Phil Harris. Detail from Arizona Bloom, 2014. © Reserved by the artist
In 1986 aged 21, I left Bradford College of Art and moved to London. I had no idea how the art world worked or whether there was any realistic hope that I might make my mark as an artist. I had decided however that I was going to try, and if I failed it would not be for the want of effort. So for the next few years it was all about the work.
Not having had much support at college either for myself or my work, when as a fledgling artist I leapt into the void of the ’real world’ I did not feel its gravity. There were no expectations about what I should produce or whether I might succeed, I really had nothing to lose and in retrospect this gave me great freedom.
It was clear to me at that point that my work lacked the quality, consistency and personal identity required to exhibit. I had been heavily influenced by a host of artists. Rembrandt, Bacon and Giacometti-like styles collided clumsily and anachronistically together on canvas. Over time I learned to excise the superficial characteristics of these artists from my work whilst learning from their essence. I developed my own technical and critical skills and the ability to work with calm focus for long periods of time. Over the next few years my work improved at great speed, it was an intoxicating and exhilarating time. I lived and breathed painting.
I did not know any other artists and had no art connections of any kind throughout these years. In the current era of social media it is interesting to reflect on the fact that that no-one ever saw or commented upon my work in progress, ‘liked’ a piece of work or encouraged me to persevere. This would be anathema to most artists now but for me was ideal. My style evolved naturally but in complete isolation. I followed my own instincts and trusted my own judgement.
Eventually my personality, philosophy and technique fused into an identifiable style of my own. My view is that the discipline of unflinching self-criticism was my key tool in editing out anything which was fake, affected or superficial leaving behind that which was authentic and original.
After a few years I felt my work was ready for me to apply for exhibitions and enter competitions, and met with some early success. In 1990 I held a solo show at the Tricycle gallery in Kilburn and coincidentally won 3rd prize in the B.P Portrait Award. Following favourable reviews I sold work for the first time, and after several more solo shows I won first prize in the B.P Portrait Award in 1993.