From kaka feeding on kowhai to a surfer cutting through a wave, the scenes brought to life by Bay of Plenty artist Kerrin Tilley reveal an astounding eye for detail. More incredible, however, is the fact that each time he puts brush to canvas, he does so using his mouth.

Mr Tilley, whose work is on display at this weekend's Royal Easter Show in Auckland, has been without the use of his arms and legs since he broke his neck playing rugby 27 years ago. He paints using a special mouthpiece, along with his tongue and teeth to guide and control the brush, in a technique he's mastered not just with talent, but time. "You've just got to keep at it all the time ... I find that the detail just comes with a bit of practise."

Before suffering his injury, while playing for the Opotiki Colts in 1988, his life had been devoted to hunting, fishing, diving and dairy farming. It was only during his rehabilitation at the Otara Spinal Unit that he rediscovered a boyhood love of art.

While recovering, he took art tuition and spent time with several other mouth painters.


Soon after, he submitted six paintings to the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists Association, an international organisation that distributes the works of 700 painters through calendars and cards.

"The first ones weren't very detailed at all, and the perspective and composition was very poor ... but just by practising, reading books and watching different videos, you can develop those skills over years." It's been helping him with an income ever since.

"There's not a lot of feedback, but I suppose if you're constantly painting and doing the right thing, you're on the right track."

Mr Tilley, who lives on an 8ha lifestyle block with several cattle and a few avocado trees, often takes inspiration from the picturesque countryside around him. There have been countless colourful works, depicting sandcastles, roses, butterflies, horses and tui.

He credits his art with helping him travel, meet new people and, most of all, giving him a sense of satisfaction and release. "It's opened up a whole avenue ... it's opened the world up."