By the time he was seven years old, Arkin Rai, a child living in Singapore, drew dinosaurs with exquisite realism. At age three his dinosaurs were simple and schematic. A year and some months later, however, he created a complex drawing in which dinosaurs were layered one on top of the other, an image that bears an uncanny resemblance to a drawing of horses and a bull by the adult Pablo Picasso.

In Arkin's fanciful scene, the long, graceful neck of an Apatosaurus-like beast obscures the view of other dinosaurs. One of them is a Tyrannosaurus rex, drawn in profile with one leg mostly hidden behind another—an effect called occlusion, which most children discover at age eight or nine. In the ensuing months his drawings became shockingly realistic. He started using fluid contour lines to give figures shape. At age six he was depicting dinosaurs fighting and running, using various advanced methods to convey the distance between objects.

In one and a half years, Arkin Rai went from creating abstract, schematic drawings (age 3) to learning several advanced techniques, such as the occlusion of one leg by another (age 4 years, 7 months). His later sketches also show layering, foreshortening and linear perspective. Credit: Dinesh Rai (Rai family); Arkin Rai (dinosaurs)

Most adults cannot draw anywhere near as realistically as Arkin can, and we are in awe of such technical virtuosity in a young child. Although we cannot know if Arkin will develop into a professional artist, his drawings and those of children like him are helping us study the emergence of artistic ability. By examining the artworks of gifted children and the early compositions of adult artists, we and other researchers have begun to predict who will display great visual creativity later in life. Our studies of young artists may also offer insight into the development of mastery more generally.

Exceptional realism, such as that displayed by Arkin, is one important sign, but it is not the whole story. Not all adult artists drew as convincingly as Arkin when they were his age, and some young children are now being discovered who show a skill for producing nonrepresentational art rather than realistic works. We have identified five other characteristics that we believe foretell artistic creativity. A budding artist's drawings are often well composed and display either a decorative, colorful aspect or an expressive power. The child also has a hunger to look at art, possesses an enormous drive to create and wants to be original. Last, we contend that outstanding artists, and perhaps geniuses in all domains, not only possess innate talent but also are intrinsically motivated in a way that others may not be—something we call the rage to master.

Birth of a Skill

Scientists and educators have long sought to demystify the emergence of expertise, artistic and otherwise. Many researchers have argued that exceptional achievement can be boiled down simply to hard work—about 10,000 hours of it. Studies of eminent scientists in the 1950s supported this view by underscoring the individuals' capacity for endurance, concentration and commitment to effortful practice. Benjamin Bloom, a prominent education psychologist who studied mastery, wrote in 1985 that none of his subjects achieved expertise without a supportive environment and a long and intensive period of training. This education came first from encouraging instructors and later from demanding master teachers. A few years later psychologist K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University conducted studies of experts in piano, violin, chess, bridge or athletics. The investigations revealed that a person's level of achievement correlated strongly with the amount of practice put in.

These studies, however, have not been able to tease apart hard work and innate ability. The children with the most talent may also be the ones most interested in an activity, who begin to develop their skills at an early age and who work the hardest at it. Committing time and energy to a task likely is easier when advancement comes quickly but not when every step is a painful struggle.

We have tackled this question by examining the earliest signs of artistic talent. Researchers have long assumed that the first inkling of it in humans, and especially in the young child, is the ability to portray the three-dimensional world realistically on a two-dimensional surface. Art historians have been struck by the realism of the cave paintings done by our Paleolithic forebears, leading many to assume that this style is the most natural form of art. Although most children's drawings are schematic, certain youngsters, including some with autism, can draw in a highly naturalistic fashion from a very early age, mirroring those paintings done by our ancestors. We refer to children who show an early ability to draw in this manner as precocious realists, and we now know a great deal about their developmental trajectory.

A typical two-year-old's drawing of two apples uses two lines. A precocious two-year-old draws a circular line to capture contour. Credit: Ellen Winner

Precocious realists begin to draw representationally by age two, at least one year ahead of most children. The artworks of typically developing youngsters are abstractions: an apple is captured with a slash, a human body with a circle, a horse's body with a square. Precocious realists produce works that are much more optically convincing.

These children discover on their own how to create the illusion of 3-D using depth cues—foreshortening, occlusion, size diminution, shading to convey form and, the most difficult technique of all, linear perspective—years before most of their peers. In a comparison of typical and precocious artists published in 1995, psychologist Constance Milbrath, now at the University of British Columbia, observed that half of the children in the precocious group used foreshortening, in which lines not parallel to the picture plane are drawn shorter, in their artworks by ages seven and eight. Typically developing children reached comparable levels only by ages 13 and 14.

The ability to draw realistically at an early age marks the childhoods of many recognized artists. Artist and former curator Ayala Gordon observed naturalism in the childhood compositions of 31 Israeli artists. Many famous artists' early drawings have been singled out for advanced realism, too, including Picasso, John Everett Millais, Edwin Henry Landseer, John Singer Sargent, Paul Klee and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Picasso recalled one of his first drawings in this way: “I was perhaps six.... In my father's house there was a statue of Hercules with his club in the corridor, and I drew Hercules. But it wasn't a child's drawing. It was a real drawing, representing Hercules with his club.”

Different Way of Seeing

We set out to discover what cognitive differences might give these children their edge. Their skill is not a matter of intelligence. As we reported in 2010, we have observed no relation between realistic drawing ability and IQ. This finding is bolstered by the cases of autistic “savants” with low IQs, such as Nadia, a child discovered at age six who demonstrated phenomenal artistic prowess despite severe learning disabilities, and Stephen Wiltshire, a man with autism who could draw elaborate cityscapes from memory after only a brief exposure to a scene.

What we have found instead is that children who draw realistically at an above-average level differ in their perceptual abilities. They have strong observational skills and seem to be able to just see the shapes of things, including the distortions that occur as objects recede into depth and diminish in size. A typical child might see a road as having parallel sides because she knows that a road's edges are parallel, whereas an artistically gifted child overrides her knowledge about the road and sees its sides converging in the distance.

Early artistic aptitude is also strongly associated with the ability to focus on the parts of an object or scene rather than on the whole. To examine this idea, we used a visual and motor skills test called the Block Design Task. Children were asked to arrange red and white blocks to match a given pattern. We gave this task once in traditional format and once with the pattern segmented to reveal where the block boundaries should be. All participants did well on the segmented version. Children with realistic drawing ability, however, performed much better than other kids on the unsegmented version, presumably because they could mentally divide a complex form into its parts with ease.

At age 12, avid naturalist Joel Gilb displayed artistic talent but might have been using drawing as a tool to understand nature. Might he become a scientist instead? Credit: Joel Glib

They also performed better on a task in which they were asked to detect small shapes hidden within figures, a skill that requires analyzing a form by its elements. We hypothesize that a focus on component parts characterizes the process by which realistic artists draw. They may create a complex drawing not by first sketching the global outline but by building up their drawings part by part. Thus, they may both process and generate a scene with a more local focus than do nonartists.

This local-processing bias is also seen in children with autism. In 1993, for example, psychologists Amitta Shah, now a consultant, and Uta Frith of University College London found that autistic children performed equally well on both versions of the Block Design Task. Although a local-processing bias is commonly thought of as a characteristic of autism, our work has found that this proclivity is predicted not by the presence or absence of autism but only by the ability to draw realistically.

Nonrepresentational Painters

We suspect, however, that producing works in a naturalistic style is not the only way to demonstrate artistic brilliance. Although most Western children identified as gifted in drawing have come to our attention by virtue of their precocious realism, some talented children have mastered a nonrealistic style instead. Psychologist Claire Golomb of the University of Massachusetts Boston has described these children, whom she called “colorists,” as showing an awareness of form and quality and a concern with decorative and expressive aspects of color, texture and design. These artists are more difficult for an untrained eye to spot because their drawings may look similar to the charming, nonrealistic paintings of typical preschoolers.

We have discovered a child, whom we classify as artistically gifted, whose paintings are entirely nonrepresentational. His process did not resemble that of his peers, nor did his works. Several days shy of his second birthday, Arrian began to create colorful abstract drawings on large, 18- × 24-inch pages using Crayola markers, concentrating intensely. He usually worked on each drawing for a day and a half to two days. He filled the entire space densely and meticulously. As his mother described it:

One session for Arrian is typically a cycle through whatever set of markers he is using at the time. So, if he has a set of 24 he will systematically go through each marker one by one.... He often begins with some circles all over the page and long flowing lines.... Once he has his basic drawing he colors it in systematically—almost in quadrants.

A few months later Arrian's mother noted:

Ari is obsessed with making circles—he tries for hours to make the smallest, tightest, thinnest circles he can do. He tries all kinds of ways of holding the marker ... experiments with putting his face really close to the page. He likes to dangle the marker to get a thin feather line, but then he tries with his fist to get a tighter circle—to hold it properly to gain control, and ultimately [he] seems to want to achieve some combination of all three to get the look he wants. He's been doing this all day for a week—sometimes with just one or two colors.
At age two years and three months, Arrian (shown above) worked for five days to create this 18- x 24-inch painting. He used Crayola markers to fill the page with small marks, sometimes drawing with the right hand and sometimes with the left. Credit:  Arrian and Rebecca Smith (abstract drawing);  Brandon Smith (Arrian)

When Arrian turned three, he discovered viewfinders. For two weeks he carried around a comb through which he inspected the world. He also started drawing people at this time, right on track with typical development. Notably, he was not ahead of the curve in representational skill. He was, however, advanced in intensity: after drawing one face—a circle with eyes—he went on to draw about 400 more smiling visages, all in one sitting. The systematicity, intensity, focus and meticulous care with which Arrian drew set him apart from the typical two-year-old scribbler. None of the precocious realists we have studied show anything like Arrian's behavior—they progressed rapidly to representational drawings and showed no interest in nonrepresentational art.

A Rage to Master

Arrian drew constantly and compulsively. So do the precocious realists. This kind of rage to master cannot be taught, cajoled or forced. The children we study often have to be dragged away from their preferred activities to eat, sleep, go to school or be sociable. The desire to work so hard comes from within, and it almost always occurs when a child can achieve at high levels with relative ease. The interest and drive cannot be separated from the talent.

Most gifted child artists do not become artists as adults, of course. Many individuals have displayed skill in their early work as great as that of Picasso, yet only one person became Picasso. The age at which extreme realism emerges is also not predictive: Klee's drawings at age six were less realistic than those of some of the children whose work is reprinted in this article, yet he is among the greats.

Gifted individuals may choose not to pursue art for many reasons, but one explanation might have to do with the child's underlying motivation. Some precocious realists seem more interested in understanding nature—drawing is their tool. Rocco Roth and Joel Gilb exemplify this mindset. Both boys pored over nature encyclopedias and field guides. Rocco, at age six, was passionate about insects, seeds, leaves and vegetables. He collected specimens and then drew and labeled each one. Joel had memorized the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America by the time he was 12 years old and made meticulous copies of these drawings. Such children may eventually become scientists rather than artists.

Beyond a realistic drawing skill, we have identified five other commonalities that are likely to be predictive of becoming an artist. The child's drawings have an interesting, arresting composition and decorative, aesthetic features or expressive power. The child shows a hunger to look at art, whether in museums or books, and hence manifests a deep interest in art. The young artist also has enormous drive—a rage to master. Finally, and perhaps most important, the child has a desire not just to make excellent art but to be original and innovative.

We can even speculate that realistic drawing skill might not be necessary. Because so few nonrealistic child prodigies have been identified, we do not yet know the answer to this question. Children who paint abstractly may be more unconventional and playful. They may more readily think out of the box and are thus perhaps more likely than the realists to think like true artists.

As art historian Ernst Gombrich wrote in 1960 in Art and Illusion, a classic text on the history of art from a psychological perspective, realism is only one thin slice of the art that humans have produced over the centuries. There may be more than one route to a career in art—one that begins with a striving toward realism and another that emerges from a nonrepresentational exploration of form and color. As studies of children gifted not only in art but also in math, science, languages, chess and athletics have shown, what really predicts high achievement is the lucky combination of an ease of learning, an obsessive focus and a deep motivation to pursue an activity.

Talented Toddlers?

Parents sometimes believe that their two-year-old is a prodigy because they notice the similarity of their child's painting to that of an abstract expressionist master. Gallery owners, too, have been fooled by such paintings. In 2011, for example, four-year-old Aelita Andre had an exhibit in New York City and was touted as a genius on a par with Jackson Pollock and Wassily Kandinsky. These works, however, are age-typical, and we cannot yet call their maker artistically gifted—even if we find the paintings pleasing and superficially similar to works by abstract expressionists. (The 2007 film My Kid Could Paint That, directed by Amir Bar-Lev, asks whether parents and gallery owners are fooling the public into thinking these works are signs of genius.)

Other children, however, truly are precocious artists. Parents can nurture such giftedness when it exists. In the early years parents can encourage art-making behavior, provide high-quality art supplies, and take the child to museums and expose him or her to the range of styles in which artists have worked. Given the lack of attention and time devoted to art education in most schools, the opportunity to study art formally outside of school very likely is critical if the child is to go on to become an artist. In 2011 then curator Ayala Gordon reported that almost all the 31 Israeli artists whose childhoods she studied had begun taking art lessons outside of school with artist-teachers by age 10. It was in these classes that they began to identify themselves as artists and to discover others like themselves.—J.E.D. and E.W.