Cross-cultural Analysis of Artistic Development:
Drawing by Japanese and U.S. Children

Masami Toku
California State University, Chico
April, 2000



 In the field of childrenís artistic development, there are some questionable assumptions. One is the universality of childrenís drawing pattern in their early years regardless of their culture or gender, which means no matter where children are born, their patterns of artistic development does not differ in the early stages of so-called primitive art. Characteristic and universal patterns, such as representational graphic pattern, spatial patterns, and so on, emerge with their cognitive development and physical growth at an early age (See, for example, Arnhein, 1969, 1974, Golomb, 1992, Goodnow, 1977, Kellogg, 1969, Lowenfeld, V. and Brittain, W.L. 1970).  Piaget analyzes the universality of childrenís artistic development based on cognitive development. According to Piaget, the universal patterns that exist in childrenís drawings shift from stage to stage in all cultures and countries (Hardiman and Zernich, 1988, Piaget, 1952). For example, spatial and figural orientations develop from simple to complicated schema qualitatively and quantitatively regardless of cultural differences.

 Although artistic development in the early stages indicates a universal pattern in their drawings, children show another important characteristic in their drawings: cultural specificity when they reach certain ages. This means that the universal tendency of artistic development is limited to the early years from toddler to about five or six years of age before cultural and educational influences appear. Children have a tendency to be influenced by the cultures and societies surrounding them and the influences emerge in their drawings (See, for example, Alland, 1983, Gardner, 1980, 1990, Harris, 1971, Kindler & Darras, 1997, Wilson & Wilson, 1982,). The influence of culture and technology emerges in childrenís drawings, especially in elementary school. As a result, this leads them to produce new and different characteristics in their drawing patterns depending upon the cultural and technological context.
 Because of this fact, some questions remain. One, do universal patterns exist in childrenís drawings and do these patterns shift from stage to stage, qualitatively and quantitatively in all cultural contexts as in Piagetís theory? Two, which is predominant in childrenís artistic development: universality or cultural specificity? Three, if the patterns in childrenís drawings are due to culture and society, what do the differences reveal?
 In this study, I focused on spatial development, and examined the relationship between national origin (U.S. and Japanese) and spatial similarities and differences found in childrenís drawings. The challenge is to find the mechanism of the relationship between universality and cultural specificity and how and why it appears in their drawings.



 In Spring, 1993, a total of 425 drawings were collected from U.S. children in first to sixth grades and Japanese children in second, fourth, and six grades. For the U.S. data, 1250 drawings were collected in two different districts in the State of Illinois: 425 drawings from suburban Chicago schools, and 825 drawings in Champaign. However, to compare with Japanese students equally in the same age groups, 767 drawings were selected from 2nd, 4th, and 6th grade students of the two areas: 376 drawings from suburban Chicago schools, and 391 drawings from Urbana-Champaign schools. For the Japanese data, 175 drawings were collected from Japanese Saturday School in suburban Chicago. This Japanese Saturday School offers the Japanese national curriculum for Japanese children who temporarily live in the U.S. due to their parentsí employment. Most Japanese students who are in the Saturday school attend American schools Monday through Friday.

 "Me and my friends playing in the school yard" was offered as the drawing subject to each student in the classrooms. Students imagined the playground scene with peers playing together and they transformed the image into drawings in a limited time (30 minutes). This was an imaginative drawing; not an observation drawing which looked at the scene directly. This drawing task was implemented by classroom teachers or art teachers strictly based on the common instruction. The apparatus and procedure is shown below. (For Japanese students, classroom teachers implemented this procedure in Japanese.)
Subject-matter: Me and my friends playing in the schoolyard


 - Drawing papers 12" x 18"
 - Crayons (eight colors: red, yellow, orange, blue, green, purple, brown, and black)
 - Pencils and erasers

(Read the following)

Instructions to the students:

All of you play with friends in the schoolyard before school or after school or at recess. I would like you to think now about the kind of things you do in the schoolyard. I would like you to make a crayon drawing of you and your friends playing in the schoolyard. You will have 30 minutes to complete your drawing. Do you have any questions? (If questions are asked, do not provide additional information about the theme, simply repeat the instructions and get the students into the act of drawings as soon as possible.)

(Distribute materials)

Note to the Teacher:

1. After distributing materials, have each student print name, age, grade level, and male or female on the upper right hand corner of the backside of the drawing paper.
2. Remind students to work independently. Again, advise students that they have 30 minutes to complete their drawings.
3. Ask students to begin. After approximately 30 minutes have expired collect the drawings.


 Collected drawings were categorized into a scale of spatial order by three staff members including myself under Dr. George W. Hardiman at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At that time, the priority of analyzing data was to find a standard of categorization in spatial order to classify childrenís drawings objectively. As a standard, the fourteen categories of spatial treatment formed by Elliot W. Eisner in 1967 in his research, "A Comparison of the Developmental Drawing: Characteristics of Culturally Advantaged and Culturally Disadvantaged Children" was used (see Figure 1).

ÖPlace Figure 1 (Eisnerís categories) about hereÖ

Previously, many researchers such as Lowenfeld and others created developmental patterns in spatial representation, but only Eisner created enough spatial categories to analyze childrenís drawings. His scale was constructed for classifying childrenís drawings with respect to spatial syntax in a developmental schema of spatial treatment from a simple to complicated manner qualitatively. It was originally developed based on the relationship between figures and baseline, and the existence of occlusion in the spatial treatment. For this reason, Eisnerís 14 spatial categories are often used to judge spatial order and artistic development objectively. For example, children tend to draw figures without any spatial relationship due to the lack of concept of space and depth. In this stage, figures are drawn as floating figures and objects (Eisnerís category one). With age, children use the bottom line of the drawing paper as a ground line and all figures and objects are drawn standing on the bottom line of the paper (category two). Then children start to draw a baseline on the paper instead of using the bottom of the paper as the ground base (category 4). Finally they use the technique of overlapping with figures, objects, and even with the ground to show space and depth on a two-dimensional surface (category 13). Eisner also created category 14 for unclassifiable drawings. Generally, those drawings are assumed to be advanced technique drawings in spatial treatment.
Due to Eisnerís assumption in his research, his visual-verbal categories were selected as my studyís standard. Although these categories were developed to compare the drawing performance of culturally advantaged and culturally disadvantaged children, which was different from my study, it proved useful.

Eisner says in his article;

 "One major assumption of the study was not only that the various morphemes found in each category were present in childrenís drawings, but that the categories were ordered hierarchically. That is, the scale was not viewed merely as a scheme for classifying drawings but as a progression of category ordered according to development (Eisner, 1967, pp13)."


 Secondly, the statistical method (Chi-square) was used to analyze the spatial similarities and differences of childrenís artistic development found in the drawings under the following five comparisons (hypotheses).

1. U.S. students in suburban Chicago vs. students in Champaign in 2nd, 4th, and 6th grades
2. U.S. students in both suburban Chicago and Champaign vs. Japanese students in suburban Chicago in 2nd, 4th, and 6th grades
3. U.S. students in both suburban Chicago and Champaign vs. Japanese students in suburban Chicago in 2nd grade
4. U.S. students in both suburban Chicago and Champaign vs. Japanese students in suburban Chicago in 4th grade
5. U.S. students in both suburban Chicago and Champaign vs. Japanese students in suburban Chicago in 6th grade


 First, based on Eisnerís constructed categories, the relationship of nationality and artistic development, specifically spatial development was examined. Second, the universality of spatial treatment and cultural specificity in their drawings were observed. We examined differences in the scale or the transition pattern from one category to another between U.S. and Japanese students, and the reasons for this. In addition to the spatial treatment, other findings in figural orientation and color were also discussed.  Finally, the mechanism of relationship between universality and cultural specificity was observed.

Findings in Spatial Treatment

 Using the Chi-square (= .05 & .01), it was found that all hypotheses were overturned due to the significant differences of spatial representation of children of different nationalities (See Table 1 & 2, Figure 3).

Ö Place Table 1 (whole number of students) & 2 (statistic result)Ö

In comparison 1, the relationship between U.S. students in suburban Chicago and Champaign in 2nd, 4th, and 6th grades was significant, although the difference between them was not as great as that difference in the relationship between different nationalities between Japan and the U.S. (See Figure 2). There were some differences in the scale or the transition pattern from one category to another between two districts of American students. Students in suburban Chicago seemed to transfer from one category to another faster than those in Champaign. Also, the rate of category fourteen for Chicago (7.7%) was higher than that of Champaign (2%) as a whole (2nd, 4th, and 6th grades). This indicated that even in the same country there is some difference in the process of childrenís artistic development depending on the social and education level.

Ö Place Figure 2 (Chicago Vs, Champaign) about hereÖ

In comparing 2 to 5, the relationship between U.S. students (including both suburban Chicago and Champaign) and native Japanese students in suburban Chicago in each grade, 2nd, 4th, and 6th, significant differences were shown in the process of their spatial treatment, In addition, there are some interesting findings from the data in the rate of each category (See Figure 4, 5, & 6).

Ö Place Figure 3(whole us vs. Japan), 4 (2nd G), 5 (4th G), and 6 (6th G)Ö

First, there are almost no Japanese students in the low categories, 1 and 2, even 2nd grade students, unlike U.S. students in both Chicago and Urbana-Champaign. This means that Japanese students already have some knowledge of spatial treatment when they start elementary school, at age six or seven. Conversely, about ten percent of U.S. students in 4th and 6th grades are still in the first category where figures are presented "floating" in the space of the drawing. In addition, the transition speed from the lower categories to the higher categories is seemingly faster in Japanese students than in either group of U.S. students. In the 4th grade, more than sixty percent of Japanese students are already in categories11 to 14, figures presented overlapping in horizontal space, although less than twenty percent of both groups of U.S. students are in those categories.
 Another finding is that there are many unclassifiable drawings from Japanese students, which are classified as number fourteen of Eisnerís categories. In spite of the fact that most U.S. students (more than ninety percent) can be classified in the categories, about fifty percent of Japanese students in 6th grade are not suited to Eisnerís categories. This result indicates that the transition from one category to another is not universal and not consistent. The reason will be discussed below.

Other Findings in Pictorial Representation

As a predictable characteristic, there is a strong influence of cartoon characters throughout Japanese childrenís drawings in figures, movement, and others.

Figural Orientation

The point common to both female and male children is that their figure drawings are far from realistic; they just try to draw ideal faces and bodies and borrow from comic books (Japanese manga) in their drawings. The results of my research indicated the influence of cartoons as well. Included in these figures are only the more obvious influences. More subtle or questionable influences were not counted.  Regardless of gender, the percentage increases from 21.5 for 2nd grade to 35.7 for 4th to 33.3 % for 6th grade. The increased rate with age is believed to be because of their advancing skills with age. Without proper skills and technique, they cannot draw such ideal figures borrowed from comics even though they try to. Therefore, with age, the influence from cartoons in their drawings seems to increase. In addition, regardless of age, the percentage of mangaís influences in girlsí drawings is higher than that of boysí drawings.

A more interesting result might be the difference between female and male children in their figure drawings. Because of the different types of comic books for girls and boys, they imitate figures differently. For example, in the case of girls, there is the idealization of figures in their drawings, which have large-eyes, invisible noses with just a line or dot, and skinny bodies that have narrow and long legs. Similarly, figures in boysí drawings are still drawn with idealized face and body, but in another way, we can see more exaggerated movement and muscular bodies there. Sometimes, figures and facial expressions in boysí drawings are more exaggerated and cartoonized (e.g. funny faces and baby-like shrunken bodies) than girlís figures in an idealized manner. Wilson (1998) classified Japanese childrenís figurative drawings into 7 types corresponding to different characters in Japanese comic books (manga), such as doll, robot, monster, and so on. According to his research, more than 70 % of 6th graders showed some kinds of cartoon influences in figures.

...Place Table 3 (Cartoon Influence) and Figure 7 (option) about here...


 Since children were not offered enough colors, there are no specific characteristic uses of color in their drawings. The eight colors (red, yellow, orange, blue, green, purple, brown, and black) seem to be limited colors to draw nature. Even so, there is one interesting result in their drawings: a different use of color on figuresí clothes depending on gender. When children draw a single figure and the figure is a female, they tend to color the clothes with warm colors such as red, yellow, and orange. Contrary to this, if the figure is a male, the clothes seem to be colored by cool colors such as blue, green, and purple. On the other hand, when children draw many figures at the same time, the tendency is divided into three cases.

In the case of only female figures, the figuresí clothes are colored with both warm and cool colors because of their sense of color balance. In the case that only male figures are drawn, warm and cool color mixes are used as in the case of female figures. When female and male figures are drawn at the same time, an interesting tendency emerges. At that time, children tend to color the femalesí clothes with warm colors and malesí clothes with cool colors. This is due to Japanese culture because Japanese have a tendency to dress female children in warm colors and male children in cool colors. Children may learn this unconsciously.
Furthermore, it was very interesting that children never blended more than two colors in clothes or anything else. Rather they seemed to prefer coloring with single colors regardless of cool or warm colors.


Spatial Treatment

According to the results of the statistical method Chi-square, all five hypotheses were overturned. The differences between U.S. and Japanese children in the process of spatial treatment was significant, as it was with both groups of U.S. children. "Art" is a required subject in Japan under the nation-wide curriculum from grades 1st to 9th, which means all Japanese students have to study "art" in their elementary and middle schools based on a nation-wide art curriculum.
 Another reason for the differences between U.S. and Japanese students is the national differences in kindergarten. In Japan, kindergarten teachers are well trained as music and art experts. A lot of time is spent teaching art and music in the classroom. As a result, many children are exposed to art education and socialization with peers before going to the compulsory educational system (See, for example, Peak, 1991, Tobin, Wu, & Davidson, 1989). Due to the differences in the educational systems in the U.S. and Japan, one assumption is that Japanese children will progress faster than U.S. children will in each category of development. At the same time, these results show that art educational programs help to contribute to the progression of childrenís artistic development. When children struggle to transfer three-dimensional space onto a two-dimensional flat surface, they may be able to find the solution through art education and socialization in the classroom.

 Another reason may be the difference of language. Psychologists, Harold W. Stevenson and James W. Stigler mention in their book, The Learning Gap (1992), that the Japanese and Chinese languages are more systematic than English especially in  "counting." Therefore, Japanese and Chinese are apt to learn mathematics more quickly and easily than U.S. children in cognitive development. Although they use the language differences to explain the difference in the development of mathematics skill related to  cognitive development, the effect of systematic language might also be used to explain the difference of artistic development between U.S. and Japanese children (Pickard, 1996). Vygotsky also says that language development helps in the development of cognition and perception ("Mind in Society," 1978). In early childhood education, Japanese children already have an opportunity to develop their language skills through peer dialogue in the classroom. This language development might also help their artistic development.

 Finally, Eisnerís categories were originally developed based on the relationship between figures and baseline, and the existence of occlusion in spatial treatment. He classified spatial treatment into thirteen progressive categories and then created a fourteenth category for unclassifiable drawings, which could not fit in the other thirteen categories. While we found many unclassifiable drawings in Japanese students, most U.S. studentsí drawings were classified among the thirteen categories. Unclassifiable drawings from Japanese children were further divided into three types, an exaggerated view, a birdís-eye view, and multi-perspective view. How should we interpret these results? The main reason for the Japanese childrenís unclassifiable drawings is apparently cultural and social influences.

Ö (Option) Place Figure 8, 9, and 10 (unclassifiable drawings) about hereÖ

 The cultural and social influences strongly appear in the exaggerated and perspective views. It is well known that Japanese culture is strongly influenced by the "cartoon," so-called "manga" in Japanese. However, the influence of cartoons in comic books dominates Japanese society, especially childrenís society more than most people think. Sometimes educational books also use cartoons, and these books effectively support education. Unlike in the U.S., in Japanese society cartoons are not just used in comic books. One of the characteristics of Japanese cartoons is the depiction of the background, where the negative shapes including architecture and landscapes are depicted in aerial and linear perspectives. Also, another characteristic of expression in cartoons is the exaggeration method, in which one part of the body or place in the composition is exaggerated by excluding other parts. Likewise, it is easy to imagine that most Japanese children are influenced by these techniques in creating space in the limited composition through cartoons. In addition, there is a flood of graphic and artistic advertisement throughout Japan, since Japan does not have a control system to regulate advertisements in public space, unlike the U.S. As a result, people are unconsciously surrounded and visually influenced by graphic advertisement (Schodt, 1983).

 The other unclassifiable drawing is the so-called "birdís eye" drawing, which is a view that a bird looking straight down from sky would have. Because of the title of the drawing, "Me and my friends playing in the school yard," children might have to create a new way to show the playground view with friends. One reason that Japanese children create drawings this way is the influence of technology, TV and computer games. It might suggest that children are watching sports on TV. As a result, they can easily see playground scenes with the birdís eye view through the TV screen. However, another question arises. Why donít U.S. children use the same method, although U.S. children are also exposed to the same technology?  In the U.S. studentsí drawings there are few birdís-eye view depictions of space. Another possible reason why Japanese children often draw with birdís-eye views is the influence of traditional Japanese methods of depicting space in painting. It is well known in art history that traditional Japanese artists used so-called "birdís-eye views" in the seventeenth century. Is it possible for Japanese children to be influenced by the traditional method of creating space in their drawings? This answer to this is probably  "No." There is little possibility of children being exposed to such traditional methods today, even though children may have a chance to see paintings using the birdís-eye view technique. Therefore, the traditional methods in Japan do not explain the phenomenon of Japanese childrenís creativity. Then what is the cause of Japanese childrenís creativity?

 A possible reason is childrenís aesthetic for spatial arrangement in the drawing. We have to recall that this subject "Me and my friends playing in the school yard" was not drawn through direct observation, rather it was drawn from memory and depicted in the classroom with limited time (about 30 minutes). When the subject was given, children recalled the playground scene with friends from their memory and created the spatial scene in the drawing. Nancy R. Smith mentions in "Experience & Art (1993)" that "children do not try to create space in the 2-D surface, rather they use 2-D space to represent their presentation." Furthermore, Claire Golomb states in her book on the childís creation of a pictorial world (1992) that the balance of spatial arrangement differs in each culture depending on the concept of the aesthetic that each culture has. For Japanese children, the figures arranged equidistant in the square space with birdís-eye view might be an expressive method to show the playground and their sensitivity for the aesthetic balance of spatial arrangement, which might be stronger in Japanese children than U.S. children.

Figural orientation and the usage of colors

 It is becoming an accepted idea that figurative orientation in Japanese childrenís drawings is strongly influenced by manga (Schodt, 1983, Wilson, 1998). Why do Japanese children draw such a cartoon like figure? Why are the gender differences between boys and girlsí figurative orientation greater than that of American childrenís drawings? In general, the activity of drawings for children is not simply to decode their memory or experience through expression, but it is also a mirror or their desires and expectations for the future. For Japanese children, the tendency, especially in figurative drawings, seems to be stronger than that of American children.
For example, in girlsí drawings, the depicted figures have the same characteristics, which are doll-like big eyes with stars in them, an almost invisible nose, and a model-like skinny body. The images come directly from girlís manga since those images are repeatedly depicted in girlís manga as ideal figures. It is no wonder that the images are unavoidably printed in girlsí minds and decoded when they draw. In boysí drawings, there are two patterns of figural orientation; one is an ideal muscular figure and the other is a funny shrunken figure with big eyes. Why do boys draw in these ways which girls do not? Wilson (2000) gave one possible response to this question that boys may draw their own images as they believe others see them as well as ideal figures. Accordingly, girls do not want to examine the way they look. Rather they want to keep drawing the ideal figures to satisfy their desires for what they want to be. However, boys ironically draw such a funny baby-like shrunken body to show exaggerated perceptions of others although they also have a desire to be an ideal figure like girls do. Schodt (1983) analyze that it is evidence of a "revolution in the way Japanese people view ? or wish to view themselves" (p.92).

Unlike the popularity of comic books, which decreased with the emergence of TV in the U.S. during 1960s, manga and TV in Japan interacted to inspire childrenís curiosity, and developed from a simple moralizing drama of good vs. bad to a complicated human drama. Once a story manga became popular, the story became an animation series on TV. Serial stories in manga and animation successfully kept childrenís attention and attracted their visual curiosity endlessly.


 From this drawing experiment, "Me and my friends playing in the school yard," some results emerge. One is that art educational programs contribute to childrenís artistic development. The reason is not only the art education system itself in Japan as a required course during compulsory education from 1st through 9th grades, but also the socialization with peers in the classroom during the art class. Interaction with peers through dialogue in the art classroom inspires childrenís visual thinking skills through the development from egocentric speech to social speech (Thompson, 1995). As a result, childrenís artistic ability rapidly develops. For example, as my research shows, children can find solutions to create a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional surface through socialization with peers, thorough such means as imitation and conversation, easier than working alone.

The tendencies of childrenís drawings in spatial order and other pictorial presentations are not always qualitatively or quantitatively universal in linear progression from simplicity to complexity and also not consistent from category to category (Freeman, 1997). For example, in spatial treatment, Japanese children create new ways to show spatial complexity: exaggerated view, birdís-eye view, and multi-perspective view. However, these are not visually complex, but intellectually complex. In figural orientation, Japanese children prefer abstract symbolic figures without the details to complicated realistic figures with the details.

Gestalt theory says that children tend to draw what they see rather than what they know (Eisner, 1967). On the contrary, there is another very famous theory that children tend to draw what they know rather than what they see (Goodenough, 1926).  Which one is predominant? It may depend on subject. It may depend on cultural specificity. However, I would like to add to on these theories that children tend to draw based on attractiveness more than what they know or what they see. In other words, children tend to imitate the way in which nature and figures are drawn in cultural media rather than how they are seen through their own eyes.

 Children, exposed to the cultural influences in their society, like what they see through cultural media such as TV, magazines, photography, and so on, rather than what they see their own eyes. An art teacher, Franz Cizek (1921), the father of the study of child art, believes that children are endowed with an inborn creativity and an intrinsic artistic timeclock . In other words, if children can keep their own pace in their own natural manner without any influence from culture and society, they will be able to maintain the creativity of child art until adulthood. Cizek believed that the influence of culture tends to disadvantage childrenís normal artistic development (Wilson, 1988). However, the influence of culture is not always detrimental to childrenís artistic development. Children seem as adept as their elders at absorbing influences and turning them to their own advantage. In other words, children first seem to imitate from other sources when they draw because of the desire to draw more realistic or idealized figures. Their attitude seems like simple imitation. However, finally, this imitation attitude leads to their own originality. Children never stop at just imitating from other sources. They turn the imitated ideas into their own ideas and develop them in original ways. The imitation attitude is helpful in inspiring their own originality and creativity.

 As long as we live in our culture and society, it is impossible for us to cultural influences. Therefore, art educators have to admit the fact that culture is one of the ingredients of childrenís artistic growth.


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