Behind The Canvas: Saatchi Online Interview With Philip Harris


Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Philip Harris, I am a British figurative artist, specialising in Oil on Canvas and Pencil on Paper. I have a highly technical style but my work has a stronger affinity within the European traditions of expressionism rather than the North American traditions of photo realism.

Tell us a little about your background in art and what sparked your relationship with the medium and style you possess.
When I was young, I was the sort of kid that would spend a lot of time on his own, daydreaming, listening to music and if things got really dull, drawing. At 16, as the teachers gathered to enthusiastically chase me out of the school gates, it suddenly became apparent to everyone that I had only one marketable attribute. My father didn’t rate my chances of survival down the local coal mine as high so I was ushered towards the local college to study Art and Design. During the following five years I conspicuously failed to excell or attend regularly but did somehow develop a few embryonic skills which were later to prove useful.

After college, I moved to London to be close to ‘The Art World’, at this stage my work was pretty crude and my style fluctuated wildly between Bacon-esque grotesques, Giaccommetti-ish imitations and dark modernist versions of Rembrandt and Frans Hals. It took about 4 years of extremely intense work for my own style to really emerge.

When I felt that my work had reached a reasonable standard I entered a few competitions and applied to exhibit in gallery spaces. In 1990 I won third prize in the National Portrait Galleries B.P Portrait Award with my ‘Self Portrait ‘and was accepted to hold a solo show in the Tricycle gallery in London.  During the next few years I held a number of solo shows and in 1993 won First prize in the B.P Portrait award with my painting ‘Two Figures Lying in a Shallow Stream’. Exhibitions followed at Beaux Arts, London and my work was selected for a major show ‘Painting the Century, 101 portrait masterpieces 1900-2000’.

How has your work changed over the course of your career?
That’s a tough one, I am an intuitive ‘evolver’ rather than an artist who consciously makes leaps of style. I hope that the work has become more nuanced.

What themes do you most pursue?
I am interested in the age old but ever present existential issues. What does it feel like to be alive, how could I feel more fulfilled, how can I connect with the world and what is preventing me from doing that.

My characters are confused, unfulfilled, incomplete, confrontational or afraid. They are as unsettled by their situation as we are. Sometimes the figures are caught in motion between one emotion and another. They often eyeball the viewer, reacting to us, trying to make out how our presence affects them.

The figures are connected to the landscape but unable to wholly integrate into it and sometimes they are actively threatened by it. Their means of relief or redemption is frustratingly inaccessible to them.

The paintings are coaxed into completion over a slow, painful and frustrating process. Each layer of paint alters, refines and clarifies the image until it feels right. I paint by instinct and always trust that above intellect. My intention is to paint emotionally charged paintings, as exposed as teenage love poetry, as uncomfortable, confusing and confrontational as life is.

There seems to be a consistant interest in fire and also the role of the firefighter depicted in many of these images.
Fire is interesting to me because it is normally man-made but once ignited becomes a natural force virtually uncontrollable.

In Firestorm we find a woman surrounded by a violent firestorm, standing upon burning soil. She raises her hand to the viewer, whether as an admission of guilt, in recognition of the viewer or as a plea for help we do not know. She is clearly vulnerable and isolated but whether the soaked clothes are saturated by water or petrol we do not know for sure.

Describe a real-life situation that inspired you.
The idea for ‘Three Identical Hares‘ came observing roadkill on a country lane, heading towards a bleak local beach with a storm gathering overhead.

What were your drawings like as a child?
Small, inhibited and smudgy.

What responses have you had to your work?
Everything from contemptuous dismissal to wild enthusiasm. Whatever the response I think it’s important never to take it too personally.

Some of my favourite quotes from reviews are:

“It is an impressive body of work, standing completely outside the orthodoxies of contemporary art practice…. Philip Harris is an example of an artist whose paintings have emerged from the crowd,, it now looks resilient enough and authoritative enough to survive far away from the mainstream, chilly and rather fascinating.” Charles Suamarez Smith, Modern Painters.

His attention to detail doesn’t constrain his deeper purpose, which is to locate dreamlike states of being within an ostensibly real world.”William Cook (1991) What’s On.

“Harris’s microscopic technique and obsessive observation seem to take us way beyond the furthest limits of imagination” “The artist throws himself and his dreams into the rubbish beneath  our feet, in this extraordinary work of self exposure and undeniable power“. Robin Gibson, “Painting the Century”, NPG.

“Harris has themes, but before that he has vision. It is not so much a way of seeing as feeling. He paints emotions rather than ideas”. John Russell Taylor, Exhibition catalogue.

“Harris is a genuine, unexpected, formidable talent, grounded in the most ardently traditional technique but with something to say which is totally au courant.”

Marina Vaizey (1997) Galleries and Museums

What are you working on at the moment?
I am currently planning the work that I will make over the next two – three years.

what are you obsessed with lately?
Slight movements, confusion, failure.

your work is very strong in all respects. Does producing a work drain or rejuvenate you?
Definitely drains me, The work normally begins with a period of easy enthusiasm but this quickly turns into pure obsession. ‘Two Figures at Ebb Tide’
took a full 15 months to paint. I worked on (and thought about) nothing else during this period and took no time off so by the time that the painting was completed I was totally exhausted.

What can you not be without?
The natural world/wildlife, my running shoes and a good range of spices to cook with.


View and purchase work by Philip Harris here….



  1. Fascinating interview.
    Harris is truly one of those rare painters who has profound and moving content, as well as the multifaceted skill to drive that content into the depths of the soul. I am confronted and seduced by these images, all the while, stalking emotional resonance sneaks up behind to pierce my vulnerable back. I rarely have so much pleasure in being assaulted!

  2. Excellent artist with many excellent works. Really interesting to read about his time in art school and how it took time to develope as an artist..which it often does, and which student often fail to realize when in art school themselves.

    Great work Philip
    Cheers from Norway


  3. Andrew Tift says:

    Interesting article Phil, I really like the 3 hares piece, is this a new one ? the limited pallette works extremely well.

    Andrew Tift

    • Hi Andrew, Thanks, no it’s an old one (1996). I made a series of landscapes around that time. A couple of them ‘A gathering storm’ and ‘Hare’ are on my website. perhaps I’ll upload some of them onto here.

  4. mahdis ramezani says:

    i’m amazing.your picture are very nice.tank you

  5. Bruce Livingstone says:

    The rabbits painting is a really interesting turn in your work… I can’t wait to see more!

  6. Nick Zantop says:

    Great interview and really interesting work.

  7. Project M says:

    Love the fact that we have had an injection from the artist himself in this forum. Great work and thanks for the insight into your background.

  8. Renato Tavares says:

    I’m kind of speeechless. What I think about your work is brewing inside in an attempt to expose my own subcouncious. It is as if what I see is an intrinsic part of my personality that I am not prepared to share. It’s very easy for me to comment on the beauty of the plastic work, which is also very appealing to me, but the message, oh boy, that’s for my therapeutic benefit. Your artistry do to the viwer what a guru do to his diciple. Thank you.

  9. Henry Morgan says:

    Brilliant work and interview a real inspiration.

  10. Amazing. I’ve just looked at your website and I like the portraits best but I prefer it when there is just a touch of the Surreal element. Otherwise there is almost a comic feel to the images and the ‘darkness’ is lost.

  11. Pointless art, highly technical, why don’t just photograph everything and save yourself a lot of time and effort ?
    A spurious attempt at the esoteric and the mundane to create a sense of ambiguity .
    Your just indulging yourself Harris and your work will never connect with people or their lives. I hate being this negative but there it is.

  12. Pointless art, highly technical, why don’t you just photograph everything and save yourself a lot of time and effort ?
    A spurious attempt at the esoteric and the mundane to create a sense of ambiguity .
    Your just indulging yourself Harris and your work will never connect with people or their lives. I hate being this negative but there it is.

  13. Sudhir Pillai says:

    Dear Philip
    Absolutely fascinating. How I wish I could come anywhere close to your talent. I also paint in the ‘realistic’ style but without much success. I am constantly told to change my style and veer towards the more abstract. One young ‘art critic’actually advised me to burn all my canvases and start afresh! It was interesting to know about your ‘Two figures at ebb tide’ taking you 15 grueling months to complete. All the very best.

    • Thank you Sudhir, Go your own way, if you have a passion for figurative art and if this feels the natural path for you, why would you veer towards abstraction?. Maybe that will happen over time, who knows? but to force it would be inauthentic I think..

  14. Bryan hible says:

    Highly technical, your artistic skill should be applauded, art is too often all concept and poor execution. I love the way you have created a sense of ambiguity by combining the esoteric and the mundane. All artists should indulge themselves and I’m glad to see you paint what is important to you and not try to second guess the ‘punters’ in order to get the tills ringing. Your work connects with me and my life Philip. I’m happy I could say something positive because if I only felt negativity I wouldn’t see the point in commenting…

  15. It’s great to see Philip Harris’s work getting the exposure and attention that it deserves. I discovered and was blown away by this artist in 1994 when he won the BP award at the NPG. I’ve never understood where he was, what happened to him and why he wasn’t getting the coverage that other contemporary artists seemed to be basking in. I’m really looking to seeing what other amazing stuff comes from his brush next. He’s a supreme painter, so strong.

  16. Nolan Haan says:

    The painting of the old man is sublime.

  17. hello Philip, you’re an excellent painter, no doubt, there are couple of works I like a lot (and that’s enough for me to think and say that)-I’m glad to hear, that running shoes are important and that realistic painting is a kind of a toil (a way to get lots of energy in a painting), in other words painter is not always an “aetheric being” which paints as easily as breathes-although our styles are not the same, these two points make connection (necessity to compensate “creative process” by sport and the fact of life energy consuming nature of painting) – from time to time James Joyce’s “you cannot plough the field by turning it around in your head” emerges from my memory, and it’s true, especially when the easy start (enthusiastic) of making picture is over and in front of you is a day after day work and the horizon is still far .. – I wish you have good light for your work ! karel.KB

  18. Ploppi says:

    They have a magic quality to them.

    A religious feel about them. I don’t know if that is just my intepretation of some or intentional but also that they have the quality of the old masters and rennaisance painters combined with the modernism of Sir Stanley Spencers work.

    Whichever way people look at them they are great paintings by an artist with insight.

  19. Patrick Durston says:

    First impressions looking at your fantastic range of uber – realistic work, I honestly thought they were photographical imagery, how I was wrong, but at the same time, how I was right in thinking that, because they are so uncannily close in their portrayals. You really do inspire me, and sometimes I envy such remarkable talent, but your’s is not even pretentious or smart – assed; in fact, its insightful, provoking, dry (in its humour), disturbing, reflective, troubled, surrealistic, imaginary, and exotically weird. You capture everything in high – definition, form point to point, I’m guessing to make that world with all its narrative glory as good as it can get. I respect you, but I detect some (I say some respecfully) of the reception on this article has been somewhat cold (I won’t mention names) towards you and what you offer to us as an audience.
    Thank you for giving us this insight into what you produce, and I hope you keep delivering those goods all the time (no hard pressure though).

    Thanks a lot.


  20. Vasco Torres says:

    Wonderful works. Very interesting this new ideia of Saatchi on line. Congratulations too, to Bruce Livingstone.

    Vasco Torres

  21. Camille Ochoa says:

    Absolutely life transforming works!!! truly exceptional, my favorite was firestorm.

  22. Very professional realistic painting. A bit disturbing, a bit menacing. Very contemporary.

  23. Dan says:

    Hi Philip,

    As far as I am concerned, there are not enough words in the Engish language to describe the sheer magnitude of your work. Truely blessed.

    On a separate note, I would very much like to interview and feature you on Artist Nest.

  24. Dave F. says:

    ….very Denis Peterson, Chuck Close. I want to say I could tell one photo-realist from another but Im not sure I can as all the paintings often look like they were painted by the same artist. I marvel at the workmanlike approach to duplicating a photograph though. In terms of expressing emotion I always think PR is quite a conservative way to do this and I prefer the distinctive fire and passion of say Titian where the emotion is in the brush strokes.

    Your attention to technique is to be applauded though.

    I work purely from imagination and complete a painting in a day- but then Im working in the commercial arena.

    Keep up the good work.

    • Hi Dave, I generally agree with you that many ‘photorealists’ work tends to look very similar, has similar themes and lacks an emotional impact at the expense of technique.
      As I mentioned in the interview my intention is to make work with a strong emotional/expressive impact. Of course sometimes my work will fail to connect with someone and that is a regret for me (although I think inevitable).

      On the photography theme: I never work from a single photographic source and the paintings do not obey the laws of photography.
      As an example, in Figures at Ebb Tide I used many hundreds of photographs taken on different occasions in different places and the painting changed radically from the original collage over the time that it took to paint. The painting has numerous vanishing points and focally would be impossible in photography.

      p.s I love Titian too, good luck with your own work.

  25. Dave F. says:

    Very gracious of you to provide such a thorough assessment of my comments;

    In theory your approach with Ebb Tide could almost be ‘cubist’ in concept although I think its more apparent in some of your portraits with the ghosting-in of other views and angles…

    I like the direction of, not obeying the laws of photography , so many artists have become enslaved by it to the point they cant see another way to work without it.

    What struck me is that you moved away from drawing towards photography. My path was the opposite. I studied natural history art and created photo-realist wildlife and botanical work based on photographs and field studies before concentrating on what I do now which is creating Comic Strip art which verges on the fine-art, and where composition and design verging on the abstract take precedent over detail. This is a selective process, and often what is left out makes for a greater effect.

    I suppose its hard to avoid the obvious fact that photo-realist work is going to look ‘real’ provided ones idea of real is ‘ like a photograph ’. This is where I might depart from that line of thinking; the mind is constantly painting pictures far in excess of what is ‘real’ and it is that image I would value rather than the literal one quite often.

    Ps; I think I can see the influence of Titian at work in the image of the field-fire

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