Squiggla Is Another Compulsively Unputdownable Arts App

Arts writer Ginny Fisher test drives an addictive creative-learning app designed to give your creative mind a whirlwind of a workout

Photo / Supplied

Grab a pen or sharpie, a piece of A4 and make a few marks; try not to think. It’s more difficult than it seems. What’s surprisingly challenging is not following through with a mark that might start to look like a sticky bird or a wonky tree.

Scientists say the human brain is hardwired for pattern recognition, so stepping away from this space into abstract thinking can be quite a leap. However, research shows regular creative mark-making helps to build brain connections, thereby enhancing our ability to problem solve across all areas of our lives.

Squiggla is the brainchild of Rob Gardiner, the founder of the philanthropic art organisation the Chartwell Foundation. It's a learning tool and online application developed alongside a team of experts versed in unlocking and enhancing the creative brain.

Once you have made your marks with pens, paints, crayons, charcoal — anything you can get your hands on — you are invited to upload the images to your profile on the app which can then be shared with other Squiggla users. The only rule: no representational drawing, and leave quality judgment behind. Easier said than done.

You can start the program by spending as little as 10 minutes a day mark-making, but I found once you start, it’s rather difficult to stop.

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“Representational drawing actually reduces our ability to make original thoughts,'' says Rob’s daughter Sue Gardiner.

Sue is an arts journalist and an active member of Chartwell and the Squiggla team. She’s also a squiggling convert. “I started Squiggla in the first lockdown and soon I found I couldn’t stop. It was almost as if my body was having a reaction to the process,” she says.

And it’s the eye, hand, body experience that is also key to the success and pleasure of Squiggla, says Professor Peter O'Connor, the director of the Centre for Arts and Social Transformation at the University of Auckland.

Peter has worked with Chartwell on the program, and also generates research for the foundation at the University of Auckland as part of the Creative Thinking Project.

“This type of learning is also really important for literacy development in children, if they draw with their fingers in the sand, this more tactile experience can really fast track literacy development, it’s a bit like how Zoom can’t ever replace face-to-face interaction.”

Photo / Supplied

One of the reasons Squiggla was developed was the shared concern at Chartwell, that as we get older, our creativity is often stifled. Sue believes we are educated out of being creative.

“How many times have you heard someone say, ‘Oh I can’t draw, or I’m terrible at art’? It’s usually a value judgement that someone else has made that puts them off.”

Peter adds: “It doesn't take much to get the creativity kicked out of you. We actually need kids to be taking more risks. Children learn from doing, from using their bodies to learn, we need more playfulness and our kids would be better off if they were encouraged to explore the arts, rather than only focusing on numeracy and literacy.”

Sue adds the more you squiggle, the better your eye becomes when observing other art.

Age and artistic ability are not barriers to benefiting and enjoying the mark-making process.

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“Scientists have proven we are all creative, but by exercising that part of your brain you’ll become more creative,” says Sue.

My own experience has been intensely rewarding. Sue says this has a scientific name, “neural rewards”.

All I know is I’m not thinking about Covid, laundry, or cooking dinner when I’m mark-making. I am drawn into a happy and calm subconscious state. Sometimes the marks dredge up memories of my own childhood colouring book with its warped interior scenes. I learn lessons — what colours are harmonious; how contrast, tone and variation of marks are so important in adding interest.

While Squiggla’s goal is to have you let go, finding the balance between structure and freedom is when creativity is most enhanced. In other words, thinking about the marks (but nothing else please) you are making, enhances the exercise.

As Pablo Picasso once said, "The chief enemy of creativity is good sense." Good news then for me.

Squiggla.org is where you can develop your own collection of Squigglaworks. To see professional artists harness the power of the mark, check out Mark Work at Objectspace, 12 Mar–15 May 2022 with Raukura Turei, Julian Hooper & Krystina Kaza, Areta Wilkinson, Warwick Freeman and Hannah Beehre.

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