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Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year winner and Kingston School of Art graduate Curtis Holder reflects on time at university and shares tips for emerging artists

Posted Thursday 11 February 2021

Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year winner and Kingston School of Art graduate Curtis Holder reflects on time at university and shares tips for emerging artists Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year winner Curtis Holder with a self-portrait

Award-winning artist and Kingston School of Art graduate Curtis Holder has spoken of the importance of enjoying the creative journey, as he credited his time at the University with equipping him with the skills to succeed.

In December, Curtis was revealed as the winner of the seventh series of Sky Arts' annual Portrait Artist of the Year competition. More than 1,000 people applied to take part in the show last year and the 52-year-old from South London triumphed over 72 selected artists to reach the final, where he drew a portrait of comedy star Eddie Izzard and another of Curtis' partner Steve with their dog Freddie.

The artist and part-time primary school teacher graduated with a BA(Hons) in graphic design from Kingston School of Art in 1991 and, following his success, has revealed his top tips for students hoping to pursue a career in the creative arts.

"It was an amazing time creatively and emotionally," he recalled. "Studying at Kingston University taught me discipline and professionalism and to take seriously whatever you do as an artist. My advice for students there today would be to be yourself, trust yourself and enjoy yourself, no matter what kind of creative endeavour you choose."

Noting that creative people can often be their own worst critics, he urged fellow artists to ensure they enjoy what they do. "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 added.

It was this mindset that helped Curtis win the prestigious national portrait competition and a £10,000 commission to draw a portrait of world-renowned ballet dancer Carlos Acosta that is appearing in a permanent collection at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. 

Curtis Holder, left, with Carlos Acosta and his portrait of the ballet dancerCurtis Holder, left, with Carlos Acosta and his portrait of the ballet dancer

Curtis was so convinced he would not get beyond the first heat of the competition that it freed 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.

Curtis uses a range of pencils, from watercolour to charcoal, to create his art. He chose oil-based pencils for his portraits in the final, which he also used for his portrait of Acosta.

"I love the immediacy and primal quality of pencils. Anyone can pick up a pencil and make a mark. You don't need lots of expensive equipment," he said. 

Curtis prefers to draw people and the human form. "I enjoy the collaboration between artist and sitter and how we produce a work of art together," he explained. 

"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."

This process led to a though-provoking conversation with Eddie Izzard during the Sky Arts competition final.

Curtis Holder with his portrait of Eddie Izzard.Curtis Holder with his portrait of Eddie Izzard.

"I was aware of Eddie's comedy and stage work and marathon running," he said. "What we talked about were gender identity and the challenges of navigating a career as a creative person. I listened to what Eddie had to say and responded to that to produce my portrait."

Ballet dancer Carlos Acosta was also a perfect subject for the portrait artist, who said the experience had inspired him to produce some of his best work.

"Carlos was generous, full of empathy, creative and open," said Curtis. "Even better, 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." 

Curtis recalled that when he was a young artist, the art world was largely white and male-dominated. "When you don't see yourself reflected in an industry, then rightly or wrongly you feel it is closed to you," he said. "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." 

The award-winning artist hopes that his success will also encourage children to enjoy art, including the primary school children who he teaches part time. "I love teaching art and I think it is very important, especially in the current situation. In the middle of a pandemic, children and adults alike can benefit from the creative process and being able to express their thoughts and feelings creatively," he said.

With his success in the competition behind him, Curtis is now hoping to build on the momentum of winning the prestigious award. "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.  

• Find out more about studying graphic design at Kingston School of Art.

You can see Curtis' work on his website or follow @curtisartist on Instagram 

Categories: Alumni, On campus, Staff, Students

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