The hand-eye play of scribbles

by Roberta Pucci


What is the relationship between hands, eyes and the mind while drawing? So intriguing, isn’t it? The deepest essence will probably remain a mystery, but still we can know something about. Let’s start from the beginning.

The first lines emerges from a movement that leaves a trace of itself, or better, from the awareness of the sign left by a movement, as Nona Orbach describes in her post Genesis of line. The mind is involved since the early experiences in terms of awareness and intentionality, but the main player is the body.

In fact, all the basic scribbles drawn from 2 years old (accurately described by Rhoda Kellogg), derive from the natural movements of the child’s hand and arm, without the need of eye-control. The directions of lines correspond to the spontaneous articulation of wrist, elbow and shoulder joints.

The basic scribbles, from Analyzing Children’s Art by Rhoda Kellogg

Then, another important player soon comes in. It occurs when the child is drawing on a precisely delimited area, like a sheet of paper or any kind of surface with a well-defined perimeter. Here the eyes have an important role. After the child has drawn a scribble, the sheet of paper will send him back a visual stimulus. This will affect the next drawing step, which in turn will create another new stimulus and so on. 

Is the scribble in the center or close to the edges? Up or down, left or right? Horizontal or vertical? All this information can arise from the relationship between the scribble and the paper area only if the scribble is placed within a defined context: the child – perceiving the sheet of paper and the scribble as a whole – consequently reacts according to their relationship. Seeing a set of different things “as a whole” is a natural characteristic of human perception, studied by the Gestalt psychologists.

Some of the 17 position’s templates identified by Rhoda Kellogg

That’s how the process of drawing develops like an amazing play with its inner rules, continuously going back and forth, a series of mutual “provocations” and reactions: it is the the flow and play-frame of drawing that Suzanne Axelsson described in her post. 

In this stage, the action of drawing implies the hand’s movement and visual perception, with no other cognitive or symbolic aspects involved. Thus, asking “what have you drawn?” makes no sense here. 

Later on, as the drawing process unfolds through its next stages, this first active role of the eyes, as well as the importance of the body’s movement, will not disappear but progressively interweave with new skills and interests, like for example the symbolic or realistic representation. In fact, the aesthetic question that adults or even mature artists deal with, is still connected to the same “rules” of our visual perception (as well as to many further aspects, of course).  

In his book Art and Visual Perception, Rudolf Arnheim explains it very well, putting the Gestalt perception theories in connection with visual art works. For example, if we have a very quick look at the picture on the lower left, we immediately know that the circle is not in the middle of the square. How?

Graphic interpretation of an image from the book Art and Visual Perception by Rudolf Arnheim

Our eyes do not “measure” the distance between the circle and every side of the square for comparing them, but see the two geometric shapes “as a whole”, perceiving the asymmetric position of the circle in relation to the square.

Besides, there’s more. We also perceive the circle a bit unstable, or unquiet, as if it wanted to reach the center… or as if the center was attracting it. It’s because the visual perception is a dynamic experience: like a stone falling into the water, every element creates a kind of force lines and attractive points (for example the corners of the square, its median axes and its center, as shown in the upper right image). All of us have dealt with this kind of visual balance sometimes, maybe composing a greeting card:  a little further… the text is too high… maybe these two ones are a bit closer… perfect!

From the first scribbles of a child to the greatest masterpieces, from a toddler educator to the master of an art academy, let’s always observe with wonder and respect the constantly evolving process of drawing, one of our most precious gifts as human beings.


This is the third of many posts of the project Grammar of Drawing by Suzanne Axelsson, Nona Orbach and Roberta Pucci.

It is translated in four languages:

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