Children Understand Abstract Art

Are you smarter than a three-year-old? If you don’t “get” abstract art, the answer may be no!

A recent study from researchers in Greece investigated whether 78 children between the ages of 3 and 5 were able to infer emotions from the colors used in paintings. The children were asked to view, and to interpret, 16 paintings that included both abstract and realistic works.

The researchers chose paintings that they intended to be interpreted as either “happy” and “sad.” Admittedly, this is a somewhat limited emotional palette – but then again, we can’t really expect a preschooler to evaluate a painting as “bittersweet, with underlying currents of both anxiety and hope,” can we?

To make sure they’d chosen paintings that really conveyed these emotions, the researchers showed the paintings to a group of adults, who affirmed that certain paintings tended to be perceived as happy or sad. Then the researchers showed the paintings to the children.

It turned out that the children, like the adults, were able to recognize the emotional expressiveness conveyed by the paintings’ colors. And they were able to read the colors’ emotional implications equally well for realistic and abstract paintings. However, the children were significantly better at recognizing happiness through the paintings’ colors than sadness.

Granted, there’s more to “understanding” an abstract painting (whatever that means) than being able to say whether it uses “happy colors” or “sad colors.” But the findings do show that children as young as three already have some of the basic skills necessary for appreciating visual art and understanding the emotional tone it conveys.

This finding fits with previous research showing that children between the ages of five and nine are quite good themselves at creating expressive pieces of art. In particular, children of these ages are generally able to communicate emotions like happiness and sadness through their drawings.

As it turns out, art is something that pretty much anyone can enjoy and create if they feel they feel like it. Even preschoolers, and yes, even abstract art!

Image: Flickr/Andy Saxton