TBB Talks to … Artist Kelvin Okafor

Hyper-realist artist Kelvin Okafor specialises in pencil portraits.

With his work being showcased across the country and some of top renowned galleries, his most notable works include a portrait of John Lennon which took over 215 hours to complete. Okafor can also boast Skepta and Kate Moss as subjects who’ve been blessed by his pencil skills.

More recently the brilliant artist took part in the BBC series Extraordinary Portraits, hosted by Tinie Tempah the show shone a light on everyday heroes within society by painting portraits of them. As one of the featured artists on the show we spoke to Okafor to find out more …

Please introduce yourself?

My name is Kelvin Okafor. My heritage is Nigerian. I am a Pencil Artist specialising in portraiture.

Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now …

A dream.

Firstly we’re fellow Scorpios – and I too have always been good at drawing. I will not compare my skills to yours however! What was it that kickstarted your interest in art?

Nice to meet you my fellow Scorp! Around the age of 8 I vividly remember falling in love drawing with pencils. I was particularly interested in how one single shade of lead could create an array of defined and abstract tones and textures – creating an illusion of colour. Being able to see colour in black and white inspired me immensely and I’ve been compelled ever since to utilise its technical value.

Kelvin Okafor – Credit: BBC / Chatterbox / Robert-Douglas & Tom Grancia

What were your steps of discovery when it came to refining your talents and evolving your skills? – How did you discover that your style was Hyper-realism?

My steps of discovering the talents and hyper-realistic skills I had acquired through time was purely realised based on how obsessed I was with detail and precision – in everything! As a child I would regularly sit by a tree and observe individual grass hairs. I was fascinated with how each hair had its own rhythm whilst still flowing in harmony with the whole field of grass hairs. Through this I became aware of my appreciation for detail, and in turn, I had discovered my talent for understanding light, tonal values and forms. It was only natural for me to create art in a meticulous form to which I later understood to be termed Hyper-realism.

We talk about natural born talent (which I believe you have) vs needing to go the formal route of education – which you did – how did your educational years help you as an artist?

My educational years in art helped me to understand the lineage of modern art and the genre in which my art would categorised in. I don’t believe my educational years helped me on a practical level as an artist but more so by theory.

And now you teach – but is everyone teachable when it comes to art?

I believe everyone is teachable when it comes to art but only once they have developed patience. In 2020, I launched my first ever Online Academy Course. I had always wanted to create drawing tutorials to help aspiring artists develop their techniques. I also wanted to encourage people to fall back in love with drawing after having society strip away their passion for art. In my online course I conduct Live Tutorial classes as well as real-time drawing videos where I demonstrate and teach students my techniques. Whether are you are a beginner or an advance artist, my online course is suitable for all to learn and develop new drawing techniques.

Kelvin Okafor and Tinie Tempah at the studio for the first meeting – Credit: BBC / Chatterbox / Robert Douglas & Tom Grancia

How and why did you got involved in Extraordinary Portraits and tell us about your episode with Catrin Pugh?

I was extremely fortunate to have been invited by BAFTA winning TV production company Chatterbox to be involved in their new series called Extraordinary Portraits. I was keen to be involved in the programme as it would give my supporters and the general public a greater insight into my life as an artist and how my process of capturing a subject model goes.

My episode with Catrin Pugh was truly inspirational to me. Her story touched my heart as well as her being. Catrin is a 96% burn survivor. She was just 19 years old and returning from home from working a ski season in France when her coach crashed and burst into flames near Alpe D’Huez in 2013. Catrin was given a 1 in 1,000 chance of survival after the crash. I had the pleasure visiting Catrin’s home in Wrexham, Wales where her family resides. They all gave me the opportunity to delve into her past and present – understand more about her on a deeper level. Catrin’s drawing took over 650 hours to complete. It was a deeply spiritual experience for me. I felt every burn scar I drew on her face and body and ended up feeling very connected to her.

How do you adapt to doing something like this, a TV show where there’s an element of demand to produce your work – ? Is it the same as a commissioned piece if you do commissioned work?

It was easy for me to adapt to the demand of creating work for a TV show as I’m simply doing what I love most. Drawing is second nature to me so it was quite easy for me to zone out and get the work done. Yes I do fulfil commissioned work. The process of filming and creating a drawing for TV is a little different from fulfilling a commissioned work. Main difference being that the documentation of the project is broadcasted publicly on TV versus working on a commission which tends to be a more private job.

Kelvin Okafor & Catrin Pugh – Credit: BBC / Chatterbox / Peter Coventry

Who are your peers in the art world – a world notoriously renowned for being stuffy and elitist – maybe unfairly, but progression as a black artist can’t be easy – is there a community of thriving black artists? Who are some of your favourite Black artists working today? Have there been roadblocks to you navigating the art world, as a black male artist from South London?

I tend to focus solely on my trajectory as an artist. I became very aware of how elitist the art world can be at the start of my professional career as an artist but ignorance was bliss as I refused to make acknowledge peers who may be renowned for being stuffy and elitist. I would love to believe that there is a community of thriving Black artist in many pockets all over the world. Kehinde Wiley and Chris Ofili (to name a few) are artists who appear to be thriving in the art world at present.

There were several roadblocks to navigating the art world in my career as an artist. Growing up in Tottenham north London, the environment I was living in wasn’t really conducive or encouraging with my particular interest in art. But it was where my love for art was birthed, so in hindsight, I was actually where I needed to be able to do what I do today.

You’ve drawn some well known figures, but who’s on your portrait ‘to-do’ check list?

I don’t really have a portrait checklist. I like things to happen naturally in the moment. A lot of my portrait models have been actualised by follow up on a moment of inspiration or by having the pleasure of being approached to work on a project together with a well known figure. I am open to drawing anyone I connect with in any given moment – that would be my ideal subject to draw.

What’s the perfect setting for you to work – background music, complete silence? A particular room

Complete silence in a room with high ceilings and lots of natural light. When music plays, a calming instrumental based song always sets the tone to get “in the zone”.

What’s next for you? And the end goal?

What is next for me is a continuation of what I have always been doing since the age of 8 – drawing for the love of it. I don’t have an end goal but if I did have one it would be to not have one!

GETTING TO KNOW YOU
  • A book you have to have in your collection?Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.
  • A song/album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? – “Can You Stand The Rain” A cover song by Boyz II Men.
  • A film/TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly?Heroes.
  • The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you (play, dance, or concert)? – Stevie Wonder concert in Hype Park 2016. It meant the world to see one all my all-time favourite musicians. His music had always been a calm within a storm for me.
  • What has made you sad, mad, and glad this week? – Gratefully, the only emotion I have felt the week is gladness and gratitude.

Extraordinary Portraits is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer. Find out more here.

Keep up to date with Kelvin’s work here.

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