Art school brings to mind a bunch of trustafarians and middle-aged women fiddling around while a nude student tries not to fidget in the centre of the room. For Nicholas Esterhuizen, who threw himself into the deep end at a celebrated (yet pretty hardcore) Russian classical art school in St Petersburg, just being able to see the model was a priority.

The school, the Saint Petersburg Academy of Art in Russia is a huge imperial institution, with its own church and stables set up for painting horses. And while it’s massive, it’s also cut-throat competitive and difficult to get into, especially for a foreigner with zero Russian. To get your easel into the art class was also pretty hard – before classes there’d be a scrum as students jockeyed for positions and space. “One guy broke another’s nose for getting in his way. The teacher just shrugged his shoulders and continued. ”

It was a long way from home for a guy whose journey in art started with him tagging walls and trains with graffiti along the Peninsula railway in Simonstown and Fish Hoek. Esterhuizen swiftly grew bored with graffiti as a medium.“I found graffiti limiting. I was more interested in creating images rather than lettered pieces so I started to move towards more figurative, classical work.”

It was a seemingly odd choice moving his focus in a much older style of art, but Esterhuizen believes that classically inspired art holds much more for him then the more modern design-heavy trends. But to study classical art, Esterhuizen realised he needed old world training. He won a scholarship to a celebrated Italian art school – the Florence Academy of Arts – where he spent two years, followed by a year and a half in Russia before returning to graduate in Florence.

Now back in Cape Town, Esterhuizen and his remarkable old master-inspired portraits are already getting noticed. With a major show, Faces of Cape Town at the AVA Gallery in February, perhaps South Africa will have a master of its own to celebrate in years to come.

#BestAdvice: Learn to persevere
“A lot of people don’t know what they want to do with life. I didn’t know I wanted to be a painter until later. Looking for direction is tough, but when you find it, the main thing is to continue with what you are doing. Consistency is very important. There were lots of times, especially in Russia, where I wanted to quit art. I hated it. But I moved through the difficult periods and stuck with that one thing. As you develop in your profession you grow and pick up better skills. Especially when things get difficult. That’s when you learn the most. In visual art, and in many other pursuits, you improve then you hit plateaus – a horrible kind of dip – but if you stick with it you will go up again. By sticking with it you have a breakthrough and an epiphany that you learnt something.”

*By Tudor Caradoc-Davies