings in the narrative are more than merely a consequence of the author’s stylistic choices; they materialize artists’ or shared ideas about children’s drawing practices. As we will see, while stylistic alterations may not always be a clear, rational choice, they can serve as anchor points for locating shared processes amid otherwise diverse creative practice. We can examine deviations from artists’ customary graphic styles, link these changes to changes in the artists’ most commonly employed procedures, and attempt to understand which ideas are embodied in these changes in creative practice.

Artistic practice, comics and the embodiment of adult normativity

15In the examples of children’s drawings that we gathered from artists, we examined stylistic differences between the children’s drawings and the rest of the narrative. If stylistic variations were blatant, they formed the main focus of the semi-structured artist interviews. After they had answered the initial set of questions, we would ask for more clarification if needed. We enquired about how and why their usual techniques altered, how a fictional child’s drawing practice differs from the artist’s drawing practice and the difficulty in producing these drawings compared to the rest of the story. If the modifications in production procedures were not apparent, we pointed out similarities between the drawing styles of the child in the narrative and the overall style of other panels and inquired about the reasons for stylistic similarity.

16When we addressed stylistic shifts with interviewed artists, the issue of consistency came up multiple times. The artists, for example, noted that children’s drawings in their comics were moments of relaxation and enhanced freedom since they did not have to adhere to the drawing consistency required for the rest of the story. Drawing “like a child” was often regarded as more relaxing or liberating than the artist’s usual approach. Nonetheless, when comparing the drawings in which they mimicked children’s drawings in their narratives, these images had a sufficient degree of shared stylistic elements to be considered a consistent style, but one that differed from the rest of the narrative. As we observed, the artists’ preconception that “drawing like a child” does not elicit consistency is misguided. The artists’ experience of liberation and relaxation while mimicking children’s drawings in their narratives originated from somewhere other than the absence of rules typically associated with children’s drawings. The feeling of enhanced freedom resulted not from a sudden loss of consistency in drawing technique, as repetition in graphic style was still visible, but from the context in which they engaged in artistic activity.

17We continued to explore how their drawing processes differed when they pretended to draw like children and how these artists adjusted their drawing habits to imitate what they considered as children’s drawing processes. The answers helped us understand where notions about children’s practices come from and what changes these views generate in the way artists relate to their artistic practice.

18The changes were classified into six categories:

  1. The first category included changes related to presumptions about children’s drawing abilities. Children’s drawing abilities are often explored in light of one of the most popular theories about children’s drawings, namely that young children draw what they know rather than what they see (Willats 2006: 232).

  2. The second category was connected to considering children as artists and resulted in minimal changes of the artist’s usual techniques.

  3. The third category covered changes stemming from ideas about “pictures on the retina”, or mental images of children who draw (Willats 2006: 174). Mental images are usually explored within another group of theories about children’s drawings, namely that children draw things differently than adults because they see them differently. The most extreme variation of this theory was advanced by early art educators who believed in the child’s pure and innocent vision of the world (Willats 2006: 237).

  4. The fourth category included changes stemming from assumptions about children’s drawing habits and preferences.

  5. The fifth category included changes in the artistic process that resulted from the attempt to represent the authenticity of children’s drawing practices.

  6. Finally, the sixth category included changes in artists’ habitual practices when they drew with children, which was caused by assumptions that they could influence children’s learning processes.

19The first category, aimed at imitating the drawing abilities of the children was seen through changes related to bodily skills and memories, such as drawing with the non-dominant hand to imitate “undeveloped motor skills of children,” or changes in the way the artists used the material (such as holding the tools differently) to “counter the effects of muscle memory.” A few artists were familiar with the non-dominant hand drawing approach and branded it as a secret of the trade. One artist noted that this approach was known as a “trick” and concluded that it is probably a universal illustration solution for imitating children’s artwork. For another artist, drawing with the non-dominant hand was a means for avoiding that the drawings look too “clean”. This artist connected it with increased freedom and creativity and admitted that they would like to work more with the non-dominant hand, but they were not sure if that was suitable for professional work. We also learned about variations in the number of steps required to create the final image. Some artists, for example, have acknowledged multiple attempts to develop images that appear like children’s drawings. They would alter their standard method with each repetition until the lines resembled those of a child who lacks the ability to draw a controlled line. Another artist attempted to avoid the controlled line by going in the opposite direction. The strategy was to stick to only one effort and to make no more changes to that attempt, avoiding repeating, deleting, or repairing it in order to create a “raw” image. Ideas about children’s lack of graphic control can be seen in Georges-Henri Luquet’s theory of “intellectual and visual realism” (Luquet and Costall 2001) in which he divided children’s drawing development into four stages: fortuitous realism, failed realism, intellectual realism, and visual realism. Following an initial scribbling phase, the child begins to recognize meaningful objects in some of these scribbles. In the second stage, failed realism, children know what they want to draw and may declare their intentions, but they cannot produce it for two primary reasons. The first issue is a lack of graphic control. The second issue is a psychological one: the child’s restricted and discontinuous attention. According to Luquet, the task is frequently too challenging for children and their attention can easily wander because they are faced with a dual task, the task of thinking about the object that needs to be represented, and the task of monitoring the graphic movements to produce this representation (Willats 2006: 30). Willats recognizes Luquet’s theory as more complicated and interesting than the simple distinction between knowing and seeing, but he also points out its limitations (Willats 2006: 236). Children’s drawing abilities are viewed under the prism of age-related artistic development. One of the artists talked about imitating, “drawing typical for that age group of children.” The artist describes their extensive experience teaching in primary education, studying the development of drawing and graphomotor skills at university, and drawing with their own children, which provides insights on “how children’s drawing should look, depending on the child’s age.” These ideas match with the teaching of Viktor Lowenfeld and his famous stages of artistic development (1957). Lowenfeld’s work provided a theory and description of phases that came to dominate classroom art practice. Over the years, this rigidly linear perspective of growth and development has been heavily critiqued, and the relevance of hierarchal development of Lowenfeld’s stages has been frequently questioned. Many scholars, notably Gardner (1983) and Inagaki (1992), suggest that children develop at different speeds in various regions or domains. Wilson & Wilson (1982) observe that a single graphic schema might represent multiple phases. Hamblen (1985) highlights the idea that some children bypassed phases, and he agrees with Wilson and Kellogg (1969) that various developmental stages can coexist in drawings. Research has shown that all aspects of children’s development are situated within the cultural context and are also shaped by that culture’s practices, skills, and expectations (Burton 2009: 328).

20The second category presents ideas about the child as an artist. In the work of one interviewed artist, the change in drawing practice in order to imitate children’s drawing was hardly noticeable. In their work, children’s drawings were made in the same way as the rest of the narrative. This author underlines that they never looked at child’s drawings as underdeveloped images, on the contrary, they considered the child as a complete artist. That is why the author’s imaginary child draws the same way as they do. The idea of child as an artist was advanced by early art educators in the late nineteenth century. Modernists saw children as natural artists with unrestricted creativity who needed to be rescued from societal corruption. Therefore, art teachers became the keepers of children’s purity, which seemed to be echoed in children’s unconventional art. To protect children’s creativity from adult corruption, art teachers such as Čizek, Lowenfeld and Merema created entire schools and approaches aimed at advancing art pedagogy (Wilson and Thompson 2007: 1). This interest in children’s art planted the seeds for the development of programs on learning to draw… like a child. Their educators believed that they could, through the beneficial effects of art education, transform adults, and hence society, from unimaginative servitude to norms to a state of never-ending creative well-being (Wilson 2004: 311). To “draw like a child” became framed by connotations of freedom, creativity, and spontaneity.

21The same interviewed artist remarks that the child is unfamiliar with artistic blocks or deadlines or lack of inspiration. It simply draws in the here and now. This professional believes that artists, when mimicking children’s drawings, unconsciously search for something they used to have a long time ago, the freedom to create without the fear of judgment about the perfection of their work. The notion of “simply drawing in the here and now” came up multiple times in the discussions with artists. Nonetheless, it is difficult to think that children have an infinite reservoir of inspiration within themselves. This brings up the question: where does this so-called natural inspiration go so that we do not have it as adults? Of course, some will try to explain that children’s work is judged, which causes some children to abandon their artistic endeavours. In that case, the assumption that children draw free of rules and societal conventions is insufficient. Regarding creative freedom, the interviewed author sees these imitations of children’s drawings as small oases of relaxation and freedom from the demands of the market and publisher where, even in most commercial projects, you are allowed to disrespect the system. As can be seen, social attitudes, including in this example, editors’ and publishers’ attitudes regarding children’s drawings, impact commercial drawing practices.

22The third category, related to conceptions about children’s imaginative processes, encompasses different changes in artists’ practices, including changing the pace of the drawings, adjusting the ways in which they are drawn and changing the materials to underline certain mental states. Many artists assumed that children, when they hear about horrors, exaggerate them in their imagination. Further, it is assumed that when children draw, they emphasize important things not only by size and contour drawing but also by aggressively filling in areas that extend beyond the outlines. Changing the pace, force, and crossing contours in this artist’s work directly resulted from the artist acting out that idea.

23The fourth category encompasses changes influenced by ideas about children’s drawing habits and preferences which materialized in changes in drawing materials and colour selection. While discussing one of the pages in which graphic style was exceptionally different from the rest of the narrative, the author indicated that it was necessary to have a variety of materials; as a result, this page was the only page in the narrative that was made using traditional materials (rather than on the computer). The author emphasised its significance by considering how children when drawing something important and frightening, emphasise the magnitude of the item or entity and want to use as many drawing accessories as possible. Another artist mentioned the use of more vibrant colours because, in their experience, it was more common for children to use these colours. The author remarked that the selected colours reminded them of the colours of children’s toys. These examples demonstrate the extrinsic impacts of children’s culture on artists’ perceptions of children’s colour preferences and habits. Juliet Kinchin and Aidan O’Connor, for instance, have examined modernist ideas about promoting children’s innate creativity through children’s toys to show the emergence of Bauhaus aesthetics that dictated designs using geometric forms and unmodulated primary colours (2012: 77).

24The fifth category of changes are those that stem from an attempt to imitate the authenticity of children’s drawings. This was accomplished through incorporating the artists’ own childhood drawings, drawings of real children, and drawings by a different author. One of the interviewed expert’s methods for creating childlike drawings is to scan an original drawing of a real child and integrate it into the sequence. A few artists mentioned using their own childhood drawings for inspiration or reproducing them in their works. Finally, one artist incorporated drawings of another artist to mimic children’s drawings. Collaboration with another artist enabled maintaining the difference in the drawing styles of two characters, an adult and a child. The interviewed artist’s collaborator could choose how to draw these images since the idea was to be “surprised” by the colleague’s ideas, and not to just have images “out of the artist’s head.”

25Finally, the last category refers to interactions between artists and real children that result in changes in drawing practices. One of the artists explained that when they draw with their child, they stylize the drawings in order not to impose too much detail on things that the child is just learning and understanding, as the artist fears that this may have a negative effect on the child’s drawing development. Another artist mentioned a different experience: since their child was intimidated by the parent’s artistic skills and did not want to draw while the parent was present, the parent needed to show the child drawings from when they were the same age as their child to persuade the child to draw in their presence. These examples show how the social context in which children draw may significantly impact their drawing practices. When children draw, they consider what others expect from their work. Thus, drawing is a social activity with inherent expectations rather than a natural desire in children. The examples above illustrate the importance of Wilson’s assertion that it is necessary to look at children’s art differently. Those who teach art and those interested in young people’s visual cultural products should identify their own ideological stances and realize their prejudices (2004: 321).

Creating a space for challenging aetonormative ideas about children’s drawing practices

26Wilson’s appeal to reveal hidden ideological positions and acknowledge our own prejudices does not include another important group of adults whose actions impact and perpetuate representations of children in society: artists.

27The challenge can be framed as follows: how to materialize underlying ideas in and via the process of making children’s drawings? Examining the strategies employed by the artists to create children’s drawings revealed some of the artists’ ideas about children’s drawing practices. However, substituting these approaches for new ones and declaring that they are now devoid of ideological perspectives would be inaccurate. If we simply tried to overcome these changes in artistic practice by modifying them to draw in a manner that considers creative freedom to be independent of age, we would still be asserting a new layer of knowledge based on established ideas. Participating in drawing practice with a child can provide an opportunity for materializing and perhaps challenging ideological positions if we rely on a mode of thinking that is not dependent on preconceptions.

28We needed a way to relate to the activity of making children’s drawings differently. Radanović was looking for practical methods to move away from adults’ beliefs about children’s drawing practices when she came across an article by Nancy Vansieleghem in which she expands on the concept of truth-telling practices that go beyond dialogical processes and techniques. Vansieleghem suggests a new approach to philosophizing with children that permits one to be fully present in the present. She suggests that this experience of being in the present might be viewed as a form of parrhesia, as discussed by Foucault (2005), in which one experiences the ability to speak after being exposed. Philosophizing as a form of parrhesia is neither a test of logical thinking, nor a set of interpretative tools by which we judge if something is real or not. Instead, Vansieleghem explains, it encompasses sensitivity and alertness to things as they truly appear in the here and now, rather than how we desire them to appear. In this way, philosophy with children can be seen as an attempt to identify and materialize the ideas generated by dominant discourses (Vansieleghem 2011).

29In this regard, the emphasis is not on making children’s drawings in terms of what an artist remembers about their younger self’s drawing practice or what the artist learned about what a child does (or is able to do) when drawing. The emphasis is on creating a situation in which the artist attempts to collaborate with the child in a drawing activity and in the process pays attention to what is said and done. What is to be enabled here is not a reflection on the other but a reflection on the world: a contemplation on what is thought, spoken, and done and how this process shapes artists’ perceptions of children’s drawings.

30In the words of Vansieleghem, parrhesia is a form of exposure that establishes direct contact, allowing us to confront what we are accustomed to thinking, speaking, and doing (2011). Inspired by that article, Radanović decided to use the parrhesiatic approach during the next opportunity of drawing with children. She devised a situation in which anything was theoretically possible while remaining attentive to what was going on at the time. The method was to not offer any guidance to the child and to observe herself in relation to what was happening in the moment. The drawing’s content was not important. The emphasis was on the artist and the expectations that could be challenged due to the participation of the child in the drawing activity. It is important to mention that Radanović did not go into this exercise believing that the child had a natural desire to draw on that particular day. The drawing was a social activity with embedded expectations, in which both engaged individuals evaluated what others expected from their work. She recognized the futility of trying to remove these expectations. The only alternative was to identify the expectations and her own positioning and see how it impacted the situation.

31The drawing began in a typical setting, with blank papers, drawing tools, an adult, and a child. The child knew that Radanović was a comic artist, and asked if they could make comics. Radanović said that they would collaborate on a comic story. The intention was to recognize the expectations of the artist in a situation that was not pre-planned. The conversation was easy-going: they discussed the character who was soon to become the story’s protagonist. At that moment, Radanović was a drawing expert (and adult) and the child was aware that he was being observed. Radanović, however, observed herself in this position as well. The child chose a pencil and began drawing. Soon enough he started explaining that his character had strange eyes and started repairing them, claiming that the character looked better after fixing them. The expectation that children draw in a free environment relaxed from rules was consequently challenged. While Radanović watched, the child continued to draw. Soon enough, this position in which Radanović did not do anything except looking at the child drawing became too uncomfortable for her. She became aware that they were in a space where she was perceived as the teacher waiting for a pupil to finish a task. Radanović’s thoughts went from “There is nothing different about this encounter between the child and the teacher” to “What am I doing here now?” and “If only the child would just give me something to do so that I do not sit here as some kind of a teacher”. The growing discomfort became intolerable. Finally, Radanović inserted herself into the drawing practice of the child. She asked the child whether he would like to give her something to do. It will never be known if the child really wanted her to join in the drawing, or if he just responded to an adult’s wish. Once again discomfort confirmed her adult role in the relationship. The child instructed her to imitate what was being drawn, but on a different paper and in Radanović’s own way of drawing. Radanović felt a sense of relief but not for long. She asked the child what it means to imitate what is being drawn, and the child explained that she should copy the drawings in “the way she draws” or use her usual way of drawing. Radanović started drawing but remained unsure of what to do. She noted down the questions regarding whether she should draw it in her usual style or change it so that it reflected the child’s approach. She noticed that she felt strange to even think about these differences. For the first time, Radanović was not just mechanically mimicking the child’s drawing based on ideas about children’s drawing practices, but actively questioning her approach to drawing. Being in this place of uncertainty about how proceed, line by line, gradually changed Radanović’s relationship towards artistic practice. This was not the process she relied on when imitating children’s drawings. At that very moment, she became someone who no longer recognised herself as an expert on how to draw. She began to draw lines on paper, but they were no longer lines that showed what it meant to draw as a child. Instead, these lines framed the possibility of using drawing to shift away from something we “know” towards something we do not understand and thus come up with something new—a new way to relate to and think about drawing. Possibly, Lynda Barry talks about the same uncertainty that enables things to happen:

What will come up through the paper wall ? The trick is to stand not knowing certain things long enough for them to come to you (Barry 2010: 116).

32The co-presence of the child in the drawing activity altered the creator’s traditional strategies for recreating children’s drawings. The resulting drawing was created entirely in pencil, with no colour added. There were no changes in the tempo, intensity, or expressivity of the lines. The feeling of freedom to draw and experiment without constraint was no longer automatically associated with children’s drawing activities. Mimicking was no longer burdened with expectations about how lines should look, whether colour should be used, or if certain elements should be emphasized; instead, the remaining lines were generated free of their function as an instrument of the artist’s or child’s expression. What does this indicate for the expert’s future drawing strategies? Since the sensation of increased freedom to explore and alternate styles was no longer identified with childlike drawings, a new space opened for this attitude to arise in the expert’s other drawing activities. Understanding this freedom as a social construct that governs contemporary drawing practice transformed it into a performative tool that can be exploited beyond its conventional limitations and beyond the creation of childlike drawings.

33Through this experiment, emerging thoughts about the dichotomy between children’s and adults’ drawing practice were situated in a performative environment that materialized them and opened a new space where the artist could question them. What this experiment cultivated was a space for self-transformation. The drawing made in front of the child enabled a graphic practice that neither expressed individual ideas about childhood and children’s drawing practices, nor mimicked general cultural assumptions, but remained something in between. The process opened space for awareness and questioned presumptions and givens layering artistic practice that were, until then, automatic.


34Our investigation extends beyond exposing ideas associated with children’s drawings in contemporary comic-making practices. It shows the potential of children’s and childlike drawings to influence drawing procedures in general and points towards new ways in which children’s drawings can be incorporated into artistic practice.

35Radanović was not the only one to regard children’s drawings in her graphic narrative as locations of increased freedom and creativity, ideas that stemmed from aetonormative conceptions about children’s drawing practices. The initial challenge of finding common ideas about children’s drawing practices in a sea of diverse artists’ styles was overcome by focusing on the single medium of drawing (comics) with its medium specificities and on shifts in production procedures when artists imitate children’s drawings. These shifts in procedures became a basis for discussions that led to the identification of common ideas of artists regarding children’s drawings. Regarding the original question of the adult-child binary, this paper shows that it persists in modern comics-making. Although artists themselves inevitably go through the challenging process of progressively acquiring increasingly effective representational rules (Willats 2006: 15) that constitute drawing development (instead of children’s development as it was suggested by some of the interviewed artists), some still believe that children’s graphic styles represent freedom from these challenges and originate from a position of innate creativity and an unadulterated vision of the world. As a result of these notions about children’s drawing practices, children’s drawings in sampled comics are locations where artists give themselves the permission to relax and to deviate from their usual approach. The cultural expectations and internalized notions about children’s drawing practices allowed them to break their own, otherwise standardized, procedures of comics-making. Understanding where these notions came from and how they influence depictions of childhood can shift artists’ relationship to these notions and allow them to find a different way to relate to artistic practice. Understanding the activity of “drawing like a child” as a social construct created by adults in their pursuit of a perpetual state of renewal (Wilson in Willats 2006: 239) and the role of artists in the creation of this construct can help us understand the activity of “drawing like an adult” or, simply of drawing, in a different way. This is similar to what Lynda Barry does in her work; she employs childlike drawings and engages in childlike art activities to understand how images, and hence comic images, can function (Ahmed 2020: 135).

36The question remains: how can one confront one’s own prejudices toward children’s drawing practices without reinforcing adult views opposing aetonormativity but still arising from it? We propose engaging in a drawing practice in a way that does not adopt the stance of an adult that seeks knowledge but seeks exposure to what happens at the moment so that change is possible. The goal should not be to find a better or more complete view of how children draw but to suspend these desires so that we can, through suspending our assumptions, come into direct contact with ourselves. By exposing the artists to their own normative beliefs, experiments such as ours provide room for them to see things as they are, rather than as we believe they should be or want them to be, and therefore comprehend the world in a new way.

37One can imagine that encounters which preceded books such as Chronographie and Paysage avec Jeanne were based on some of these notions. Through making links with the rare contacts of childlike and children’s drawings such as in these books, we try to underline the importance of encounters that expose artists to children’s drawing practices as they can be sites of surprise and of testing prejudices, while also providing insights that train new sensibilities to the world.

38Our experiment provided an occasion to take a fresh look at the imitation of children’s drawings and see that activity not as a technique that brings us closer to the creative freedom of children but as an exercise that suspends these assumptions. For this, we tried to create a setting with limited aetonormative bias, as the artist was forced to develop a sense of self in drawing lines that were not based on assumptions but were there to help uncover the boundaries of what it means to “draw as”.

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1 An interesting question was asked about children’s drawings. One of the artists had an example of animal children and wondered whether this example might be helpful. Since it was a story unfolding through children’s drawings of an anthropomorphic adult remembering his childhood and an anthropomorphic child seeing that story through his own eyes, in the form that John Berger (2015: 14) refers to as human puppet, we took this example into account. For a broader discussion on the depiction of animals in graphic narratives, see Alaniz"],"itemData":{"id":286,"type":"article-journal","container-title":"The"}(2020).

2 As a part of compliance with the privacy and ethical committee approval, the artists’ answers remain anonymized. Ethical and privacy review: G-2022-5063, Date of approval: 31.03.2022. The dataset and collected interviews are available through KU Leuven Research Data Repository,

3 When looking at non-traditional comics, the link between graphic style and production techniques becomes even more apparent. For example, Terhi Adler’s spatial comics Wondrous House (Comics Center, Helsinki"],"itemData":{"id":287,"type":"report","event-place":"Aalto","genre":"Master's","author":[{"family":"Adler","given":"Terhi"}],"issued":{"date-parts":[["2021"]]}},"suppress-author":true}],"schema":""}[2021]) is her Master project designed to be experienced in three dimensions, in real life, and the graphic style is shaped by the construction of the scene and the repetition of materials she used. Philipp Meyer’s Life"],"itemData":{"id":216,"type":"graphic","title":"Life","URL":"","author":[{"family":"Meyer","given":"Philipp"}],"issued":{"date-parts":[["2013"]]}},"suppress-author":true}],"schema":""}(2013) lacks colour and line and is designed for visually impaired people. The graphic style manifests itself through the repetition of tactile graphic components contained in the texture of the paper. Maisa Majakka’s"],"itemData":{"id":170,"type":"graphic","medium":"spatial","author":[{"family":"Majakka","given":"Maisa"}],"issued":{"date-parts":[["2020"]]}},"suppress-author":true}],"schema":""}(2020) work, in the form of spatial ceramics, establishes graphic style through the repetition of patterns used to sculpt the figures, moulding them in space, adding colour, and employing other techniques to obtain the final result.

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Table des illustrations

Légende The lost dog on the poster and the dog in the rest of the narrative.
Crédits Dragana Radanović (2019).
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Dragana Radanović, Roel Vande Winkel et Nancy Vansieleghem, « You Draw Like a Child! Interrogating Aetonormative Tendencies in Imitations of Children’s Drawings in Graphic Narratives »Comicalités [En ligne], Dessins d’enfance dans la bande dessinée, mis en ligne le 24 décembre 2023, consulté le 16 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Dragana Radanović

Dragana Radanović is a doctoral researcher in Arts and Social sciences, working on her project in the Institute for Media Studies in KULeuven and LUCA School of Arts. She completed Master’s studies in Visual arts, focusing on Graphic storytelling. Her practice-based research focuses on the representation of childhood in graphic narratives. In 2020 it has been awarded FWO’s fundamental research grant.

Roel Vande Winkel

Roel Vande Winkel has a background in History (MA) and Communication studies (PhD). He is associate professor of film and television studies at the KULeuven (Institute for Media Studies) and at the LUCA School of Arts (research cluster AC~DC). He is supervising the PhD research of Dragana Radanović.

Nancy Vansieleghem

Nancy Vansieleghem is a lecturer in Philosophy of art education in the Educational Master in LUCA School of Arts. She has a background in pedagogy. She publishes on philosophy of childhood, the role of art in education and more in particular how art can contribute to the understanding and development of the digitization of education. Currently her research focuses on the work of Fernand Deligny and the role of mapping and camérer as tools to reconsider education today.

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