Art Therapy

Art in Prison: “I cannot imagine how I would have coped without my art.”

Julio Cesar Osorio completed a degree in photography and digital imaging in 2000, but it was at age 42, whilst serving a two and a half year prison sentence, that he began to paint.  Art became a means of coping with prison life and Julio now promotes the positive effects of art alongside others he has met via the Educational Prison Alumni Trust, inspiring other prisoners to follow the same path.  You can see from this series of collaborative articles what a creative and resourceful individual Julio is, and also how, despite limited, cramped circumstances, a dedicated, resilient person can find a means to creating great art.

Originally Julio and I intended to collaborate on a single article, but I find his words so compelling that I was reluctant to edit them down, so the story will instead be told in a series of fragments. Here, we focus on light.


Lighting is integral to an artist’s work; the joy of a studio bathed in light, the positioning of an easel, the direction of shadows – artworks can even be defined by the very absence of light. Imagine, then, having no control over this intrinsic factor.

Within the confines of the prison cell, Julio explains, there was only one position where the easel could be placed, “on a small table right at the end of the bunks and it would be shadowed by the bed” and although inmates were not allowed to move furniture around at night he would “move the table towards the middle of the cell where I could get better light!”

When seeing Julio’s art for the first time, I was immediately drawn to the sharp fractals of light that project from his early works. Julio describes the light in his prison cell as “very limited,” the small cell window in the old Victorian jail being opaque, made of “old Perspex,” rather than glass, and covered in “burn marks and outside dirt that could not be cleaned from the inside.”  Perhaps then, it is significant that the light in his artworks is often hidden, or fractured, not quite tangible – viewed through a rippling water surface from below, or silhouetted behind dark branches.

"Submerged" by Julio Cesar Osorio

“Submerged” by Julio Cesar Osorio

The light in the cell itself was a florescent bulb, “also covered with shatter-proof Perspex” and equally “very difficult to work with.” It could also be considered significant that Julio often uses water as a subject matter, which by its nature reduces gradient shadowing and, to a degree, counteracts the stark lighting conditions he had to contend with. Julio devised a strategy for coping with this absence of natural light:  He would paint until the early hours of the morning (“as long as I could get my cell mate to stand the light being on”), working under the artificial light as best he could.  Then, in the morning, he was able to take his painting to ‘the art class that was in a portacabin near the education department.” With two windows allowing “plenty of light to look at my work,” Julio was able to determine his progress and see what would need to be added the following night. His cell mate eventually became so accustomed to these nocturnal painting sessions that “he would fall asleep with the lights on.”

Another method was to take the painting outside onto the landing during the “one hour association time” that the prisoners were permitted each day.  This gave “better lighting” and the opportunity to “stand at a distance to see the composition.”  It is a tribute to Julio’s efforts that the depth perception in artworks such as “Submerged” function better at a far range. “I made it my mission,” recalls Julio, “that paintings should look perfect from a distance even if they were not that detailed when you looked closer.”

Being able to focus his attention so completely on practicing his art helped Julio to remain positive and handle the stress and intensity of prison life. When asked how essential the ability to paint became to him, the reply is simple: “I cannot imagine how I would have coped without my art.”


Julio Cesar Osorio and Louie McManus have an upcoming artshow planned for June/July 2015, see below for contact details.


Art and words: Julio Cesar Osorio

Contact: @juliocesartist8


(register on the site to keep informed about Julio’s upcoming exhibition and for the chance to win a signed print)

Article written by: Beck @artistscribbles


Read about Art in Prisons from an Art Teacher’s Perspective: “Sometimes, it felt like you were walking a thin tightrope…” – Marian Young, on Teaching Art in Prisons

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