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

Can you see the turtles?

About three years ago, my son, then 15, and I went to an exhibition opening at a small community center in a suburb on the outskirts of Brisbane. It was a chilly winter night and many of the locals were there in their finest felt hats and colourful scarfs. I had submitted a couple of pieces and was eager to see them hanging alongside other artists from the area. 

The gallery atmosphere was lively with cheerful chatter. With red wine in hand, my son and I strolled around the exhibition space appreciating the talent of our locals. At one point we stood behind a couple of older ladies admiring a particularly large-scaled canvas that depicted abstract water ripples through an array of ocean blues hues. It was made using a technique known as acrylic fluid painting (see below for example). As we waited our turn to get a better look at the grand canvas, we overheard one of the ladies in front of us remark with great excitement “You can see the turtles!” Her friend wholeheartedly agreed “Oh, absolutely! You can see so many turtles swimming around in that ocean!” The first woman then went on to talk about how it reminded her of the ocean up near Cairns where she’d spent most of her youth. Her friend empathically listened added in her memories of turtles. So it was, with much anticipation that my son and I waited to see the turtles they were talking about. Eventually, the two ladies moved on and as they did so one of them state “Such a divine work, I absolutely love those turtles.”

My son and I then stepped forward and stood directly in front of the big, beautiful, blue canvas. We gazed silently in stern contemplation trying to see a glimpse of tortoiseshell. A moment later my son turned to me and said something that would become one of the most memorable things I’ve ever heard: “Mum, can you see the turtles?” 

I wanted to let out a bellow of laughter but successfully retrained; although, the sip of wine I just had did threaten to come out my nose. To put it simply, there were no turtles. No matter how thoroughly my son and I scanned the painting, no turtles could be found. 

Back at home, “Can you see the turtles?” became a metaphor used on many occasions. If my son left the milk out on the bench for two hours then gave a ridiculous excuse for doing so, I’d simply reply “I can’t see the turtles”. Or if I biasedly complained about an issue, my son will pipe up with “Mum, I think you’re seeing the turtles.” It’s become our code for calling BS in any situation where there is a lack of evidence to support claims. As we’ve playfully argued over who is seeing turtles and who is not, we’ve also had deeper philosophical conversations about being aware of what we perceive to be “real” in life and how things we see can trigger associations with our prior experiences.  

For the ladies in the gallery, seeing the turtles in the artwork was a wonderful experience, and watching the two of them bond over their shared imaginary vision was a delight to witness. It made me wonder what others may have seen when they looked at the canvas, perhaps for some, it was starfish, crocodile, or stingray. Or perhaps it triggered memories of fishing expeditions, surfing, snorkeling, boating trips, chattered flights over water, or lazy afternoons on the beach. The engagement with imagination is part of the joy and magic of viewing Art.

I think there are times when we all need to see turtles; moreover, our creative minds urn for such experiences. Likewise, at other times, it is useful to be consciously aware of the fact that we are looking at paint that has been skilfully poured over a canvas and there are no turtles. 

The above image is an acrylic fluid painting created using the same technique as the canvas my son and I saw at the gallery. To view more details of the above example, go to Hands of Hope Studio:

If you would like to know how fluid paintings are made, watch this YouTube:

Renée Spencer (2017), Watercolour painting inspired by “Can you see the turtles?”