A blind navy veteran and his love of painting

A painting of Edinburgh Castle with a silhouette walking in. It is pastel.

Royal Navy veteran Derek O'Rourke, 62, has lost most of his sight but in recent years has taken up the very visual art of painting. He has developed a painstakingly complicated system which makes creating pictures more accessible to him and now sells his landscapes for up to £1,000 to raise money for blinded veterans.

He gets assistance creating lines around shapes but does the rest himself. O'Rourke can only see through a tiny "keyhole" at the top of his right eye and A recent attempt to do a line-drawing on his own, led to him producing a three-legged dog without realising as he can't see a full picture, just a small fragment at a time. It is very time consuming and a portrait of Dame Judi Dench, who he met by chance at a hydrotherapy pool in London, took him a lengthy five months to complete.

O'Rourke, who lives in Edinburgh, paints to escape from a number of serious health problems that he has. His eye condition, angioid streaks, will eventually lead to total blindness as it causes blood to leak into the eyes. He has had both knees replaced, has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and is about to undergo major throat surgery to remove a cancer.

A picture of Derek O'Rourke holding his painting of Judi Dench

He spoke to Ouch this week:

How do you paint?

I put a photo of what I want to paint on the computer and blow it up really big, so that I can see it in more detail. I sometimes need a bit of help with the positioning of the picture and the initial drawing but once someone else has put the lines down are there, I can do anything. I very rarely get the right colour first time around because mixing colours when you have to go down into the paint with your magnifying glass is tricky but it comes out right eventually. I have a camera that zooms in on the part of the canvass I'm working on, magnifies it hundreds of times and displays it on a big TV at the side.

I'm painting the canvas but looking at the whole thing on a screen, so my brain has to work out what my hand is doing, like a surgeon's would during keyhole surgery. I can see the pictures if I look really closely but I can't stand back an appreciate them. When I move away more than a foot, they go blurry.

You raise thousands through your art but also fundraise on the streets. Is that successful too?

I make a minimum of £200 in a couple of hours. I get out there with my kilt and a blind veterans charity t-shirt on, holding my white cane, and wearing dark glasses. I shout "help the blind, blown up, legs missing, hands missing." People say that they walk past and then walk back again because I've given them a guilty conscience. It works and that's the main thing.

Oil painting of mountains and colourful trees
You have PTSD but it has worsened recently. Why?

I always had the problem but when I started to go blind, it got worse. When you can't focus with your eyes so well to take your mind off things, you start thinking back and memories start coming forward. I have seen and done gory things that would frighten the life out of anyone. In 1970, just after I joined the Royal Navy, we attended a ferry disaster in the West Indies the day after it sunk. We had to get the bodies as they came up and lay them out on the ship's flight deck. That was alright when they were whole, but sharks were often on one end and we were on the other. We got two Royal Marines really drunk and they did the worst of it but we still had to take the body parts from them. And we had to watch. In those days, you didn't get any help afterwards. It was your job and you just got on with it.

More of O'Rourke's work can be found on his website.

His work can be viewed at Edinburgh Castle Information Centre where it is currently on display.

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