Interview: Phil Hale
Meet the hard-up artist’s apprentice who ended up painting the UK prime minister. Gary Evans gives Phil’s impossibly romantic career the cinematic treatment
We meet the poor artist’s apprentice who ended up painting the UK prime minister.
Say we’re writing the script for the film of Phil Hale’s life. The opening scene would go something like this: Boston, 1979. Phil, 16 years old, an outsider, goes to work as an apprentice to a struggling artist, Rick Berry. He’s there to learn, but also to help with commercial work. Phil and Rick ride the overnight bus to New York to try and get some commissions. Too poor for a hotel, they get some sleep on the road. They meet with Marvel. They meet with DC. Phil pitches ideas of his own – terrible ideas, he realises.
But the people at Epic Comics put some work his way. Watched by his mentor, Phil draws, paints, covers canvas after canvas, improves, each painting a bit better than the one before, particularly the anatomy. Rick knows how muscles work and move, and how that movement changes them. Phil’s also interested in photography, filmmaking and music, but they’re just things he does on the side. His focus is building a set of painting and drawing skills.
the science of anatomy
Cue Phil’s voiceover: “It wasn’t an apprenticeship in the medieval sense. Closer to a particularly intense mentorship. That way of approaching anatomy, which has some powerful elements of science and engineering… well, it turned out to be a useful way to think about many aspects of art – and thinking in general. That was more important than any technical aspect he showed me.”
Flash forward a couple of years: Phil, Rick and another artist, Tom Canty, build a studio in the loft above a second-hand bookshop. Phil sleeps there. A sense of doubt creeps in. Is
he really cut out to be an artist? Should he have been a photographer, a filmmaker, a musician? He sticks at it, and keeps learning and improving. Then, with a bit of luck and a bit of help from Tom, Phil gets his big break. Just 20 years old, he accepts an offer to work on illustrations for the new book by Stephen King.
LIFE -CHAN GIN G DECISION
Every good film needs an “inciting incident” – that moment, early on, when the main character comes up against a problem. He must make a life-changing decision, which is when the film spins off in a new direction and the story really gets going. This is Phil’s: his career is just getting started in US, but he decides to pack his bags and move to the UK.
“The toughest part was disengaging from some of Rick’s ideas and philosophies and trying to find out my own instincts and strengths. He encouraged this as well,” says Phil.
I had no idea who I was until I left the bubble of the east coast of America
“But he’s a pretty strong-minded guy. I had to break some kind of link in order to build my own system, to build a system that actually reflected my own interests and aptitudes, rather than being based on his.”
England, 1987. Phil works on another Stephen King book and gets an even better deal: one per cent of royalties. All in all, he doesn’t have to work for six years. He lives in Gloucestershire and paints. He also takes photos, makes films and plays music. He even builds his own recording studio. “I did art for myself,” says Phil. “I had no idea who I was or who I could have been until I left the bubble of the east coast of America.”
American artist moves to England and lives happily ever… that’s not much of a movie. Our hero has to overcome a few obstacles, some problems. Things have to get a bit tricky. A good story needs conflict.
“The money ran out,” Phil says. It’s 1990 now. Because he hasn’t worked for so long, he has no commercial contacts, and his style is different to the Stephen King stuff, and his girlfriend is about to have a baby,
“This was the core artwork for the Life Wants to Live show; everything else branched out from this.” “One of two pieces done for the Prague Biennale in 2011. I had mixed feelings about them at the time…”. Black Crack Life Wants to Live
“Sometimes the source images determine how a piece develops. This was my favourite from the enemy show – it was hung as a diptych with another piece.” “Initial sketch for the Enemy show – just keeping things active and ticking over.” Preparatory drawing
“From the Life show. Again, a big step for me, to see how these images could push against one another. I still have to follow up on some of the ideas here.” “I wanted to get away from the monochrome palette a little (I had already used some lurid colour in Life Wants to Live). But this is a little more naturalistic while still being incorrect.” enemy 3 Enemy 2