Portrait Artist of the Year has advice for students

Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year winner Curtis Holder graduated from Kingston University three decades ago. He credits his time studying art at Kingston University with providing him with the necessary skills he needed to flourish. 

“Studying at Kingston University taught me discipline and professionalism and to take seriously whatever you do as an artist.” Holder told Kingston University. He graduated with abachelor’s degree in graphic design in 1991.

The award-winner now wants to encourage aspiring artists to believe in themselves and emphasises the importance of enjoying the artistic journey.

Holder was awarded Portrait Artist of the Year in December, after winning the seventh series of the Sky Arts competition aiming to find the best portrait artist. 

More than 1000 people applied to the latest contest shown on the Sky Arts channel and Holder won the honourable title over 72 other artists selected to take part in the heats. 

A drawing of comedy star and activist Eddie Izzard proved the KU graduate worthy of the title and a £10,000 commission to paint a famous personality. His winners’ commission portrait of world-renowned Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta now hangs as part of the permanent collection at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in the UK.

Noting that he was in the same position as current KU art students 30 years ago, Holder has a simple piece of advice to the current students: “Be yourself, trust yourself and enjoy yourself, no matter what kind of creative endeavour you choose.”

Holder emphasises that creative people are often tough critics of their own artwork and encourages KU art students to enjoy every step of their creative journey.

“Remember that you are blessed with a talent and don’t be so hard on yourself. Enjoy the creative journey and have fun along the way.” He told Kingston. 

This is also the mentality that has helped the KU graduate through his career, and all the way to the opportunity of a lifetime and becoming a permanent part of a national gallery.

Not thinking he would stand a chance against that many great artists in the contest, Holder was set not on winning. He thinks this allowed him to free up his creativity. 

“I saw all these painters and their work looked amazing. There was me with my pencils. I didn’t think I would get far so I decided I would just be the artist I wanted to be and have some fun,” he said.

Exploring your own style also applies when choosing the equipment used to create art. Holder thinks experimenting with products is essential, and has personally fallen for the “immediacy and primal quality” of pencils. He adds that finding the art material that best suits the way you work, doesn’t have to cost a fortune.

“Anyone can pick up a pencil and make a mark. You don’t need lots of expensive equipment,” he said. 

Using graphite and colour pencils, holder draws out people and their stories on paper. “I always start each drawing with a conversation to make a connection with the person I am drawing, to listen to what they say and respond to that. What comes out of this is their feelings and emotions combined with my own to produce a portrait,” he said. 

This was also the connection that led to the creation of the commission portrait of ballet dancer Carlos Acosta. Holder explains that Carlos had posed and danced for him whilst he sketched him and that his empathy and openness created an understanding between them. 

“We were both Black, a similar age and men who had real parallels with our life experiences and how others viewed us growing up. For both of us, we had been in an environment where often we were the only Black person in the room. This understanding between us helped me produce some of my best art when I drew him,” Holder said.

Curtis Holder, left, with Carlos Acosta and his portrait of the ballet dancerHolder (left) wanted to express who Carlos Acosta is in his portrait. Credit: Courtesy of Curtis Holder.

Holder said that: “His extraordinary story, as a Black man with raw talent who came from humble beginnings, his rise to the top of the ballet world is as inspirational as it is unexpected.”

When Holder was a young artist, the art world was mainly white and male-dominated, he recalled: “When you don’t see yourself reflected in an industry, then rightly or wrongly you feel it is closed to you.

“It held me back, but it also made me more determined. I decided that being an artist was who I am and what I wanted to do. Hopefully, seeing me as an artist will inspire other young artists who feel somehow that they don’t fit in,” he added.

Holder now hopes to grow from the opportunities following his success in the Sky Arts competition. “It has given me the freedom to focus on my art and the chance to take on some interesting offers.

“Being named Portrait Artist of the Year has opened up a wealth of opportunities and I am planning to hit the ground running,” he said.  

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