Clark and Zimmerman (1997) addressed the tenacious problem of understanding artistic talent. As they put it, there had been “much speculation, but little research” (p 49) about questions such as these of artistically talented students:

  • What are their identifying characteristics?
  • What programming will meet their needs?
  • What leads them to reject or commit to the field of art and the development of their abilities?
  • What historical research provides appropriate theoretical framework for understanding artistic talent?

Clark designed the CDAT to help accumulate findings along these lines of inquiry. In a number of peer-reviewed articles he articulated the theories underlying its design.

Theoretical underpinnings

Clark and Zimmerman (1997) described the CDAT as a tool grounded in Leta Stetter Hollingworth’s (1923) theory that drawing ability is made up of a number independent psychological variables and influenced by a variety of antecedents. They also describe the CDAT as based on Norman C. Meier’s similar theory of six interlinked factors contributing to art aptitude. Even today, the cognitive components of drawing are the subject of empirical studies (Chamberlain, Drake, Kozbelt, Hickman, Siev, & Wagemans, 2018). Psychologists also continue to hotly debate the factors influencing art aptitude, characterized as learned or innate in various combinations and emphases (Kaufman, 2013). The CDAT has been used to test and support the theory that drawing ability is normally distributed in a population of students with similar opportunities to learn. The implication of this finding is that the CDAT would identify students who would need ability grouping for art instruction and who would benefit from identifying as gifted in art or high ability visual art (HAVA) students (Fisher, 2019). Clark and Zimmerman explained this belief:

As did Hollingworth in the 1930s, the authors, and others, believe talent is relatively stable and normally distributed and that the amount of talent a person develops will effectively control and limit his or her capabilities to learn and perform tasks related to the visual arts. In other words, all students possess talent, but some will develop it to a small degree, most to an average degree, and some will develop it to considerable heights. (p. 51)

Drawing tests and art tests make up a significant part of the body of early psychological research. Clark, Zimmerman, and Zurmuehlen (1987) published a study of the 100-year history of art testing. Clark and Wilson (1991) cited a number of these art tests that were developed before the CDAT, but which had not been used for screening or identifying artistic talent. They explained how components of earlier test tasks were selected and responses of subjects of a range of ages were studied in order to compose the CDAT, as described in the section on test design.

Artistic identity

Clark and Zimmerman (1997) also discussed the impact of labeling students. Being offered the label of talented, whether by interpreting the results of a test or by unscientific societal influences, presents a child with a choice of three responses, which they described as “(1) accept an artistically talented label and identify with other students like themselves, (2) disavow the label and pursue other interests, or (3) fail to demonstrate their talents to accommodate themselves to pressures from peers and others to conform in other roles” (p. 53).

Clark (1993) expressed agreement with those art educators skeptical of some uses of standardized tests. He concurred with those who would caution against unfair labeling based on test scores, advising against “labeling or classifying students except on a very short-term basis” (p. 74). Yet he also explained how to use the CDAT effectively, keeping in mind these challenges and cautions.