Recognizing the Child
Gifted and Talented in Visual Art

by Mary Codd

While many people recognize gifted children as those who excel in language arts and mathematics, the identification of students with potential or demonstrated talent in the arts has been included in federally legislated definitions of giftedness or talent since 1972 (Marland, 1972). In its definition of the gifted and talented the government specifies that these children are to be identified by professionally qualified persons as being capable of high performance in the visual arts. Unfortunately, neither "high performance" nor "qualified persons" are easily defined.

The recent report from the U.S. Department of Education, National Excellence: A Case for Developing America's Talent (1993), includes the following definition of students with outstanding talent. "Children and youth with outstanding talent perform or show the potential for performing at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared with others of their age, experience or environment. These children and youth exhibit high performance capability in intellectual, creative, and/or artistic areas, possess an unusual leadership capacity, or excel in specific academic fields. They require services or activities not ordinarily provided by the schools." Once again, "high performance" is not defined.

In an effort to clarify what "high performance" means when speaking of children with outstanding talent in the visual arts this web page presents the findings of research on the behavioral traits and characteristics of visually gifted children's artwork, and on the artistic perceptual/cognitive processes of talented students in the arts.

A study conducted by Marion Porath, addressed the question of the ways in which gifted young artists are the same as or different from their average peers by investigating artistic ability from a developmental perspective.

Children in the study produced drawing which were judged by three practicing artists who are also art educators. The judges based their determination of the outstanding pieces of artwork on the following characteristics:

  • design and composition;
  • technique, including tonal development,
  • representation of movement and elaboration of form;
  • advanced schema for human figure,
  • a strong sense of individuality; and inventiveness.


wire sculpture
A thirteen year old's wire sculpture uses simplicity of line to express movement.

In her report Porath also included the findings of research conducted by other researchers. Those studies showed that age-related trends were apparent in the central spatial structures used by young gifted artists, and developmental patterns also were evident in color use, composition, and core elements in human figure drawing. Artistic giftedness includes qualitative differences from the norm, such as: expressive use of line and shape, originality in composition, and sensitivity to line and color. Gifted young artists may demonstrate accelerated ability to deal with perspective. Depicting perspective and artistic abilities appear to be different from spatial problem solving abilities. Some children gifted in the visual arts demonstrate advanced development, while most attain new levels of development at approximately the same time as average children, but apply their new capabilities more flexibly, extensively, and deeply.

Elaboration and accomplished technique (tonal development, representation of movement) and visual maturity, or detailed representation of objects, were qualities demonstrated by young visually gifted children which are typical of older children or adolescents.

Gifted child artists can demonstrate their talents in different ways, and it is important to realize that not every product they produce will be outstanding. The use of multiple criteria for identifying gifted children is important because students of different ages and backgrounds may respond differently to artistic tasks.

Educators who identify gifted children using Renzulli's "Three-Ring Conception of
Giftedness" look for children who demonstrate, or have the potential for demonstrating, above average ability, creativity, and task commitment. Hurwitz believes that for the visually gifted child three aspects of intelligence come in to play: intellectual, creative, and attitudinal, which sounds very much in line with Renzulli's definition. However, Hurwitz goes on to say that he believes "high visual ability, rests largely on intensity and commitment. Whatever most children are capable of accomplishing, the gifted surpass in quality, love of work, and amount of time spent."

Characteristics of the Visually Gifted

Two sets of characteristics are associated with visually talented children: behavioral traits and characteristics of their artwork. It is not likely that a child will have all of the characteristics listed below, but a child who possesses special talent in art will probably exhibit many or even most of them.

Behavioral Traits

  • Early Evidence
    Children who are gifted in art usually begin young.
  • Emergence Through Drawing
    Drawing dominates for several reasons: the accessibility of the media, because it can convey detailed information about a subject, and because it is a more difficult task to perform with a paintbrush.
  • Rapidity of Development
    The gifted child often traverse the stages of visual development at an accelerated pace.
  • Extended Concentration
    Visually gifted children stay with an art project longer than other children, and they see more possibilities in the task they have selected or been assigned.
  • Self-Directedness
    Visually gifted children often prefer drawing to other forms of entertainment and have the drive to work on their own.
  • Possible Inconsistency with Creative Behavior
    Although risk-taking is a characteristic typically associated with creative people, gifted students are often hesitant to experiment in a new area if they have achieved a certain level of mastery in an idiom.

  • Fluency of Idea and Expression
    From middle elementary age on, visual and conceptual fluency is a particularly significant characteristic because it is closest to the behavior of a trained artist.
  • Calculating Capacity
    This term, coined by Howard Gardner, is a superior ability to utilize past information in new contexts. For instance, a visually gifted child who has achieved a certain level of mastery in figure drawing can use that ability to render figures in other situations.
Portrait of Mommy
Talent is evidenced at an early age, usually
through drawing. This almost five year old's
attention to detail and use of mixed media is
unusual in a child so young.

Characteristics of the Artwork

  • Verisimilitude
    Children gifted in art develop the desire and the ability to depict people and other subjects from their environment at an earlier age than other children.
  • Compositional Control
    The elements of composition, color, space and movement are handled with greater sensitivity by visually gifted students.
  • Complexity and Elaboration
    Intellectual development is connected to the ability to relate information and observations about objects. Sensitivity to detail and the use of memory are directly related to complexity and elaboration.
  • Memory and Detail
    Even young gifted children are interested in detail and are more inventive in their drawings and sculpture than other children.
  • Sensitivity to Art Media
    The visually gifted child is more likely to explore and experiment with media, and achieve technical control, which results in a more elegant finished product. This is especially noticeable from upper elementary age on.
  • Random Improvisation
    Doodling and improvising with the effects of lines, shapes, and patterns are a favorite activity of the visually gifted child. The gifted child uses her ability to invent, depict, and describe to create meaning.

Note: Giftedness need not be demonstrated in every product for a child to be identified as visually gifted.

A collage by a 12 year old utilizing
the elements of composition:
texture, shape, placement,
pattern, and contrast.

Students with artistic talent exhibit above average ability in the following artistic perceptual/cognitive processes:

Artistic Thinking Skills

  • Perceptual Discrimination:
    the ability to perceive and differentiate through the senses with acute awareness.

    Perceptual Discrimination Artistic knowing begins with fine-tuned sensory awareness. Young visual artists view the world with acuity, aware of dimensions of space, color, and textures unseen by those who simply look.

  • Metaperception:
    the perceptual/cognitive process of internally manipulating perceptions with expression.

    Metaperception is the artistic parallel to metacognition, a term used to describe mental monitoring in cognitive thinking. This artistic knowing or intelligence, has been referred to as thinking with an aesthetic sense, qualitative responsiveness or qualitative intelligence.
  • Creative Interpretation:
    the process of reworking and refining metaperceptive decisions resulting in a unique, personalized statement.

    As a student works metaperceptively through an art medium, the artistic interpretive process ultimately unfolds. The more the student reworks and refines her work in the arts, the more artistic the interpretation.

A thirteen year old's drawing
of a model from life in a
figure drawing class shows
an understanding of proportion
and the relation of wholes
to parts.


Haroutounian, Joanne (1995) Talent Identification and Development in the Arts: An Artistic/Educational Dialogue. Roeper Review, Dec95, Vol. 18, Issue 2

Hurwitz, Al (1983) The Gifted and Talented in Art: A Guide to Program Planning. Davis Publications, Worcestor, MA

Porath, Marion (1993) Gifted Young Artists: Developmental and Individual Differences, Roeper Review, Sep93, Vol. 16, Issue 1

Renzulli, Joseph S. (1998) The Three-Ring Conception of Giftedness available online:

©2004 Mary Codd, all rights reserved