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Artists in Shirts in Studios: Phil Hale

By Nathan Sharp

Jul 13, 2022

Artists in Shirts in Studios: Phil Hale


Last year, we visited the east London studio of American painter Phil Hale, to talk about creativity, entropy, and the precise quality of paint.

Photography by Kevin Davies.


Nathan Sharp, Drake's: I’m interested in how you begin to conceive of a new image.


Phil Hale: I can give you my study. It sounds like a schtick because I’ve said it so many times now, but it took me thirty years to find this way to do it. I used to have an idea, which you would get from somewhere culturally, and then photograph people, models, situations, and you would make up some of it, too. But now, everything is like a very simple, binary filter. Sometimes I do still take my own photographs, but also, I go through Google images and so on, [looking] for particular things. You have a scenario that you want, and you follow the threads. I had this incredible thread on Russian cosmonauts doing water training. It almost doesn’t matter what it is, because you just look at the image and think, ‘Oh my god!’ So that image goes into the ‘yes’ pile, and each image leads to the next, in some associative way, either for you or for Google. And it’s obviously not arbitrary, [you’re] using your judgement and your experience. Then you just start to push them against one another to make very simple collages, and the ones that work really work instantly. Now you put those aside, and you’re in stage three of your filtering system. You haven’t even thought anything yet, you haven’t had a single thought in your head except ‘yes, no, yes, no.’ Then I’ll do quite loose drawings from the collages [and] when I have one I like, I transfer it to the canvas. 


NS: Is narrative an important part of your work? 


PH: Yeah, but I’d say it’s an implied narrative. I would not be interested in an actual narrative. You don’t want to resolve it, you want to have something that produces a lot of possibilities and potentials, where you have to engage with it in order to have an exciting thought about it. Whoever’s looking at it, it’s up to them to participate in that element, and obviously there’s no message. There’s real information, but you’re trying to remain neutral in terms of presenting it, and not get in the way. 


NS: Tell me about Johnny Badhair. That has a narrative of sorts.


PH: Well, I was eighteen, and wanted to do things that were full of a certain amount of action and violence, but nothing else. I didn’t want any in-between stages of people getting in and out of cars, or reading newspapers. I just wanted the moment of impact, and I wanted it to be as extreme as possible, but I didn’t want to have people getting hurt or victimised. 

There’s something great about taking a cliché, which is a man fighting a robot, and then finding something different to do with it, something particular to you. Someone else, if they were given that scenario, would come up with a different thing. So, doing that becomes a tool to find out something about your own taste, or judgement, or aesthetics in that realm. You’re doing the same painting over and over again, and each time you can examine it more carefully, and get your feedback from the painting. What have I actually done? How has it worked? What’s the feel? And you can refine it for the next one. So, you’re carrying over enormous amounts of information to each additional painting. It’s not like you’re juggling, and all the balls fall to the ground, you can keep putting balls up there, so you end up with something very sophisticated in a very narrow bandwidth. The funny thing for me was it didn’t matter that it was the same painting over and over again, because the problem was worth working on. The idea of painting the same thing over and over again and showing that it had a valid positioning – that was really exciting.

NS: What are your criteria for judging success when you’re painting? 


PH: There’s a bunch of criteria, because a lot of the time you’re not judging that painting, you’re trying to organise yourself to work in a particular way that will push your art, so that you’ll be a better painter two or three years down the line. It could be saying, ‘I’m only going to paint alla prima,’ which has many powerful advantages, if you can do the entire surface in a single shot. It’s like the reverse of multi-tracking, it’s like a live performance in some way. If you hear someone perform a song live, it loses certain kinds of accuracy and control and so on, but it’s a much more direct, clear message. Often, my agenda is to paint as directly as I can, so you put something down and you don’t fiddle with it. But you can also set yourself problems that are just infuriating and waste your time. You want to be working on the right problem. 

Everything comes down to these philosophical choices, and in your life, when you make philosophical choices, the feedback you get from the world is often very ambiguous, or indeterminate. But when you make choices in a painting it shows them right in front of you, in concrete form. You come into the studio the next morning and it’s still there. So, if your commitment is to painting something directly, as opposed to painting something accurately, for example, you put it to the test and find out immediately: here’s this choice that I made, what came out of it? It’s like having a commitment to an ideology, [it] almost doesn’t matter what you choose, but you follow that through, getting the feedback from what you do. Obviously, if after five years it’s failed, you stop. But other artists have painted in these spectacular ways, and they have got these results from it, so you know it can be done. But you have to survive a lot of disappointment because it’s hard to do [laughs]. 

My final point is this: if that’s your value, you can’t worry too much about the painting in front of you. You can’t worry about making that painting the measure of whether you’re failing or succeeding. You have your value and you have to work it out, and even though you’re seeing how it’s working in the painting, you aren’t letting it change your initial decision to follow that value system. I’m being so obscure now [laughs]! I’d never quite thought about it like this. 


NS: So, you’re not letting the work guide you?


PH: You’re letting certain elements guide you.


NS: And you’re letting your principles guide you, too?


PH: Well that’s the friction, yeah. You have to deal with both those things, because if you decide to paint something directly and it just looks terrible, the feedback is, ‘This just looks terrible,’ and then you think, ‘How am I going to deal with it in my next painting?’ But also, your feedback is saying either it doesn’t work, or it will take two years of work to get control of this in some way. Obviously, I find all this fascinating [laughs]!

NS: It’s perhaps unusual for an artist to work in as broad a spectrum as you have: you’ve done classical portraiture, and you’ve also done graphic novel covers. Do you see them as separate disciplines? 


PH: I don’t really. Even in my early teens I was photographing things in order to be able to paint them, and I was drawing things to learn how to sculpt them. So, there’s a natural interlock between all those things. I always thought the other [disciplines] were peripheral, or secondary [to painting], but actually they’re not. In fact, a lot of what I’ve learned about painting I learned from doing photography and collage. If you think the value of your painting is a particular kind of measurable, quantifiable, technical skill, you’re fucked, you know? It can’t be that, otherwise you’re just in a room with a thousand other people smashing away at the same coalface. So that was sort of a revelation to think that. When I was in my twenties, I didn’t even want to say I was an artist, I just wanted to say, I’m a painter, which is a kind of false humility in a funny way. 


NS: Like you’re more of a technician.


PH: In a way. Yeah, I don’t rate it above being a plumber, or whatever.


NS: The Steve Albini ethos.


PH: Ah, how great is he, though?!


NS: Yeah, because he believes that…


PH: He’s not a producer, he’s a recorder. Yeah, I think he’s totally correct. What a clever guy!

NS: There’s an almost classical approach to parts of your paintings.


PH: Somewhat, yeah.


NS: You’re clearly able to use realist elements to make something that’s quite unreal.


PH: Well, oil paint is an incredible medium, it’s astounding, although most of the time, 99% of the time it isn’t, it’s just paste. But there are certain things that it does that are just so delicious, and that’s the nature of the medium, that’s the physics of the medium. So, you’re really trying to find a way to paint that uses that element, where it’s just crazily delicious. When you put down a brushstroke, if you use any kind of coarse bristle brush, just the way [the paint] goes down tells you everything about the energy [the artist] wanted to put in. It’s not like you know the angle of the wrist or anything like that, but it’s charged with a kind of information about not only the colour, but the way it was done. 

So you use a coarse brush, you put it down with some kind of energy and some kind of experience and so on, and you also have not mixed the paint properly, so you’ve got some broken colour in there, and it’s creamy and delicious, and it’s against a contrasting colour. There are all these things that you can use, which are difficult to orchestrate unless you really do it a lot, every day. But they actually are delicious, and the classical method uses a lot of those things. So, you want to use it too, it’s irresistible. 

NS: The first thing that struck me when I started looking at your stuff was that it’s quite frightening


PH: Yeah, [there’s a] negative energy.


NS: I like art that can do that, that has that power.


PH: It’s destabilising, I hope. I think that stability is an illusion. I like Steven Pinker, do you know Steven Pinker?


NS: No. 


PH: He’s really a language guy, but he’s also a philosopher and writer. Anyway, he wrote a book on enlightenment, which had a great description of entropy. Do you know what entropy is? 


NS: Yeah, it means disorder, is that right?


PH: It’s the second law of thermodynamics, it’s not an idea, it’s reality. It’s as real as the speed of light. It would be embarrassing for me to try and describe what it is, but here’s what I got out of it, which is that everything is returning to the mean, in a sense. It’s like if you have a bucket of white paint and a bucket of black paint and you knock them over, slowly they’ll become grey. If you have a bucket of grey paint and you knock it over, it doesn’t slowly become two pools of white and black paint. So, everything is kind of being reduced to this homogenous, shared state. And you can change that by putting energy into it. This also works psychologically, socially, culturally, aesthetically, whatever. If your room was a mess, and you go away for a year and come back, it’s not going to be any cleaner, it will be worse. But you can put the energy into cleaning it. It sounds so idiotic, but to me that was crazily clarifying, particularly when you think about the creative process… Why did I start talking about this? 


NS: We were talking about energy in your paintings, and them being frightening. 


PH: Oh yeah! I was talking about the word instability. Instability requires that you do something, that you interact with it. In my life, I have a lot of things going on. It feels like I’m looking over here, and something over there, some bit of cloth is fraying and coming apart. And everywhere you turn something else is sinking down. Maybe that’s a negative way of looking at it.


NS: Spinning plates.


PH: Yeah, exactly. And if you have the energy, it feels great because it’s nice to fix something, or to deal with something, or to create something. To me it’s so childishly thrilling. I mean I sound like an idiot saying that, but to me that is so thrilling. And when energy drains out of a situation it makes you feel sick. You know, if you’re in a recording studio and you just know nothing’s going to happen.

I didn’t realise until I was getting older that, when you solve something like that, all sorts of different things are happening. Obviously, your thing is solved or fixed, but you’ve also come up with a tool in order to fix things, and the tool can then be refined. Or the tool can also be misapplied to other situations, and create different relationships that can develop something out of that. And you stay stimulated. Exciting, I like to be excited! 


Phil's new book, Use Music to Kill, is out in July.


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