What do you do with your children after they have finished their online school lessons, have binged watched their favourite TV shows and are starting to fight over whose turn it is on the Xbox?

During the three Lockdowns of the last year, I am sure we aren’t the only family to have suffered bouts of cabin-fever with us all working-from-home, so what was our solution?

In addition to a daily family walk, we all set ourselves various challenges. My wife Julie set herself a Lockdown 3.0 project of learning to play the saxophone to help her wind down after work and which in turn is helping encourage our son George (14) to keep practicing his trumpet playing. I have been mentoring our daughter Niamh (12) with her love for arts and crafts as she is missing face-to-face art lessons at school.

Niamh working with pastels in 2016

Niamh skeching in Misson with David Curtis, 2018

Niamh needs to keep herself busy with lots of projects, so was delighted when she received her very first commission in February 2021.

Niamh with her commission painting

I will hand over to Niamh to explain how she completed the task, with just a little help from me.

'Last year I hand-made a birthday card for my friend Emily featuring a watercolour of her with Jazz, the horse she rides. She absolutely loved it and had it framed. When her parents offered to re-decorate her bedroom as a distraction to her online home-schooling, they asked me if I would like to paint the same picture again, but larger, in oils and they would pay me. How exciting - my first commission! Until now I had only ever painted for myself and for school projects. It is a great feeling when someone values your work. It gave me the same feeling you have when you are ‘leveling-up’ in a computer game as you progress to the next level to unlock new abilities and skills.

'Emily sent me photos of Jazz via WhatsApp, and I asked my dad to print her favourite image onto A3 paper and order a 40x40cm canvas for me from Hobbycraft’s website.

'Dad then gave me a demo on how to use the grid system. I found this made my drawing more accurate, much better than relying on freehand drawing by eye. Compared to many of my school friends, I suppose I have been lucky to have all the art materials available at home. I am fortunate in having a dad who is a full-time artist working-from-home, but at the same time I didn’t want him to help me too much as this was my first commission and I wanted to be able to say that I did it on my own.

'I started adding colour with Pebeo Studio Acrylics using large brushes to help lay out the basic composition and play with colour, keeping everything loose. For the background, Dad was bursting to give me advice, which was to make it simpler than what I could see in the photograph. Through a process of elimination on my part, looking to see what contrasted with the existing colours, I decided on a greeny-blue colour.

Working with acrylics

'I liked the way the acrylics gave the picture texture as the brush ran across the canvas, but I liked using oils even more. When I added the oils on top of the acrylics I immediately felt that I could get more out of them. Dad gave me a pot containing Robersons Studio Safe Solvent with a hint of Linseed to mix into the Old Holland paints, which made them far more fluid; the brush just glided across the canvas in a playful way. I also liked the way the canvas has a spring to it which adds a quality you don't get with rigid surfaces.

Adding in oils

'But after this I reached a block. I felt that I was starting to undo some of the spontaneity of my earlier work. Against my earlier insistence that this picture was to be 100% my own work, I realised that as I was being paid to do it, I should ask my Dad for help to avoid the picture becoming a mess. He restrained himself from taking over and demonstrated a few minor brushstrokes on the horse and Emily’s face which inspired me to finish it. I suppose taking advice wasn’t so bad after all!

'Signing my name took a couple of practice attempts with the long rigger brush and I am glad I chose to co-ordinate it with the pink colour of the shirt and leave various mistakes in the picture, both of which add spontaneous touches.'


Jazz, oil and acrylic, (40x40cm)

In summary, as we can all do with a little help at times like these, I am glad that my family has coped well with Lockdown. Each of us has consciously made a positive difference in helping each other, tapping into our strengths and sharing them. For me, observing how Niamh tackled the painting inspired me to paint some pictures for the 90th Anniversary competitions at PaintersOnline that were uninhibited and free with the style. We learned to learn from each other.

Tim O’Brien is a full time professional artist, author and tutor with over 35 years of experience. For more information about Tim see www.timobrienart.co.uk

Niamh O’Brien is a Year 8 pupil. Likes to sing while playing the ukulele. Loves origami and ran a lunchtime club at Primary School teaching others. She also appeared on Blue Peter in September 2017 during a live ‘Drawathon’ with author-illustrator Cressida Cowell.