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

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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.


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.”

ru­ral re­treat

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

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