Artist in focus: Curtis Holder

Artist Curtis Holder looks inwards, reflecting on what makes him different and how he uses that to create his art. He discusses how he uses drawing to support his mental health and how his artwork is informed by emotional connection. He describes where he finds inspiration and how he gets into the right headspace to create. 

He also looks outwards, explaining how he finds sitters and how he helps them relax and focus. He talks through his artistic processes, whether working from life, with reference materials or through conversation.


  • What was that one thing that you thought, “Oh, my gosh, I really want to paint that person, I really want to draw that person”? Have that in the back of your mind whilst you’re working, and that will come out in your work and whoever is looking at your work will fall in love with that thing as well.

    My name is Curtis Holder and I am an artist, working predominantly in graphite and coloured pencil.

    My route into drawing, I don’t think was typical. As a child and young adult, I was undiagnosed dyslexia and narcolepsy and I think I used drawing, to help cope with the world. I would say that my narcolepsy and dyslexia have really helped my drawing ability. So, if there are things about you, that make you different, that you may sometimes feel uncomfortable with, turn it around and find a way of using that to your advantage.

    At the moment, I’m working on a portrait of Terrence Higgins, or “Terry”, for the National Portrait Gallery. Unfortunately, Terry is no longer alive, so I’ve spent some time with his partner in order to get a sense of who Terry was. For me, what drives a sense of passion particularly about this particular commission is knowing who Terry was. I need to investigate more, and that’s why I’m here.

    So, I’m Rupert Whitaker, and I am one of the founders of the Terrence Higgins Trust, named after Terry. He died in 1982. He was many different things and sometimes contradictory things. He was immensely kind. And what I loved about him is, he didn’t take himself seriously, he also didn’t take his masculinity seriously. He had a big gruff voice. Part of this person who was just, gentle, easy going, thoughtful, humorous, and had no attitude, unless you had attitude.

    Now I feel I have an idea of… of who he was as a person. If the project I’m working on isn’t from life, then I make sure that I’ve got all the reference material I need around me. Sometimes I will start off from life, but practically people can’t be there for 40 hours. I will sit with that person for a while and make really quick exploratory drawings and those I will use as part of my reference material, as well as photographs and anything that the sitter wants to give me, because even if I’m not using them in the drawing, it’s a really good reminder of who they are and the conversations that we’ve had.

    To help my sitter’s focus, I will usually ask them to find a spot to look at, so that when they lose focus, all I need to say is “find your spot”, they’ll go back to that spot and then everything else falls into place, usually. Sometimes, in order for my sitters to relax, I can just ask them to put on their own playlist. That helps. Anything they can do to feel more relaxed, is going to benefit all of us.

    To get myself into the right headspace, especially when I’m working alone, I will sometimes do some breathing exercises and even a bit of meditation, just to make sure that I’m really in the zone and ready for the work I need to do.

    I find my sitters in many different ways. A lot of my sitters to begin with were friends and family, and then I started going to life drawing groups and I’ve even stopped people in the street and asked them to sit for me as well.

    The time it takes to produce a portrait really does vary. It varies depending on who I’m drawing, or why I’m drawing them. It could be as short as 20 minutes for an exploratory drawing, or it could be as long as 40 hours with a sitter, coming to visit me for multiple sittings.

    I am interested in all aspects of art, not just portraiture, and when I go to a gallery, it’s about the feeling, the feeling that pulls me to a piece. In order to get inspired, I look at all types of art. Not just painting, not just drawing, sculpture, everything.

    Don’t let fear hold you back. Fear is just excitement in disguise. Let fear be your guide. Do it, because we’re here to experience life. We get a chance to do something wonderful. Just do it.

Learning objectives

  1. Gather inspiration from the life, work and practices of a contemporary artist.
  1. Explore the creative practice of an artist who draws portraits.

Watch and discuss

  1. How do you get into the right headspace to create artwork? Has Curtis Holder introduced any new ideas you would like to try?
  1. Curtis Holder talks about bringing the personal into his artwork, including feelings about his sitters, and about himself. How does this relate to your own practice? To what extent do you reach inwards to create your artwork?
  1. Do you prefer to work from life, or from reference material? How do you think you can best achieve a sense of who your sitter is?