The first expert judge we have the pleasure of welcoming to the panel for the Jackson’s Painting Prize 2022 is pencil artist and winner of the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2020, Curtis Holder. Here he tells us about his favourite artists, exhibition highlights of the past year and shares his advice to those thinking about entering the competition this year.
Above image: Curtis Holder
Clare: First of all, congratulations on winning the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year in 2020! Can you tell us about your experience?
Curtis: I experienced every possible emotion while taking part in Portrait Artist of the Year. It was inspiring to work alongside so many talented artists and to share our love of creating art.
On a personal level, at first it was intimidating walking into a competition of mostly painters and seeing their entries lined up on the wall. However, as I use a different medium, I quickly realised that I needed focus my energy on trying to create the best drawings I could in the timeframe and in the end that freed me up – it felt like I had nothing to lose. The challenge to produce each portrait in only four hours certainly creates a sense of urgency and I think that encouraged me to experiment, pushing my drawing forward in unexpected ways. With hindsight, I strangely thrived in the environment of the competition. I work a lot from life and do a lot of life drawing as part of my practice, so I think the urgency of the situation and the adrenalin kick worked in my favour.
What people perhaps don’t see on the TV is that at each stage of the competition the judges are observing (and interrogating) your every move, so they definitely get to see under the bonnet of who you are as an artist. Hearing them critique my work and say that I have something unique to offer boosted my confidence and drive to succeed. Winning the competition and the opportunity to create a piece of work for a major institution like the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has been eye-opening and life changing. The whole process was a precious and self-affirming experience.
Clare: Can you tell us what attracts to you to pencil and graphite as a medium? Do you have a preferred brand to use? Do you make use of any additional mediums in your work?
Curtis: My love of pencils comes from their immediacy and their unpretentious accessibility. I treat them the same way I did when I was five years old – I love that!
I’ve used Derwent coloured pencils since I was a child. They offer a great range of quality pencils with different characteristics that I can rely on when I’m drawing on the go, at a life session or in the studio. For my large-scale coloured pencil drawings, I use Derwent Lightfast pencils. They are oil-based and their creamy texture suits how I layer and blend colours. They also offer a really broad spectrum of colours and the fact they’re 100% lightfast means they won’t fade for a very long time.
In the past I have also stitched works freehand using a sewing machine, and I paint in acrylics and have dabbled in oils. Out of all the mediums pencils are my favourite. I think it’s because there is very little prep involved so you can just pick up a pencil and make marks.
Clare: Which four artists, dead or alive, would you invite to a dinner party and why?
Curtis: Barbara Walker to get an insight into what drives her to make such powerful and monumental work and to tell her how truly important and inspirational I’ve found the works she creates. Wayne Thiebaud, who is now 101 and still teaching. I’d just love to sit in on a one of his classes and then at dinner talk about whatever he wanted to talk about, because it’s never going to be boring! I’ve always loved how he painted the confectionary displays in his shop windows; the colour and uniformity were so sumptuous. Michael Leonard for his thoughts on composition and colour and how he felt about making the transition from commercial to fine art. Finally, Gwen John would also be invited, although I doubt that she’d accept the invitation to join a gathering of prying artists. Nevertheless, I’d be intrigued to find out how the turbulent moments in her life helped or hindered the work she made.
Clare: What have been your exhibition highlights of 2021, either online or in real life? Who are the artists you are most inspired by this past year?
Curtis: Having been locked away for much of last year, throughout 2021 I’ve seen many exhibitions which I’ve loved, so I’ve picked a top three. Lynette Yiadom–Boakye’s Fly In League With The Night at the Tate was truly breath-taking. Her use of characters who are both fictional and real to create such believable paintings full of meaningful emotion was so inspirational. It gave me fuel for where I could take my own work in the future. Paula Rego at the Tate was also a highlight. I just loved seeing the story of Paula‘s life through such a huge body of work. It gave an insight into her life as an artist that no documentary or written biography could ever achieve. Finally, Charmaine Watkiss’s The Seed Keepers at the Tiwani Contemporary was beautiful. It was a unique experience being able to witness an exhibition of drawings that speaks directly to me and my heritage without compromise, apology or explanation.
Clare: How important do you think awards and competitions are for artists today?
Curtis: The importance of awards and competitions is completely subjective. For me, they’re a way of driving my practice forward and without them we wouldn’t be having this conversation. They’re another way of starting a dialogue about my work and encouraging me to think about my own motivations for making the work, as well as considering the ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions which I may not have considered without the external pressure of a competition. On a practical level, these platforms can help to show your work to an audience that otherwise would have never experienced it and that can lead to new opportunities and collaborations that may enrich your practice and even take it to places you never imagined. The recognition of an award has been an essential vehicle to enter a world that I’d felt was closed to people like me. It was a foot in the door, and sometimes that’s all you need.
Clare: What will you be looking for in the entries submitted to the competition this year?
Curtis: In short, I’ll be looking for work that transports me emotionally and that gives me an insight into both the subject and the artist. I’m interested in work that intrigues me, that throws up more questions than answers, and makes me want to revisit it. Like all amazing experiences, you know it when you feel it.
Clare: Do you have any advice for artists out there thinking about entering Jackson’s Painting Prize this year?
Curtis: Throughout the Portrait Artist of the Year competition, my partner, who admits to knowing very little about art, gave me a mantra to focus on. He told me to, “Be yourself, trust yourself, and enjoy yourself”. Yes, it sounds a bit cliched, but it really helped me to stay focused and have fun throughout the competition. So, I’m passing that on. I actually think its sound advice for all artists because we’re usually our own harshest critics and our tendency to over analyse our work can sometimes get in the way of us trusting our natural instincts and abilities. I’m constantly trying to remember to be kind to myself, enjoy my successes and learn from my own process, as well as taking inspiration from others.
Clare: What can you tell us about your upcoming projects?
Curtis: My debut solo exhibition, Something Unspoken, is currently showing at 45 Park Lane in London until 24th January 2022. The exhibition features new large-scale multilayered coloured pencil works, is free and open to everyone, so please go and take a look.
I’m also currently planning several exciting projects for 2022, including new group exhibitions in the UK. Most of all I’m looking forward to continuing to push my drawing forward in new ways. In the past year I’ve made connections with some fascinating, diverse people in the fields of music, the arts and entertainment and I can’t wait to develop those relationships and produce new work.