The Childhood Origins of Working Artists

I am a big skeptic of the cultural obsession to bestow the term “child prodigy” as a way of signifying examples of precociousness in young children. In reality, children develop in a multidimensional model (see: “The Fein Art of Artistic Development”), rather than a strict linear progression. This means that it is possible for a child to exhibit stronger cognitive, physical or creative abilities before some of their other peers. However, because of the ways in which we all develop, their peers eventually exhibit similar qualities and skills due to a combination of both formal education and life experience.

The term prodigy refers to an early acquisition of skills prior to when these skills are traditionally attributed (Wargo, 2006). Former athletic “child prodigy” Malcolm Gladwell (quoted in Wargo, 2006) notes, “sometimes we call a child precocious because they acquire a certain skill quickly, but that skill turns out to be something where speed of acquisition is not at all important. … We don’t say that someone who learned to walk at four months is a better walker than the rest of us. It’s not really a meaningful category.”

While a prodigious young artist may be adept at creating paintings akin to a mature artist, the majority of professional artists do not actually demonstrate precocity during their childhood years. Moreover, the informative and wondrous process of artistic development is a key component of how children form understandings and relationships with their surroundings. The discourse around precociousness eschews and negates this formative process that we all experience. Moreover, the labels of prodigy and gifted can be stifling to a child’s overall development and later sense of identity. There are numerous examples of former “child prodigies” and “gifted learners” who suffered from burnout as they reached adulthood (see: Martinez, 2021). Pablo Picasso, who was considered a “prodigy” as a child, was later nostalgic for the youthful nature of children’s art as an adult. He is attributed to having said, “it took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

Most professional artists did not start out as prodigies. I have compiled a few examples of childhood artwork made by modern and contemporary artists that portrays an approximation of art we might expect to see from children within the multidimensional phases of artistic development (see: Louis, 2005).

Louise Berliawsky, (no title), c. 1905, graphite and ink(?) on paper.
Courtesy of the American Art Collaborative.

Louise Nevelson

The drawing above is an early twentieth century interior scene by a young girl named Louise Berliawsky, who grew up to become renowned for her modernist monochromatic, wooden sculptures under the name Louise Nevelson. Her childhood drawing shows an astute sense of observation, cultural understanding and even some initial handling of perspective, but you certainly would not call this the work of a “child prodigy.” Nevelson developed her artistic interests further by studying art in high school and later enrolling at the Arts Students League in New York City in 1929. During the early 1930s, she traveled to Europe and took classes with the highly influential modern arts educator Hans Hofmann in Munich, Germany. Upon returning to New York, Nevelson had a unique experiential learning opportunity working as Mexican muralist Diego Rivera’s assistant while he was painting Man at the Crossroads at Rockefeller Plaza. After working with Rivera, she rounded out her already impressive educational record by taking sculpture classes at the Educational Alliance with the well-known sculptor Chaim Gross.

Nevelson’s mature artwork is rightfully considered a major contribution to twentieth century modern art history. Her sculptures, which incorporate found objects, are widely recognized due to their formal and conceptual ingenuity. Her materials-based compositions have influenced countless artists and art educators. I have included a list of some Nevelson inspired lessons, learning segments and units for K-12 art education curricula below:

Louise Fishman, Food Coupons for Imaginary Brothers and Sisters, 1947, graphite on paper.

Louise Fishman

The drawing above was created when the late contemporary painter, Louise Fishman was around eight or nine years old. After dividing a piece of manila paper into ten grid-like sections, Fishman drew portraits for a fictitious group of brothers and sisters, which represent food coupons that each sibling could use (the details regarding where they could redeem said coupons are unclear).

When Fishman emerged as a professional artist in the 1960s, her paintings incorporated grids. Fishman has wryly remarked that Food Coupons for Imaginary Brothers and Sisters is indicative of her first grid.

In 2012, Fishman chose to include some of her childhood drawings in an exhibition at the Woodmere Art Museum, where she exhibited alongside her aunt Razel Kapustin and mother Gertrude Fisher-Fishman. Because of the intimate nature of the show, Fishman thought it would be apt to present the drawings she made while developing as a young artist, because in a way, she considered them to be like family photos (Butler, 2012). Furthermore, she was artistically inspired and nurtured by her mother and aunt, which she said led her to “understand that everything was circumscribed, that this was always my path. It was in my blood, it was in my genes” (quoted in Zarro, 2013).

Graphite drawing of a lady with a parasol, made by Paul Klee between ages 4 and 6. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Paul Klee

Klee is known for his childlike mature paintings, which exemplified the zeitgeist of modern artists from his era looking at children’s art as inspiration (I have written about this phenomena extensively on this blog, with ample examples from Klee’s oeuvre. See: “The Art of Child’s Play” and “Life Lessons Through Children’s Art”). The drawing above of a lady with an umbrella is a drawing that Klee made as an actual child.

The women’s figure and overall composition is definitely on the more advanced side of what we usually see in the drawings of children who are ages four to six. Children between these ages are generally in what is traditionally known as the “schematic stage.” In this stage, they have a developed schema (concept) for what they want to draw and how they will achieve that idea visually and a hierarchy of shapes, forms and details that they will incorporate into their work. However, they do not usually have the technical skills to render things realistically. Oftentimes, human and animal figures are stiff and not in proportion, and details such as facial features or accessories are limited, if they are even included at all.

Klee’s childhood drawing is not a prodigious one, but it does illustrate the multidimensional model of artistic development, which notes that some children will initially exhibit stronger aesthetic proficiency than their peers. Likewise, those children who develop sooner in one area, might lack similar ability to their peers in another (ex. they may be able to copy visual imagery to a T, but are unable to come up with strong conceptual ideas for original artworks). Klee nurtured his early inclination for art by formally studying art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich with Heinrich Knirr and Franz von Stuck. Even as he developed into an advanced and talented draughtsman, Klee struggled with color theory. He reflected that, “during the third winter I even realized that I probably would never learn to paint” (quoted in Kagan, 1993. p.22).

In 1902, Klee rediscovered many of the childhood drawings he stored away, and described them as “the most significant [I have made] until now” (Cain, 2017).

Below are some educational resources inspired by Klee’s work, as well as education prompts from the late modern artist himself:

Irving Kriesberg, (no title) drawing from the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History, c. 1929, graphite on paper.
Collection of the Irving Kriesberg Estate Foundation.

Irving Kriesberg

Irving Kriesberg developed an aptitude for art at an early age by filling notebooks with drawings of museum taxidermy he encountered at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. This early experience of creating naturalist renderings made a lasting impression on Kriesberg, who manifested distinguishing animal imagery throughout his career.

I have had the honor and pleasure of working for the Estate of Irving Kriesberg since its foundation. One of my initial tasks was to catalogue his oeuvre of paintings, drawings, sculpture and film. I had known Kriesberg for the final year of his life and most of the paintings, sculptures and works on paper from the 1940s through the 2000s were already familiar to me. I had only heard stories from Kriesberg himself about his formative years and art education, but had not seen any examples of his childhood or student artwork until the end of my cataloguing endeavor, when I came across a dusty portfolio full of sketchbooks from Kriesberg’s childhood. Lo and behold, there were books full of animal drawings that young Irving Kriesberg made during frequent and extensive visits to his local natural history museum. Irving was often joined on these trips by his older brother Martin. The two of them were the most artistically inclined of the four Kriesberg brothers. It was clear from the way the drawings evolve that they motivated one another to hone and build upon their artistic skills.

While I have difficulty distinguishing between jaguars and leopards, the drawing above likely reflects the Field Museum’s jaguar display. It is a climactic representation of the big cat in the act of seizing a bird in its claws. Kriesberg drew it around 1929, which would mean that he was about ten years old. His Field Museum compositions were drawn from a combination of observation and memory. Kriesberg sometimes embellished the scene, showcasing his penchant for artistic interpretation.

Irving Kriesberg, The Victim, 1994, oil on canvas.
Collection of the Irving Kriesberg Estate Foundation.

I was very excited as both a scholar of Kriesberg’s art and an art educator, by the discovery that this early drawing is quite similar to a later painting that Kriesberg made in his mature and signature style. The comparable painting, titled The Victim, is from 1994, when Irving was 75. Both compositions feature big predatory cats pouncing on a bird. Juxtaposing these two works of art reveals how interests, explorations and influences from childhood manifest creatively throughout the course of one’s life.

Zoë Buckman, Help I Work at the Ministry, c.1995, fabric and mixed media. Courtesy of the artist.

Zoë Buckman

Buckman’s early mixed-media composition titled Help I Work at the Ministry is a great example of an artist’s development within the multidimensional model, demonstrating an emerging understanding of how materials can be utilized aesthetically and symbolically to express a particular theme and/or narrative. The artwork is a collage made from fabric and other found materials, which Buckman arranged to represent a dress shirt and tie. The overall tattered and raggedy nature of the piece is significant to its concept.

Arts writer Priscilla Frank (2017) explains that, “when she was 10 years old, Buckman’s father got a job as a statistician at the Ministry of Defense in London. Imagining her father going to work at such an official building was humorous for her. Having overheard her parents speak of the long process of him receiving security clearance, she wanted to sew him a tie and entrap it in a glass frame.”

Buckman’s early work set the stage for the mature conceptual art she makes using fabric and textiles.

Help I Work at the Ministry was part of an exhibition in 2017, called My Kid Could Do That. The exhibition featured childhood artwork by well known contemporary artists like Buckman, in order to advocate for more art educational opportunities and programming in schools. Frank (2017) explains that the curators of the exhibition, an arts organization called ProjectArt, “hopes to show that no artist comes out of the womb with their talent and technique fully refined. And yet most artists featured, from a young age, did show incredible curiosity, observation, experimentation and style.”

This statement echoes this post’s initial thesis that the majority of working artists go through a process of artistic development based on factors such as formal education, lived experience and a desire to continue exploring and connecting with the environment and culture around them. It also emphasizes the benefits of art education on our overall growth and development.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Butler, Sharon. “Louise Fishman with Sharon Butler,” The Brooklyn Rail, October 2012.

Cain, Abigail. “What Do the Childhood Works of Famous Artists Look Like?” Artsy, 15 August 2017.

Frank, Priscilla. “Famous Artists Share Their Childhood Art In Support Of Arts Education,” Huffington Post, 1 May 2017.

Kagan, Andrew. 1993. Paul Klee at the Guggenheim Museum, New York: Guggenheim Museum.

Louis, Linda L. “What Children Have in Mind: A Study of Early Representational Development in Paint.” Studies in Art Education, vol. 46, no. 4, 2005, pp. 339–355. JSTOR, Accessed 13 Jan. 2020.

Martinez, Angel. “Growing Up as a ‘Gifted Child’ and the Rude Awakening of Adulthood,” Vice, 29 March 2021.

Wargo, Eric. “The Myth of Prodigy and Why it Matters,” Observer Magazine, 1 August 2006.

Zarro, Jennifer. “Louise Fishman at Woodmere Art Museum talks of family and other influences,” Artblog, 15 January, 2013.



    1. Indeed! I’ve always recommended that students keep at least several of their artworks throughout their formative educational years. I still have several of my childhood artworks.


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