Smith argues that the negative views on "copying" demonstrated by art educators since the 50s is misplaced in some contexts. She claims that some forms of copying are good, and the relative value of copying is based on three factors: need, model, and process. She examines varying fields through use of a corpus of comics produced by American children, noting that themes and genres are copied greatly. She didn't find that the children copied the drawing style as much.
My curiosity is whether this is due to lack of practice/exposure though. The examples given by a child with "unusual ability" seem hardly on par with Japanese drawings of children of the same age that copy manga en masse. This child did copy various elements of drawings, though not absolutely. For instance, when copying Charlie Brown, he imitated parts but altered/left out others. Another child drew the typical "lumpy" figure of Captain America to show his musculature. Smith conjectures that his intent was to draw someone "strong" as opposed to drawing a bicep in particular.
To this extant, these children's copying seems to be drawing characters/features to the point of recognition — not iconic match. In other words, they're trying to convey concepts visually, not create "realistic" pictures (or even "accurately" imitated images).
While interesting to see much support given to imitation, most of it is not structural, and still maintains an "Art" perspective. The "need" assigned to copying is largely social or emotional/psychological, not structural or cognitive. (For instance, it says imitation suits a child's need to "play out" conflict in fantasy, as opposed to saying that children copy because their brains are pattern seeking machines).
Social need is Language-like though, as it heralds conventionality. She also marks copying as important as a natural behavior in socialization, since "younger children initiate copying as a means of acquiring desired knowledge" while "older children want to master images representative of their culture" (147).
Also interesting was her statement why she wanted to look at comics in the first place: "Comic strips are of interest because children frequently and spontaneously initiate copying of them despite disapproval" (148). No citation is given to this statement, but are comics copied more than other forms of visual communcations in culture? (it wouldn't surprise me if the answer is "yes") And, if so, doesn't that say something about the structure of the stimuli in relation to the human mind — like maybe these signs are somehow attuned to acquisition and socialization?
Smith, N. (1985). Copying and Artistic Behaviors: Children and Comic Strips Studies in Art Education, 26 (3) DOI: 10.2307/1320320
[Originally posted 5/15/07]