8-year-old British painting prodigy is art world's new sensation, but brushes off the pressure

HOLT, England (AP) — He's Britain's most talked-about young artist. His paintings fetch hefty sums and there's a long waiting list for his eagerly anticipated new works.

It has all happened so quickly — he's still getting used to the spotlight — and Kieron Williamson fidgets a little when he's asked to share his thoughts on art.

"Cows are the easiest thing to paint," said Kieron, who has just turned 8. "You don't have to worry about doing so much detail."

Horses, he says, are "a lot harder. You have to get their legs right, and you have to make their back legs much bigger than their front."

Paintbrush prodigy Kieron — dubbed "mini Monet" by the British press — is a global sensation. All 33 of the pastels, watercolors and oil paintings in his latest exhibition sold, within half an hour, for a total of 150,000 pounds ($235,000). Buyers from as far away as the United States lined up overnight outside the gallery, and there is a 3,000-strong waiting list for his Impressionistic landscapes of boat-dotted estuaries, snowy fields and wide marshland skies.

He has a website and a business card. Strangers approach him at the gallery, asking him to sign postcards of his work. Journalists from around the world travel to his small home town in eastern England to interview him.

Kieron shrugs off the attention. "It feels normal to me," he says.

It definitely doesn't feel normal to his parents, Keith and Michelle Williamson. They are bemused, proud and a little anxious about their son's talent and its effects.

"It has been overwhelming," said Michelle Williamson, a 37-year-old nutritional therapist. She and her 44-year-old art dealer husband live in a small apartment with Kieron and his 6-year-old sister, Billie-Jo.

Kieron was a normal, energetic little boy, and his parents were surprised when he asked for pencils and paper during a holiday in Cornwall two years ago. They were astonished when the then-5-year-old produced an accomplished picture of boats in a harbor. He progressed rapidly to fully realized landscapes, many depicting the flat, open Norfolk countryside near their home.

"Keith and I don't paint, so we find it difficult to know what's going on inside his head," Michelle said.

"We don't understand it. We don't know where it comes from. But he's adamant it's what he wants to do. When your child has got such a gift and a talent, you have to support him."

That hasn't stopped the Williamsons worrying about whether they are doing the right thing in exposing him to so much attention. They showed Kieron's work to a local gallery, which has mounted two exhibitions and is helping them cope with the flood of global interest.

"It's not a natural thing to want to put your kid in the media spotlight," Michelle said.

"We've met so many sharks. All they see is the financial element. They don't see the emotional stuff. You can't separate the art from Kieron."

A self-possessed blond boy, dressed in a polo shirt, shorts and sneakers, Kieron doesn't seem like a hothouse prodigy.

He likes soccer — he plays defense for a school team — and messing around on the broad North Sea beaches near his home in Holt, a pretty Georgian town 125 miles (200 kilometers) northeast of London.

When he talks about his work, it's with a striking mix of the adult and the childlike. He can discuss his color choices and the interplay of light and dark, but also remembers more idiosyncratic details.

"This," he said, pointing at one landscape, "is when we came back from Holkham and we couldn't get fish and chips because there was a line going from the fish and chip shop to the car park."

When he starts to draw, with a confident, relaxed fluidity, all childishness disappears. Working from a photograph of a river at sunrise, Kieron swiftly sketches the horizon, the mounds of trees and the line of the river, then uses pastels to color the yellowy pink of the sky.

His parents are happy for people to watch him work — it disproves any suspicions that the paintings are not his own.

They encountered that kind of skepticism at first, though Michelle Williamson says it has abated.

Critical opinion on Kieron's work is divided. One newspaper headline asked, "Is Kieron Britain's most exciting painter?" But others have wondered whether Kieron's paintings would be so well-regarded if he were an adult, and asked if his talent will endure.

The precedents are mixed. Pablo Picasso famously said that unlike in music, "there are no child prodigies in painting. What people regard as premature genius is the genius of childhood. It gradually disappears as they get older."

Picasso himself was a child prodigy, however, who went on to revolutionize art. The 19th-century English artist John Everett Millais was made a member of the Royal Academy at 11.

But for every Millais — or Mozart — there are many prodigies whose gifts do not survive puberty.

"Most brilliant 8-year-old pianists or footballers don't maintain it into adulthood," said Jack Boyle, a Glasgow-based child psychologist.

He advises the Williamsons not to worry too much. Kieron's talent is unlikely to do him any harm.

"Children like being successful and they like being the best," Boyle said. "My advice? Take the money and run. Milk it for every penny, but don't harm the child in the process.

"Develop his other interests — and sell as many of the paintings as you can."

At the moment, Michelle Williamson is looking forward to the start of the school year in September, when exhibitions and interviews will be replaced by homework and normal childhood routines.

The gallery is offering two new landscapes — Kieron's last work as a 7-year-old and his first as an 8-year-old — by an online auction that closes Aug. 20. A new exhibition is planned for next summer.

Michelle Williamson says she and her husband won't be disappointed if Kieron one day stops painting, as long as he is happy.

"We fully expect Kieron to change his mind," she said. "But we know that whatever he ends up doing, Kieron is going to give it 200 percent."

Kieron says he knows what he wants to be when he grows up — "painter and footballer."

And he is willing to offer advice for other aspiring artists.

"Never give up. Try and keep your buildings straight. And don't do a plain blue sky."



Kieron's Website: www.kieronwilliamson.com

Picturecraft Gallery: www.picturecraftgallery.com