FIRST DRAWINGS: Genesis of Visual Thinking

There are many approaches to art and artmaking. The most fundamental one is right here in Sylvia Fein’s superb book. Her pictorial examples of hand prints, digital markings, scribbles, meanders, mazes, spirals, and circles come from every part of the world and are shown to be inherent in the mind and hand of every human being. Although the artistic impulse has myriad and inexhaustible manifestations, it emerges unmistakably from universal principles of visual form that we share with our remote ancestors and our children.

Ellen Dissanayake, Author of Homo Aestethicus: Where Art Comes From and Why

This is a book that all educators should read. It explains—actually shows—how art is central to all learning right from the beginning. We undervalue it in school at our—or our children’s—peril.

First Drawings: Genesis of Visual Thinking by Sylvia Fein, is a striking demonstration of the role visual art plays in cognitive development—both for young children and civilization worldwide. The illustrations, gathered from many times and places, provide convincing evidence of a kind of universal, innate visual grammar, the essential building blocks of thought. Visual elements like circles, parallel lines, crosses, and spirals, originate within the mind and, applied to the world, make the latter more accessible to human understanding.

Brenda S. Engel, Division of Liberal Studies and Adult Learning, Lesley College, The Graduate School

Sylvia Fein’s study of First Drawings takes us on a fascinating visual ride through the primary motifs of human art. Her examples taken from many sources, show how certain basic patterns reappear, time and again, all over the world. By presenting them alongside one another she makes us contemplate that most difficult question—why do we react more strongly to some images than others? Why do prehistoric art, tribal art, child art and modern art have so many design elements in common? This is a book to make one think hard and long about the very nature of visual art.

Desmond Morris, Zoologist, artist, editor, film maker Author of Biology of Art and The Naked Ape Oxford, England

Sylvia Fein spent fifteen years tracking the development of visual thinking in children—crystalizing her findings in the unique Heidi’s Horse. She now travels beyond the particular to the universal—showing the visual links between stars and sneakers, logarithms and labyrinths—reminding us with scientific accuracy, artistic delight and her own wry humour that we are not only all part of life’s rich pattern, but that we can all contribute to it too.

Sheila Graber, Animator and Educational Consultant, ATD, NDD, MBKS, South Shields, England

This is intelligent prose based on intelligent interpretation of the art of children, primitive people and modern artists. Sylvia Fein proves her case with an avalanche of data. The demonstration is like a fire searing into the heart of the matter and burning out the corruption of years. Magnificent! What you see is what’s discussed, the visual facts. Her summary sentences are wonderful, an antidote to nonsense about art. Her discussion of Picasso’s reversal of figure and ground is the best I've ever read.

Ray Berta, author of “His figure and His Ground:
An Art Educational Biography of Henry Schaefer-Simmern”
PhD dissertation, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California

In First Drawings: Genesis of Visual Thinking, Sylvia Fein has given us all an exhilarating book—as interesting and instructive for anthropologists and artists as for teachers and psychologists. If First Drawings could go to every school board in the country, perhaps there would be less enthusiasm for dropping art from the curriculum, currently the favorite item to cut as “unnecessary.” First Drawings is exhilarating because Sylvia Fein reminds us on every page of what Coleridge called the “all-in-each of human nature.” She does so by pairing drawings from distant places—Newgrange, Ireland and Malta, Panama and Egypt, Caithness and Portugal, showing us how children’s drawings (and those of certain modern artists) re-enact the primordial, but without neglecting the differences. Sylvia Fein writes without sentimentality or cant: there’s not a word of jargon in the book. She can describe the most intricate designs with economy, wit and insight, teaching us to look and look again. She is an informed guide—you feel she’s explored every cave and rockface on earth—whose expository style could be a model for anyone who wants to tell us something important. Sylvia Fein’s First Drawings does for art what Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s Teacher did for language: that is to say, she is telling us that reclaiming the imagination as the primary talent of the human mind—that sense of order each person is born with—can help us reclaim our common humanity.

Anne E. Berthoff, Author of Forming/Thinking/Writing and The Making of Meaning, Concord, Massachusetts

Sylvia Fein’s gift for stripping away that veneer of unnecessary abstruseness we have allowed to obscure the real issues in studies of art origins has resulted in yet another fascinating volume. In Heidi’s Horse she provided important insights into the formation processes of human cognition, simply by recording the early ontogenetic development of one single artist. In this new work, First Drawings she extends the concept of universals in art production to the arts of many eras and societies. The consistencies she finds can be seen as meaningful at various levels: for instance as indicating a unifying dimension in artistic expression, or as demonstrating that it is the less culturally conditioned arts which are of the greatest scientific value. More significantly, Fein prompts the question: what was the role of these underlying universals of art in formulating our abstraction of reality, in providing the human species with its anthropocentric reality? Fein does not set out to provide any answers, she merely invites contemplation of the data she presents. Therein lies the importance of her book.

Robert G. Bednarik, Convener and Chairman,
International Federation of Rock Art Organizations
Editor, Rock Art Research, Caulfield South, Australia

Text from Preface for First Drawings: Genesis of Visual Thinking

Our ancestors do not stand mute before us. For at least 20000 years, they have created marks and configurations in a process which is orderly, and which discovers and develops linear and planar structures. These practical structures are identical and everywhere obedient to laws of measurement: they are relationships of points, lines, perpendiculars, parallels and angles, and they form humanity’s scaffold for visual thinking. If we study these fundamental structures we hear our ancestors speak to us across time and the world. The unspoiled art of our children is a contemporary reiteration of these verities.

A unique combination of hand and brain produces pictorial ways to record thought and communicate it, and in the artifacts of our ancestors we see their progress from descriptive pictures to systems of numbers and language. Other animals communicate elaborately but none can draw. No other animal can leave written messages, tally, make maps, produce facsimiles of people, animals and plants, keep inventories, create memory, fabricate signs for identification, ownership and rank, record transactions and laws, draw plans for structures, and make astronomical observations and geometry visible and permanent.

In our verbal culture, the wordless nature of art has veiled its essence and diverted attention, talent and effort from the grand role visual thinking plays in the human intellect. We now have massive evidence that identical art forms spring up in each individual everywhere, and that their original “meaning” and “purpose” were whatever their creators needed them to be at the time. But still, when we consider visual thinking, we engage chiefly in idiosyncratic speculation about social, stylistic or mystical significance. This distracts us from the civilizing values we learn when we study artistic form. Form is what is there.

How do we study “form”? Where do we find “form” to study? Every day everywhere in the world, young children make a fist around a pencil or crayon, or drag their fingers in earth or frosty windows, to scribble. After the scribble tells them they can be movers of a line, they quickly build upon their pictorial discoveries in a logical way. Soon they celebrate in drawings themselves, their parents, brothers and sisters, flowers and trees, their dogs and cats, their houses, the birds, the clouds, their experience.

Children draw just as did their ancestors, with orderly growing complexity: spirals, almost perfect circles, circles with lines radiating from them, circles bisected vertically and horizontally parallel lines which maintain equal distances from each other, rectangles, oblique lines and triangles. These remarkable structures, variously referred to as “geometric” or “abstract”, do not originate in the child’s optical experience, but come from an inner imperative which presents them as appropriate and practical. Discoveries seem to fall upon children in a deluge, but their drawings are disciplined, restrained, and exclude irrelevancies. They surprise and please their creators who greet their drawings with self-approving sounds and exclamations and provide enthusiastic tall tales about them, as their ancestors provided history myth and useful significance. Parents and teachers who watch children draw will be rewarded as they are when they listen to a child develop speech.

We have not sufficiently noted or thought studiously about the remarkable fact that our children and our ancestors follow an identical logic; the fact that all of them everywhere on earth discover the same structures which then evolve in subtlety and complexity in the same ways. These provocative and astonishing similarities, which exist everywhere in diverse time, place and materials, have received little scholarly attention except in the perceptive writings of Conrad Fiedler, Gustaf Britsch, Egon Kornmann, John Dewey, Henry Schaefer-Simmern, Desmond Morris and Rudolf Arnheim. They recognized and commend to us visual thinking as a process of artistic logic and visual order.

End of Preface by the author, Sylvia Fein, 1993.

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