Photo by: Ints Vikmanis
Figure drawings are projective diagnostic techniques in which an
individual is instructed to draw a person, an object, or a situation so
that cognitive, interpersonal, or psychological functioning can be
A projective test is one in which a test taker responds to or provides
ambiguous, abstract, or unstructured stimuli, often in the form of
pictures or drawings. While other projective tests, such as the
Thematic Apperception Test
, ask the test taker to interpret existing pictures, figure drawing tests
require the test taker to create the pictures themselves. In most cases,
figure drawing tests are given to children. This is because it is a
simple, manageable task that children can relate to and enjoy.
Some figure drawing tests are primarily measures of cognitive abilities or
cognitive development. In these tests, there is a consideration of how
well a child draws and the content of a child’s drawing. In some tests,
the child’s self-image is considered through the use of the drawings. In
other figure drawing tests, interpersonal relationships are assessed by
having the child draw a family or some other situation in which more than
one person is present. Some tests are used for the evaluation of child
. Other tests involve personality interpretation through drawings of
objects, such as a tree or a house, as well as people. Finally, some
figure drawing tests are used as part of the diagnostic procedure for
specific types of psychological or neuropsychological
impairment, such as central nervous system dysfunction or
Despite the flexibility in administration and interpretation of figure
drawings, these tests require skilled and trained administrators familiar
with both the theory behind the tests and the structure of the tests
themselves. Interpretations should be made with caution and the
limitations of projective tests should be considered. It is generally a
good idea to use projective tests as part of an overall test battery.
There is little professional support for the use of figure drawing, so the
examples that follow should be interpreted with caution.
The Draw-A-Man Test, developed by Goodenough in 1926 was the first formal
figure drawing test. It was used to estimate a child’s cognitive and
intellectual abilities reflected in the drawing’s quality. The test was
later revised by Harris in 1963 as the Goodenough Harris Drawing Test
(GHDT), which included a detailed scoring system and allowed for drawings
of men, women, and the self. The scoring system primarily reflected the
way in which the child is maturing cognitively. The GHTD is appropriate
for children between the ages of three and 17, although it has been found
to be most useful for children between three and 10.
The Draw-A-Person test (DAP) was developed by Machover in 1948 and used
figure drawings in a more projective way, focusing on how the drawings
reflected the anxieties, impulses, self-esteem, and personality of the
test taker. In this test, children are first asked to draw a picture of a
person. Then, they are asked to draw a picture of a person of the sex
opposite of the first drawing. Sometimes, children are also asked to draw
a picture of the self and/or family members. Then, they are asked a series
of questions about themselves and the drawings. These questions can be
about the mood, the ambitions, and the good and bad qualities of the
people in the drawings. The pictures and the questions on the DAP are
meant to elicit information about the child’s anxieties, impulses, and
overall personality. The DAP is the most frequently used figure drawing
test today. A scoring system appropriate for adults was developed in 1993
by Mitchel, Trent, and McArthur.
In 1992, Naglieri and his colleagues created a more specific scoring
system for figure drawing tests called the Draw-A-Person: Screening
Procedure of Emotional Disturbance (DAP:SPED), based on a large
standardization sample. This scoring method includes 55 items rated by the
test administrator and based on the child’s drawings and responses to
questions. The DAP:SPED is appropriate for children aged six to 17. It is
often used as a screening method for children who may be having
difficulties with regard to social adjustment and require further
, created by Buck in 1948, provides a measure of a self-perception and
attitudes by requiring the test taker to draw a house, a tree, and a
person. The picture of the house is supposed to conjure the child’s
feelings toward his or her family. The picture of the tree is supposed to
elicit feelings of strength or weakness. The picture of the person, as
with other figure drawing tests, elicits information regarding the child’s
self-concept. The HTP, though mostly given to children and adolescents, is
appropriate for anyone over the age of three.
The Kinetic Family Drawing technique (KFD), developed in 1970 by Burns and
Kaufman, requires the test taker to draw a picture of his or her entire
family. Children are asked to draw a picture of their family, including
themselves, “doing something.” This picture is meant to elicit the child’s
attitudes toward his or her family and the overall family dynamics. The
KFD is some times interpreted as part of an evaluation of child abuse. The
Kinetic School Drawing technique (KSD), developed in 1974 by Prout and
Phillips, requires the child to draw a picture of himself or herself, a
teacher, and one or more classmates. This picture is meant to elic it the
child’s attitudes toward people at school and his or her functioning in
the school environment.
As with all projective measures, scoring on figure drawing tests is more
subjective. Specific scoring systems, such as the DAP:SPED can be used to
provide more objective information. Most figure drawing tests have some
sort of objective scoring system; however, the instructions given to the
child, the questions asked by the test administrator, and the
administrator’s interpretations of the drawings are flexible and this
makes it difficult to compare results between children, even on the same
measure. Also, many clinicians choose not to rely on the scoring systems
and rely entirely on their own intuitive judgments regarding their
interpretation of picture content.
Figure drawings are often interpreted with regard to appropriate cognitive
development. Naglieri’s DAP:SPED scoring system includes a consideration
of what features in a drawing are appropriate for children of various
ages. For example, five-year old children are expected to make fairly
basic drawings of people, consisting of a head, eyes, nose, mouth, body,
arms, and legs. An 11-year-old, on the other hand is expected to have more
details in the picture, such as a more defined neck, clothes, and arms in
a particular direction.
Sometimes, figure drawings are assessed with regard to self-image.
Children often project themselves in the drawings. For example, females
with body image concerns may reflect these concerns in their drawings.
Victims of sexual abuse may stress sexual characteristics in their
Psychological, neuropsychological, or emotional dysfunction can also be
considered in figure drawing interpretation. This type of interpretation
is often done with figure drawings made by adults. For example, a person
who omits or distorts body parts may suffer from emotional impairment.
Excessive detail with regard to the sexual nature of the drawing may
indicate sexual maladjustment.
Family dynamics are also interpreted through figure drawings. For example,
in the Kinetic Family Drawing test, a picture where family members are in
separate rooms may indicate isolation or a lack of interaction between
Figure drawings are also interpreted with regard to child abuse. In 1994,
Von Hutton developed a scoring system for both the HTP and DAP focusing on
indicators of child abuse that may be present in drawings. The drawing of
the family in the KFD test may also provide indicators of abuse.
There has been much debate over the overall reliability and validity of
figure drawing tests (and projective tests in general). For example, when
structured scoring systems are used, the DAP has been found to be a
reliable measure, especially for cognitive development in children.
However, with regard to specific personality characteristics, self-image
issues, or personality dysfunctions, there has been relatively little
support for the use of figure drawings.
Handbook of Psychological Assessment
3rd edition. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1997.
The Handbook of Psychological Testing.
New York: Routledge, 1999.
Reynolds, Cecil R.
Comprehensive Clinical Psychology, Volume 4: Assessment.
Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1998.
Ali Fahmy, Ph.D.