How to understand drawings and paintings: Online course by Prof. Dr. Zoltán VASS

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What is a Neurotic Family Drawing Like?

Institute of Projective Drawings

A neurotic family drawing by a 7–years–old boy

A German researcher, Schetty (1974) collected an extremely ;useful list of features frequently observed in neurotic family drawings.

If you are interested in children’s drawings, these are worthwhile knowing. However, don't forget that pictorial features can only be understood in context(according to the first theorem of the SSCA method, see Vass, 2012).

You can find Conflict indicators: A complete guid and Signs of family neurosis in the pictures here »

When focusing on specific features in family drawings, Schetty compared healthy, well-adjusted children to a group of children with behavioral disorders, learning difficulties, or showing neurotic symptoms.

Family drawing of a 6-year-old depressed girl. The figures are not only tiny, they are also close together and only occupy a small part of the sheet. Note the low quality of the human figures and the very basic depiction of the arms.

What she found was really interesting. The family drawings of neurotic children exhibited the following features:

  • Rarely have extraneous elements such as the sun, the sky, flowers.
  • The drawing as a whole lacks specific details.
  • Frequently draw profile view of the human figure.
  • The family is organized as an incoherent group.
  • They use fewer colors.
  • Black is used to express dark shades, as opposed to well-adjusted children who use use grey for this purpose.
  • The colors used are generally less realistic.
  • They use less space on the paper and the drawings are smaller.
  • Motifs are frequently drawn at the edge of the paper.
  • Human figures contain few specific details, e.g. hands and fingers are frequently omitted, shoulders are missing or the feet are depicted vaguely.

(Check our new course on the Nonexistent Animal Technique, the Draw-A-Couple Technique, the Five Step Intervention, the Drawing Together Method and the Color Keys.)

In our academic research (Vass, 2012) we also found the following:

Five General Warning Signs In Children's Drawings

  1. Incoherent, disorganized drawing.
  2. Few details together with gross distortions or omissions.
  3. Disharmonious and confuse picture.
  4. Compression: the picture is constricted to a very small size.
  5. Depression, sadness or hopelessness projected into the picture.

IMPORTANT: Pictorial features can only be understood in context. This means they are related to case history, test behavior, current conditions, the subject’s self-interpretation, as well as other items in the picture.

Elisabeth Münsterberg Koppitz (1968, 1984) found similar results. She explained the observations by claiming that well-adjusted, integrated children do not express their emotions to the world if they can cope with them in other ways.

However, emotionally disturbed or poorly adjusted children project their problems involuntarily. They reveal a great deal about themselves in their pictures.

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This is particularly true if they are in a situation where they can draw alone – or in the presence of a psychologist with an accepting attitude, who likes to work with them and is also capable of understanding their messages.

Now It's Your Turn

  • Download the "Frequently Observed Features Of Neurotic Family Drawings" below.
  • What was the most problematic drawing like that you ever seen? Let us know in the comments below!


Koppitz, E. M. (1968). Psychological Evaluation of Children’s Human Figure Drawings. New York: Grune and Stratton.

Koppitz, E. M. (1984). Psychological Evaluation of Human Figure Drawings by Middle School Pupils. London: Grune and Stratton.

Schetty, S. A. (1974). Kinderzeichnungen: Eine entwicklungspsychologische Untersuchung. PhD Dissertation. Zürich: Universität Zürich.

Vass, Z. (2012). A psychological interpretation of drawings and paintings. The SSCA Method: A Systems Analysis Approach. Budapest: Alexandra.

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  • Prof. Zoltan Vass, PhD is University Professor of Psychology and Head of the Faculty of the Psychology of Visual Expression, Károli University, Budapest.
  • He has published over 20 books and 400 scientific articles in 7 languages.
  • His method of Seven-Step Configuration Analysis (SSCA) awarded several scientific prices.
  • On SSCA, 7 scientific symposia were organized.
  • It has led to the establishment of 3 accredited clinical trainings and a postgraduate faculty with a total of 1622 participants.
  • It is taught or referenced in 152 courses in Hungary, Romania, Germany, France, Russia, China, Israel etc.

International appraisals of the SSCA Method

Prof. Dr. Diane Waller MA(RCA) DPhil, FRSA, OBE

Emeritus Professor of Art Psychotherapy, Goldsmiths, University of London

“This is an extraordinary work
different from the work already in the public domain in that it proposes a new, much more complex approach to the interpretation of drawings and paintings"

“It opens up avenues
on the long-debated efficacy of projective drawing as diagnostic and therapeutic tools"

Prof. Catherine T. L. SUN

Professor & Head, Department of Counselling and Psychology, Hong Kong Shue Yan University

Prof. Dr. Carlos R. Hojaij

Clínica Psiquiatria Biológica Brasil, São Paulo

“Fantastic (!!!) ... No doubt it does deserve a world wide publication, for it will be very useful to so many professionals researching and working in art therapy and any one interested in expression and psychology"

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Institute of Projective Drawings