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I’ve been making art for decades. I came to prison in 1977 on a seven years-to-life sentence, and began doing hundreds of drawings — I’ve created some 1,500 pieces in all. The prisoners and staff here have nicknamed me Picasso.

I’m 65 years old and have Parkinson’s Disease and the onset of dementia, yet I strive to keep creating. Sometimes I work for 25 continuous hours without pause. My goal before I die is for people to see my creations — to know I did not waste my time in prison but gave back to society by creating and sharing my art. 

My subject matter comes from dreams or events in the news. In one series, I painted masks based on the roots of a proud race of people who were once enslaved. I created the masks to show how there are no barriers in race or art. Art brings joy and emotions to all.  

Experimenting with homemade prison paint

While at Pelican Bay State Prison, maybe 30 years ago, I dabbled in oil paints and loved it. I produced fantastic stuff. They gave out canvases and paints in a hobby program, but that only lasted a year before I was transferred.

If I had real paints and brushes, I am sure I could create really amazing work. But that stuff costs a great deal of money. For a poor prisoner, I make do with what I can get or make.

Eventually, I figured out how to make my own paints.

I first used watercolor pencils. But when I got the pencils wet, the colors just ran off. I needed a way to make the paint waterproof. I tried crushing the colored pencil’s lead into a fine powder then mixing in white glue, but that was a failure. 

One day I watched an inmate waxing the floors of my housing, and voilà — it hit me. I asked him for a small bottle of floor wax. I took a quarter ounce and some ground-up lead from a colored pencil and stirred them together into a thick and creamy consistency.

Next, I tested my paint on canvas. I got a toothpick, dipped it in the paint, then dotted the canvas. I did this several times and let it dry. It dried very quickly, maybe in two minutes or less.

Then, to protect the paint, I coated the dots with more floor wax using a Q-tip. Once the floor wax was dry, I checked the painted dots with a few drops of water to make sure they did not smear … success! I had created my own acrylic paints.

Painting with Q-tips

I have a real odd style but can paint and draw nearly anything.

My process is this: I first make a sketch using white or brown regular colored pencils. Next I add a few highlights with my watercolor pencils. Then I get my Q-tips out and start dipping them into my paints and filling in the sketch. I only fill in a 2-by-2-inch section at a time. I let it dry, then fill in another. I do this so I can add the floor wax at each step. As I continue in this manner, I clear coat each section until the whole painting or drawing is covered.

Once that’s finished, I take a Q-tip or toothpick and begin to dot the work until all the dots are where I want them to be. Then I clear coat the entire painting several times to seal up the paint so it doesn’t come off. It works great.

See John W. Zenc’s Other Works:

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

John W. Zenc is a writer, artist, activist and an advocate for better prison conditions. He hopes that people will understand what prison is like through his work. John has been incarcerated in California for more than four decades since he was 20 years old. His work can be found at