Giving Back in Istanbul with Watercolours, Workshops & Special Needs

By Ewen MacDonald in Art Business Advice > Motivation

When I arrived at the special needs school on the outskirts of Istanbul, I found a large building with several classrooms set up to teach a variety of skills to young adults with special needs. There was a kitchen, a woodworking room, a room for making candles, an art room, and lots of other facilities too.

The principal enthusiastically explained what the school was trying to achieve whilst we drank Turkish tea—a hot, strong brew, meant to be drunk sweet—and shortly after I found myself in a room with fifteen young adults with a variety of special needs eagerly awaiting whatever I was going to do.

Aiming to keep things informal, I got the kids out from behind their chairs and gathered them around my table. I had come prepared with a lightly drawn view of the Bosphorus Strait on a piece of 300 gm paper, and had a rather chaotic pile of painting equipment ready to go.

(As a bit of added pressure, the local artist’s group which had invited me turned up “en masse” to witness what I hoped would not be too much of an anticlimax!)

Still, after establishing which football teams (soccer) the kids supported and making sure that they realised that whatever transpired on the paper was going to be as much a surprise to me as to them, we began. . .

Creating a bit of atmosphere is essential so I started by applying a little masking fluid to my drawing, much to the puzzlement of the kids. I then loaded a large brush with a light blue and soaked the whole page with bold strokes of the brush. The kids smirked to themselves that I’d messed that up—“muaf oldu!” they giggled.

From there on in I began to show them that with a few simple principals, a lot of Kleenex, and a hair dryer, one can come up with some fun pictures that aren’t so bad!

I use a lot of water (and a lot of splashing, dripping, and tipping the board) which I’m glad to say the kids found very entertaining. At one point the class teacher put some music on to enhance the atmosphere and after about 30 minutes I emerged perspiring with a picture that, though technically flawed, was worthy apparently of a round of applause.


The crowning moment was when I peeled back the dried masking fluid to reveal sparkling white strips of bright paper creating the effect of sunlight on the water. I asked the kids to promise not to give away my “magical” secrets (which they called “sihirbazlik,” or wizardry) and they winked in agreement.

I drove away from that class with one of their homemade candles as a present, and a deep satisfaction that I’d shown these kids something important: with a little practice they could do just as well as me, and still have a lot of fun.

They were a great bunch of courageous young people with so much to offer, and I hope they all go on to do great things. As for me—the whole experience was life-giving!

To learn more about Ewen MacDonald and his art, please visit his website.


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