Reflections on learning how to hold a pencil inspired by Quilty’s work with Syrian refugee children

In 2016, Australian artist, Ben Quilty, travelled to Syria to work in refugee camps. The project involved supplying children with quality paper and pencils and encouraging them to tell their stories through pictures. The drawings were complied into a book, titled Home. The images and stories are moving to say the least. If you’d like to know more, I’ve included a link to a short video about the project at the bottom of this blog.

I was fortunate to hear Quilty talk directly about the project in a live interview at Brisbane’s Powerhouse in 2018. In that interview, he mentioned that some of the children who came into the camps had never seen pencils before because pencils had been banned by the Taliban. Therefore, the first thing Quilty and his assistants needed to do was show the children how pencils could be used for mark making. As an art teacher and art therapist, I was fascinated to hear about the learning process the children went through in order to be able to creatively express themselves.

According to Quilty, the children who had never seen pencils had no idea how they should be used; they would literally pick one up and not know what to do with it. Therefore, the first step was giving instructions on how to hold a pencil – I’m not too sure how this was done but I’ll get back to some thoughts about this a bit later. In process, some of the assistants taught the children how to draw a love heart with an arrow through it. Consequently, the children repeated the symbol over and over again because that was all they knew. Gradually, as they learned more mark making skills (either by direct instructions or watching other children draw), their drawings became more unique and complicated; moreover, they learnt how symbolic marks can be used as a language of self expression.

I imagine most of us went through the process of learning how to hold a pencil and make marks when we were so young that we have forgotten the steps we had to go through to get there. Even rudimentary drawing skills, such as stick figures are, nonetheless, drawing skills and it is from this base knowledge that visual self expression can become possible. Further, it is from simple symbolic gestures that our creative minds can connect ideas in individualised ways.

Now, getting back to learning how to hold a pencil. In my first few years of primary schooling, I remember being taught the “correct” way, which was to use the middle finger, index/pointer finger, and thumb to grip around the pencil. It is a rigid clasp that locks the wrist, elbow, and shoulder, thus providing a means to make controlled movements that are necessary for forming the shapes of letters. I also remember my teacher walking around the classroom shaming anyone who was not holding their pencil in accordance to precise instructions. I always wanted to be a “good girl” so I made sure I always held my pencil correctly and never received harsh reprimand. Subsequently, the muscle memory in my hand became second nature. For nearly two decades, I believed that I was doing the “right thing” and it took dedicated practice to teach myself how to hold a pencil differently so as I could draw more freely. Drawing requires a loose hold, one that allows easy movement of the the wrist, elbow, and shoulder, and it has a different visceral feel to holding a pencil for writing. Children often do this instinctively, i.e. they explore different ways of holding a pencil and move their whole body when making marks. To see how holding a pencil for drawing can differ to writing, watch the following video:

Over the years, I’ve meet many people who have told me they cannot draw, to which I advise they explore different hand grips when mark making. Contrary to popular belief, learning how to draw is not an innate skill which some people possess and others don’t, it is set of skills and techniques that can be improved through practice. Playing with lines, shapes, colour, texture, tone, and space, is all that is needed to spark the creativity impulse which, in turn, leads to more skill development and a greater means of self expression. Quilty’s experience with refugee children provides anecdotal evidence of just how powerful this process can be for the artist and those who view their work.

Interview with Ben Quilty and the making of the book Home

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