It may seem that painting and sight loss don't go hand in hand, but over the years I have witnessed how much pleasure and the sense of satisfaction it can bring to people with sight loss – especially those who’ve had to come to terms with it in later life.
Painting has always been in my blood, and I decided to study art at Saint Martins School of Art London (which has been incorporated with Saint Martins College of Arts and Design), despite my sight being poor and gradually getting worse. At the age of 14, I was diagnosed with congenital macular degeneration and registered severely sight impaired in 1984. This means that I can’t see details, but I do get a general impression. For example, I can see a bus as it approaches but cannot see the number, and I can see a person coming towards me but I won’t recognise them.
After my diagnosis, people assumed it would be too difficult for me to continue with my artwork. But I was determined to carry on expressing myself through paint – so that’s exactly what I did.
I retired early because of my deteriorating sight and in 2001, set up an art club for people with a visual impairment at my local blind charity. I decided to extend this and create my website: "Painting with sight loss". I found that painting can be adapted to work around sight loss, so couldn’t see any reason to stop!
Imagine my surprise to discover through my art teaching, that others with sight loss were just as passionate about art as I was! People of all ages became just as engaged as fully sighted artists after some minor modifications to the activity.
Painting doesn’t have to mean spending extortionate amounts of money on expensive equipment and it isn’t just for artistic people who are sighted either. As long as you find a relaxed setting with good lighting and have some basic equipment, you’ll be ready to go.
Here are my top tips to help you start painting – and who knows, you may end up catching the painting bug like me!
Ten painting tips for beginners with sight loss
Find a comfortable space which works for your particular eye condition and ensure the space has access to a window. I need as much light as possible to improve what I can see. However glare is a problem, so I avoid direct sunlight. Other eye conditions require a more shaded area. Simply try different levels of lighting to see which suits you best.
Work on a sloped surface. This means that you don’t need to bend in an uncomfortable way and it also stops your head from blotting out the natural light. A sloped surface brings the work up closer to you and even when you look closely at the painting, light can still fall onto it from above. It is more comfortable not to bend over the painting but to work with a more upright position.
Start with student-quality paints and brushes. Nylon brushes will do the job and cheap sketch books will be fine for preparing drawings but heavier grade paper will be needed when painting. For watercolour painting, 140lbs weight is best. Larger branches of book and craft shops are great for basic supplies, such as The Works or Hobbycraft.
Use highly contrastedcolours. Don’t use dark colours to begin with. Highly contrasted ones will instead allow your painting to be more vivid and exciting. After some time, you will soon realise what colours work best for you.
Work on larger scale formats. This helps as details are bigger and so more easily seen. When working on paper, card or canvas, 15x22 inches or larger is best.
Start off with basic paintings before progressing to complex details. Give yourself a degree of freedom and don’t force yourself to handle large amounts of difficult details early on.
Choose clear scenes, topics or photographs to work from. Nowadays photos can be easily blown up to A4 size and particular details can be cropped out and enlarged.
Your own photography may be easier to work with. This is because you have personal knowledge of what has been photographed. As my sight has deteriorated, I have come to rely on my own photographs printed on A4 photo paper.
It may help to divide the image you are working from into squares. Draw grids of squares onto the photo you will be painting and use each individual square as a guide. Then replicate the squares onto your card or canvas. This way, you can follow the image square-by-square, allowing your painting to be more accurate.
Use texture to define the types of shapes. Building out areas of your painting with all-purpose filler will draw attention to the main features and rough and smooth texture surfaced areas will help to define simple shapes.
I hope these tips and adaptations have inspired you to start painting. You may think you can’t do it, perhaps because of your sight loss or because you don’t believe you have the skill. But art is about expressing yourself – use it as a creative outlet! There are no right or wrong answers.
Ian Reynolds’s website Painting with sight loss provides simple, practical advice for people with sight loss who want to take up drawing and painting. It also has advice on how to start your own art group.