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Thinking Through Art

How often do you find yourself in a meeting doodling a thought on the corner of the agenda, or in a restaurant with friends, sketching on a dinner napkin (hopefully not cloth!) to get your point across? Give a seven-year-old a pile of colored paper, crayons, a glue stick, a simple prompt (make a crazy slide or make something hidden), and watch the gears turn as their inner voices appear before you through art.

What’s happening here? As educators, we know that offering students the choice to express knowledge graphically with a poster or an artwork can enable them to communicate more clearly and personally. But how much do we understand about how drawing and other forms of artmaking can actually aid our thinking processes?

Art supports learning

Researchers and educators beyond the arts hallways are recognizing that the open-ended nature of creating art gives us boundless approaches to forming questions and ideas in ways that other modes of expression, such as verbal or written words, may not. (1,2,3) The plasticity of art materials can help learners explore nuance, ambiguity, abstraction, or see relationships through metaphor and juxtaposition, conceptual constructs used across disciplines. When emphasis is given to the process and not the end product, “artists” and novices alike can harness this language as a tool for rigorous inquiry. Drawing can help us think.

The two artworks seen below record some of my classroom research on feedback and assessment. And they did, in fact, begin on a folded piece of scratch paper. As part of my own journey to deepen my professional practice, I have been building on traditional formats for formative and summative critique in the studio classroom. This is a significant question in art education right now. As one facet of this, I realized my thinking on assessment redesign needed to align more intentionally with the underlying creative capacities I hoped to nurture in each of our student artists. (4)

Study on Human Creative Impulse, Lauren Cook
Study on Human Creative Impulse, Lauren Cook (technical drawing)
Study on Creative Capacity, Lauren Cook
Study on Creative Capacity, Lauren Cook (technical drawing)

When are these nascent aptitudes first experienced? How do personal creative impulses first reveal themselves to learners? Why are some recognized and valued by the individual, and others dismissed?

I needed to more clearly articulate theories and observations about these basic phenomena before I could know whether the assessment tools I’d been devising could expose what my students and I really need to know about creative production. For me, the breakthrough in understanding came when I visually depicted my thinking.

As seen in the “Study on Creative Capacity” (Figure 2), this art-based investigation helped me consider not only when and how feedback could support the artist in every student, but also helped me re-frame my thoughts about student/teacher roles. This work is ongoing: tucking the reference to Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man in the corner of the technical drawing that accompanies the painting was meant as a humorous reminder to myself and other viewers.

Like that great master of human anatomy, we may have a long way to go before we fully comprehend the anatomy of human creativity, whatever we think we are sure of. For this—and other major questions we and our students take on—we will want to harness every means of inquiry we have to explore our own thinking, including art!

About the Author

Lauren Cook teaches Visual Arts at St. Andrew’s.

This article was originally published in Volume 3 of “Think Differently and Deeply” (2018).


  1. A. Kantrowitz (2012). “The Man Behind the Curtain: What Cognitive Science Reveals about Drawing.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 46 (1), 1-14.
  2. Maarit Anna Mäkelä, Tero Heikkinen, and Nithikul Nimkulrat (2014, February) “Drawing as a Research Tool,” Studies in Material Thinking (Vol. 10), ISSN 1177-6234, AUT University, p 6.
  3. D. Kirsch (2011). Using sketching: To think, to recognize, to learn. In A. Kantrowitz, A. Brew, & M. Fava (Eds.), “Thinking through drawing: Practice into knowledge. Proceedings of an interdisciplinary symposium on drawing, cognition and education,” USA (pp. 123-125).
  4. D. Dannels and K. Martin. “Critiquing Critiques: A Genre Analysis of Feedback Across Novice to Expert Design Studios,” Journal of Business and Technical Communication: Vol. 22: No. 2, (2006), 135-159.